HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

Scientific publications are vanity publications

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/10/01

Here’s how it used to be:

Universities were in the business of educating.
Research universities were in the business of doing research, which qualified them to educate graduate students as well as undergraduates.
Being a research university meant having the wherewithal to support faculty doing research and graduate students doing research. That wherewithal came from governments wishing to have research universities in their state or country, or from private sources that wished for various reasons to support non-governmental research universities.

Here’s how it is now:

The onus is entirely on individual professors to find the wherewithal for their research and for the support of graduate students and their dissertation research.

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This dramatic and consequential change took place over the space of a few decades in the second half of the 20th century. The degree to which this has corrupted scientific activity is not widely enough appreciated. Here are a few aspects of the corruption:

→   Graduate students do not choose their research projects. They fit as cogs into the mentor’s research program, which means that they do not have the full experience of what is involved in doing research: they are “pairs of hands”, technicians, not apprentices learning to become independent researchers.
→    The same is true to an increasing extent of postdoctoral fellows.
→    Faculty cannot have a successful career without getting funds from government or private sources — huge amounts of funds. Successful researchers are increasingly wheeler-dealers, spending less and less time on what purportedly they are good at, namely, science, and spending more and more time on finding possible funding sources and doing whatever it takes to ingratiate themselves to those sources.
→    Increasingly the research agendas are set by those who have the money, not those who have the ideas and insight that might best bring scientific progress.
→    There is by now quite an archive of horror stories about how commercial funding of academic research has made the whole system unreliable: research results that displease the sponsor don’t get published, for example, and thereby the public may be exposed to unsafe materials — drugs, pesticides, you name it.

The latest aspect of today’s “money is everything” circumstances is the burgeoning of publications that pretend to be scientific periodicals but that are actually vanity presses.
“Vanity presses” was the term for book publishers who made their living by having the authors pay the costs of publication. Although the occasional vanity-press book was successful in terms of sales, in the overwhelming majority of cases the author’s only satisfaction was to see the physical book with the author’s name on it, and to be able to distribute copies to friends and relatives and others. It served the author’s self-esteem. Books that provided welcome entertainment or useful information to the general public came from trade publishers, who made their living by producing what the public was willing to pay for. Books that added to the stock of humankind’s understanding without having much popular appeal came from academic presses, sponsored and subsidized primarily by universities.
Scientific periodicals made their living by publishing material essential for researchers and being therefore necessary purchases by academic libraries and research institutions.

After World War II, the amount of research and development, and its costs, and the numbers of people involved and aspiring to be involved increased to the stage that libraries could not afford to keep up with all the new books and new periodicals and their ever-growing costs. Research universities could not keep up with increased costs of researchers and the needed facilities, and relied increasingly on the funds brought in by entrepreneurial faculty; a few decades ago, we had to show on grant applications how our parent university was “cost sharing” in the research — for some time now, grants have been cash cows for the parent university which benefits from “indirect costs” while providing less and less in the way of supporting facilities.

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This jeremiad of mine has been brewing for a while, stimulated in part by the increasingly common invitation to start a new journal that would pay for itself from payments by authors or the announcement of some new scientific journal in which the authors are expected to pay what used to be called “page charges” but are increasingly being euphemized as “processing fees” or the like.
Page charges came first in periodicals published by professional societies, which wished to keep subscriptions low for the benefit of their members but which could not cope with the increasing costs of paper, printing, postage. But paying those page charges was not a criterion for getting an article accepted. One was asked to pay those charges only after the evaluation process was over, and if one could not pay then the article would still be published — albeit with the rather embarrassing annotation (in journals published by the American Chemical Society) that costs of  publication had been borne by the Society.
Nowadays, if you can’t pay you don’t get published.
Entrepreneurial publishers are putting out online journals — trivial in cost compared to paper-and-ink productions — but still requiring significant payments from authors. For instance, on 30 September I received an invitation from the Royal Society of Medicine to publish in their new journal, JRSM Short Reports:
“Provided that your research paper or case report is of interest to colleagues in your specialty and does not have any major methodological flaws it stands an excellent chance of publication. . . . Papers are peer-reviewed and accepted papers are published online. There is a processing fee for each accepted article of £350. . . . The processing fee also ensures that your article is freely available to all immediately on publication, in accordance with best practice in open-access publishing. This author-pays open-access publishing model is now well-established and widely accepted as an improvement on the traditional model of journal publishing.”

