Why subs matter

1 October 2012

A UK committee has suggested changing the economics of peer-reviewed journals. The Finch Report argues that publicly-funded research, particularly, should not be hidden away in peer-review journals whose subscription prices are prohibitively high. An enterprise that started out printing words on paper to spread knowledge has now, the report argues, fallen so far behind prevailing standards of internet openness that the act of publication now performs the exact opposite function, sequestering information behind paywalls.

It is true that libraries aren’t what they once were. I have heard stories of entire runs of periodicals thrown away in the rubbish to clear some space. I also believe that people in general are coming to rely more and more on the internet for personal and professional research. But I don’t know how these forces are playing out in the nuclear industry. How have the research habits of you, your colleagues and your contacts, changed in the last 10 years? Your views would be gratefully received.

The report argues in favour of publishing articles freely on the internet. Of course it is not so radical as to suggest dismantling the publishing process, as did a self-published book (Heat Transfer Without h) I read recently. The author, Eugene Adiutori, who is aggrieved with the peer-review system, argues that reviewers and editors should be replaced with a random selection process, such as a lottery. He says that this will help publish work that threatens the status quo, such as that discussed in his book, which he feels was unfairly quashed at the review stage. But I don’t think that this is practical.

Instead, the Finch Report advocates following the path of the many open-access journals now published (for example, Hindawi’s Science and Technology of Nuclear Installations), which charge publication fees from authors instead of, or in addition to, charging readers a fee to receive it. This is the way forward, the Finch Report argues. And I have to give its authors credit for proposing a solution to such a huge issue.

Despite the fact that NEI does not generally publish primary research, and is not peer-reviewed, it has a stake in this issue, because it has many library subscribers. (In addition, we also publish most of our content online for free). Online and in print, NEI also makes money from advertisements, one definition of which could be (very short) articles published in return for a fee. The Finch report’s main recommendation, from this perspective, is the switch from a subscription to an advertising revenue model.

And I?don’t like it. For academic journals, I feel that subscription revenue is superior to advertising. Subscription revenue is fair, in that the people who use the information have to pay for it. It is transparent, in that they buy a stake in the brand. Subscriptions are not only for individuals; they can also be shared in libraries, which for hundreds of years have been repositories of knowledge. The internet may force them to change, but I do not believe it will make them disappear.

In our capitalistic world, those providing free services are unlikely to be motivated by philanthropy. Anyone who has ever watched television or used the internet knows that their ‘free’ use of a service generates data that someone else is paying for. The nuisance value of the unavoidable advertisements is not overwhelming to the user. But the deal-making behind the scenes may complicate the alliegances (and in so doing the credibility) of the provider.

If the Finch system were implemented, the editorial review process of peer-review journals would be complicated by adding a financial factor into the review process. Which would the editor be more likely to publish: a mediocre paying manuscript, or a superb non-paying one?

These are not insurmountable issues, and we have as much experience dealing with them as any other business magazine. (And for the record, advertisers cannot simply buy an article in NEI magazine). But what works well for commerce—and we do not deny that we may be influenced by commercial imperatives—does not necessarily align with science’s best interests.

Despite my views, the trend on this very magazine is against me. From 2007, which is the earliest data I have, until now, the ratio of advertising to editorial pages in NEI has also increased, significantly. Perhaps the Finch report is right after all.

Author Info:

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International

Related Articles
EDF and Areva finalize uranium partnership
Areva signs Chinese deals on fuel and fuel manufacture

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.