Study finds that for-pay scholarly journals contribute virtually nothing to the papers they publish


Originally published at:


Certainly the copy-editing provided between the pre-print and the final published form is in NO WAY worth the extortionate cost of scientific journals. There is real value in the peer review system, as flawed as it is, but the publishers actually don’t really pay the reviewers or the authors. Really commercial scientific publishers are a hold-over from the days when mailing dead trees around the world was the most practical means for the distribution of knowledge. Now we have the internet and they are simply “rentiers” almost as bad as pharma-douches or investment banks.


Wait, as much as I hate Elsevier, this seems to have a huge omission: peer review. That’s one of the main things the journal is (supposed to be) providing. That and selection.

This study is only looking at the articles that were already good enough to successfully pass selection and peer review. It’s not looking at the x% of articles that were submitted but weren’t good or rigorous enough to be published.

Peer review can definitely happen in open access journals, so this isn’t saying that only for-pay journals do this, but it seems like a big omission. No one is trying to get published in Cell simply because of the quality of the editing.


Elsevier does not provide the peer review, either, sorry. That’s unremunerated labor by volunteer academics.

Do not author for Elsevier. Do not review for Elsevier. Do not edit for Elsevier.

Fuck Elsevier.


Time was when the pre-print editing, pagination, typesetting, etc. was fairly demanding. Now? Word processors, LaTeX, etc. – at the same time as the journals have gotten dramatically more expensive.


Professional associations (APS, AAAS, etc.) could readily incorporate peer review in their professional the benefits and duties of membership.


I’m editor-in-chief of an open-access, no-page-charges society-connected journal, and I hate to defend Elsevier et al, but it needs saying that the assertions here are misleading. There is a lot of work in copyediting – I know, because I do it (without compensation) for my journal, and it takes quite a bit of my time per paper. (A professional could probably do it faster, but…would get paid as a professional.) The Klein et al paper here uses some pretty superficial measures of comparison – understandable, because they are automating the process – but it is a huge stretch to say that because these measures show little difference, the contribution has been negligible.

As for journal cost, there are also charges connected with hosting (we get our hosting donated by a university – not mine – but we’ve also been down 3 times this year already), with Crossref (the organization that distributes DOIs), and with publicity/advertising (which the big journals do quite a lot, and it makes a difference). In a paper journal there are also the costs associated with distribution, and with any non-free journal (even non-profits) there are other marketing costs.

Some fields (not mine) do pay referees as well.

None of this justifies the outrageous price of many journals, and there are certainly much cheaper ways to maintain the system, but the idea that the value of the journal itself to the output is negligible is ill-informed and frankly insulting.


And that rant’s a misdirection from Elsevier’s blatantly rent-seeking, parasitically exploitative leeching from mostly publicly funded scholars.


No, it is an attempt to keep the conversation realistic. There is a myth that journals practically publish themselves and therefore should be free. BB’s stories, like this one and the occasional defenses of unsanctioned archives of academic literature, contribute to the myth even at the same time they use things like affiliate links and the BB shop to try to pay for their own operation.

I’ve been on all sides of the academic publishing world – as a producer and consumer while an active researcher, as a frequent referee, as an editorial board member and now as an editor – and I agree that access to the research should be free, at least to the public that paid for it. I just don’t agree with the “therefore” in the myth or or with the premise that publishing is simple, cheap, or low-effort. In fact there is considerable cost and effort involved, for sure not enough to justify the ridiculous costs of many journals, but the discussion should be about the appropriate mechanism for publication and revenue stream to sustain that.

Most academics are well aware of Elsevier’s greed, and have the option not to publish with them, yet their journals flourish. There are reasons for that.


I shall cease my grousing, as I think we are in agreement here. :slight_smile:


Publishing isn’t simple, cheap or low-effort, but it is much simpler, cheaper, and lower-effort than it used to be, and at the same time the publishing houses have hiked the prices. My experience of copy-editing is clearly different to yours. I find it hugely frustrating that instructions for reviewers generally say don’t copy-edit, but the journal doesn’t do it either. Copy edits to my own work have either been zero, or to mess up a couple of equations.

Much of the hard work can be automated. It amazes me that most journals don’t distribute decent templates (the IEEE are an exception here). A good template can enforce house style and create consistency with only the effort of initially creating it.