If indeed this is now well-established and widely accepted, then vanity publishing has become the norm. Here’s another example:
“submitting to Clinical Therapeutics, an Elsevier journal, I was offered rapid review and publication were I to pay $500 per page of my manuscript, with an estimated 25 pages of publication, totalling $12,500 USD. Undoubtedly, this would have resulted in a successful submission” (Reviewer 3)

So “scientific” publication is increasingly a matter of having the wherewithal to support vanity publishing. And that’s far from all. The education and training in research of graduate students is severely compromised. In the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley (and most likely elsewhere too, of course) students can choose as mentors only those entrepreneurial faculty whose wheeling and dealing assures them of available funds of  $175,000 – $250,000 per graduate student.

The competition for research grants from the National Institutes of Health is so fierce that in 2007, the average age at which budding researchers received their first grants was 42. That’s a decade older than in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning a career at age 42 . . . . (Jocelyn Kaiser, “Zerhouni’s parting message: make room for young scientists”, Science, 322 [2008] 834-5).

Already 30 years ago, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech had a rather simple formula for tenure and promotion: $100,000 brought in annually for tenure, $300,000 annually for promotion to full professor.

The love of money is the root of all evil.

The circumstances of research
that evolved over the last half century or so
have become evil
because they require scientists of all faiths
to worship money above all else

7 Responses to “Scientific publications are vanity publications”

  1. Robin said

    Henry,
    [Declaration of (lack of) competing interests: None of my published papers required payment; even the two in Med Hypoth were accepted with the page charges waived. I’ve never received nor sought any other funding of my scientific work.]
    True indeed that electronic online publishing greatly reduces costs. And true that there are corrupting processes such as you describe (and previously described by myself). However it still remains the case that scientific publishing has to be financed in some way. Do you have any proposals that are better than what you are disapproving of here?

    • Henry Bauer said

      Robin:
      I don’t think the publication problem can be solved independently of other things that have gone wrong. There’s a mistaken emphasis on quantity and speed, dysfunctional as far as sound science goes. Most of what gets published is of no use to anyone — except to the authors to pad their CVs. Society has presumed incorrectly that more money and more apparent scientific activity must produce useful and sound science; not so. We need fewer “research universities” and less so-called research. Governments that charter universities must pay for what it costs to run them properly.
      My ambition is to open people’s eyes to what’s wrong, as a first step towards a general awareness that would have to be a prelude to any fixes.

  2. Robin said

    “There’s a mistaken emphasis on quantity and speed, dysfunctional as far as sound science goes. Most of what gets published is of no use to anyone — except to the authors to pad their CVs.”

    I think you used a a bit too little hyperbole there!
    But I’m still wondering if you have any practical proposals. Albeit that lack of any such proposals would not make your analysis any less sound.

    My own reckoning has been that decadent institutions cannot be reformed or reform themselves, but eventually undermine themselves, and thereby bring about their own demise, after which some new replacements are created by non-decadent persons, until the decadence process goes round the circle again. Some evidence of the failing support for “genuine” medical research is that it’s been reckoned that 75% of parents of autistics are using non-establishment therapies despite all the propaganda about “dangerous” “quack” remedies.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Robin:
      I agree that reform has to come from outside the dysfunctional system; and I suspect you’r right that it won’t happen until the system collapses of its own dysfunctionality. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to open people’s eyes.
      The trick is to find something that would be of clear benefit to influential groups if they bring about reform.

      • Robin said

        Good last point. I guess this matter is a bit like in general opposing crime and greed and folly. You can’t reduce them below a certain level but that doesn’t mean you should give up on it.

  3. Does this mean that we can get dissident works published in prestigious journals that prostitute themselves for money? Prostitutes are not a risk group for AIDS but perhaps Prostitute Journals would be a risk for allowing politically incorrect thought to see the light of day. Is there a bright side to this?

    • Henry Bauer said

      David Crowe:
      Definitely a bright side if you enjoy gallows humor.
      I bet you could get a cleverly written, technical dissident article into major journals without even paying more than the normal page charges. A Sokal-type hoax would work as well here as it did in the post-modernist Social Text, because all you need do is use the orthodox jargon. For example, invent a strain of “HIV” and a “receptor” and associated genetic details. Innumerable papers just like that get published all the time.

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