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Fighting for open access: Why academic publishers are making a killing
Academic publishers have some of the highest profit margins in the world. In the digital age, researchers are starting to wonder whether publishers actually deserve this much money.
- Academic publishing is a $25.2 billion-a-year business, and profit margins reach 35-40 percent.
- There is a growing movement against the academic publishers' exploitation of the scientific community.
- Aside from acting as arbiters of quality, academic publishers don't really contribute anything to the science.
How would you characterize scientists as a whole? Greedy, self-serving, elitist people who got into the game in order to tack a couple zeroes on their paychecks, right?
Unless you have a personal vendetta against scientists, you probably don't think that. If anything, most scientists are the opposite. Science is hard, and you typically don't become a scientist unless you have a passion for research, discovering new things about the world, and seeing that research implemented in a way that improves society.
There is, however, a lot of money to be made in academic publishing. Academic publishing is a $25.2 billion-a-year business, and profit margins reach 35–40 percent. For comparison, Walmart's profit margin is 3%. Unfortunately, that money comes at the expense of scientific progress.
Why academic publishers make so much money
Publishers act as gatekeepers to research, ostensibly to ensure that only high-quality articles become part of the scientific record. This is necessary — bad science shouldn't be widely disseminated. The problem is that academic publishers don't make their money by preventing bad science from being published. Instead, their paychecks come from preventing people from accessing good science.
As part of the growing movement against the academic publishers' exploitation of the scientific community, researchers and filmmakers have teamed up to create Paywall, a documentary exposing these unfair practices, their history, and how to make research open access. You can watch it yourself below or read on for some highlights.
The cost for a university library to subscribe to a publisher's catalogue can run higher than $2 million, and if you're not affiliated with a large institution that can afford a bill like that, you're out of luck. Researchers need to review hundreds of articles per year, often in different individual journals. Even if a researcher doesn't subscribe to a publisher's entire catalogue, subscribing to individual journals can quickly rack up many thousands of dollars in subscription fees.
You might think this problem only affects scientists. However, most of the costs associated with this issue are placed on the shoulders of taxpayers. Forty-four percent of scientific funding is public, and a portion of these funds must go to academic publishers in order for researchers to access the articles they need to conduct their work. Even if you're a researcher working for a university, the money needed to pay for academic subscriptions comes from tuition fees or government subsidies.
What's worse, there's a hidden cost associated with paying subscription fees. If these were more reasonably priced or even free, who's to say how many more researchers would be working to the betterment of society? We also pay in the scientific progress lost due to the closed access publishing model.
Since academic journals are the only way for scientists to get their research read, they give their research to journals for free. Sometimes they even pay a fee! Publishers then charge astronomical fees for the products they received for free, which is how they can obtain profit margins that even exceed those of tech giants like Apple and Amazon.
Aside from acting as arbiters of quality, academic publishers don't really contribute anything to the science. They actively work against the dissemination of research to the public, and they're rewarded handsomely for doing so. None of these rewards go back to the researcher. In fact, if you contact the author of a paper, they will most likely give you their research for free and be happy to do so.
An alternative to academic publishers
In the digital age, this status quo seems entirely untenable. Anyone who's needed to access academic research but can't pay out the nose to do so is probably familiar with Sci-Hub, essentially the Pirate Bay for researchers. One major issue is that researchers in foreign countries often can't afford to pay for subscriptions fees, which are exorbitant even by U.S. standards. This prompted Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, to create Sci-Hub, where researchers and students could donate articles to be freely disseminated on the web. Currently, Sci-Hub offers 64 million academic papers for free.
- Meet the Robin Hood of Science - Big Think ›
- If the Cost of Publishing a Scientific Journal Article is $10,000, Who ... ›
Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.<p>Finally, a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00081-8" target="_blank">new study</a>, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.</p><p>This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain). </p><p>As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."</p><p>Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.</p>
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.<p>Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.</p><p>Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche: </p><ul><li>The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind </li><li>A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab</li><li>The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent </li><li>Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure</li></ul><p>Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.</p><p> --</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.