Selection and review does involve a lot of work, but are handled by volunteers like you and me. There is an overhead in finding reviewers and keeping track of the review process, but this is not huge, compared to the effort of actually reviewing (author can suggest reviewers, potential reviewers who decline often suggest alternatives, etc). Once a manuscript has been accepted, assigning a DOI, uploading to the journals website, submitting to indexing services can all be scripted. Again, not free, but not massive either. I don’t think we need to discuss actual printing-to-paper.

I think the value in studies like the one we’re discussing here is to chip away at what publishing houses claim to offer. We all know that the real service journals offer is peer review, which is a vital part of the scientific process. But let’s kill the myth that the mechanics of publishing are hard and expensive, or that journals actually copy edit (I know two out-of-work copy editors). Once we focus on the peer review process we can start to ask why that is so expensive, when almost everyone involved is a volunteer. I really have no problem paying a fair price to have journals managed and published. I do have a problem when we’re all being gouged.


It isn’t a myth to me, it is how I spent the last two weekends.

I know the megajournals like PLOS One don’t do conventional editing, that plus the publication volume due to the relatively superficial academic editing/refereeing mean that the relatively low page charges can cover the other expenses, but these also contribute to such journals’ relative lack of utility for the profession, they are hardly better than just posting in the arXiv. (PLOS ONE publishes over 20k articles/year, at $1500/article publication fee…you do the math.)

A good template can enforce house style

You underestimate the enthusiasm with which academics subvert LaTeX class files.


I was asked by a journal to review submissions (a well-known wasteland reclamation journal). Replied politely, not able to at the moment. Journal replied that I should login with an account they generated for me and indicate my availability on the user control panel. Yeah, right…FUCK OFF.


Here’s an interesting response to the study prompting this thread:


I laughed out loud. While thinking of a particular colleague and friend.


And another change over the last 30 years or so is a big increase in the amount of material being published. I don’t know that the amount of really great scientific literature has gone up proportionately. As the costs of distribution have gone down, rather than the user getting the savings what has happened is that ever more material is getting published. Now there’s nothing wrong with this per se It is reasonable to assume that even marginal papers increase the breadth of human knowledge at least marginally. But by including five baked potatoes with your steak, what you pay for the actual steak has gone up. Instead of picking and choosing the best, the appearance is that publishers try to maintain a minimal standard and then throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks.
edited to add And that does say something about how good they regard their ability to select the best papers.


I think the title of this article is misleading

Most academic journals, whether they are for-pay or not, do not do a ton of substantive copy-editing, typesetting, and proofreading. Even if they did, most of the time those labor components are easily replaceable.

The primary contribution that journals make to articles is to filter out all the other articles which aren’t considered worth readers time. Journal editors do this by managing the peer review process, where other experts in the field vet the articles before they are published.

People who don’t like for-pay journals (and who don’t like Elsevier in particular) often point out that academic institutions and the government have contributed a lot to the process (completing the peer review and funding the research), and don’t like how much for-pay journals charge.

At the same time, though, it seems that managing the peer review process is a significant contribution, since many academic institutions seem to rely on those same journals implicitly when making hiring decisions, as getting published in prestigious journals seems to still be the best path to tenure.

Maybe we will eventually live in a world where clever algorithms or crowd-sourcing or something will eliminate the need to have an organization like a journal manage the peer review process. But, until that happens, I think that managing the peer review process will still be the major contribution which journals make to the papers they publish, not the copy-editing, typesetting, and proofreading.


To summarize a common view: Peer review is important but it hardly requires the >10% profit margins of the commercial publishers.


Generally speaking, assistant editors are the ones inviting reviewers—frequently cold-calling personally-unknown scholars in the hopes that they will agree to participate—and pressing them for timely feedback. Assistant editors are frequently unpaid (volunteer), or underpaid (small stipend), in my own experience, they do not usually produce deep contributions to the review process, sometimes, but not usually.


Also I want to note that author-pays journals can be problematic. While the exorbitant prices that journals charge libraries can be a problem, at least incentives are somewhat aligned; the people who are benefiting from the peer review system are paying for the benefit.

When you flip it around, and authors pay, there greed puts pressure on the system to publish anything that comes through the door, with perverse consequences for science that may be even worse than for profit journals.