A new article by Alexander Brown in The Guardian tries to argue that scientific publishers do add value to research manuscripts. But Brown does not help the publishers’ cause.
Let’s see what he lists as services that scientific publishers provide to authors.
Editors help “to recognise emerging fields.” Researchers can do that themselves.
Publishers “create new journals.” That is valuable to publishers, not to authors. There is no shortage of venues to publish in.
Publishers “build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.” The “brand” of a journal is more valuable to a publisher than an author.
“Developing systems and platforms” to “get the right research into the hands of those who need it most.” And the platforms that I hear most researchers in biology use to find their research are Google Scholar and PubMed, neither of which was created by publishers. arXiv wasn’t created by publishers, either.
Adding metadata, XML generation, and tagging. I’ll spot Brown that one. I love DOI numbers, for instance. But he may be overstating the value. My impression is that if you have machine readable text, just the number of times key words are used in the text will accomplish much of what tags are supposed to accomplish.
Bringing old print archives online. Yes, I’m glad publishers have made their “back catalogue” available. But that is a mainly benefit to scientific readers, not current and future authors.
Depositing works into institutional archives. No publisher has ever even offered to do that for me. I don’t doubt that it happens, but how much does that matter for how many authors?
It’s kind of astonishing that Brown’s listing of ways publishers add value miss almost every major thing that I, as an author, value.
Organizing peer review and fact checking. But there is so little difference in how journals do this, that I think no journal can brag about how much better its reviewing process is. Many entries in Retraction Watch show that journal reviews are often not very thorough. I would love it if there were journals that boasted of having a dedicated fact-checking staff, or advertised that they checked every manuscript for plagiarism, or that routinely sent papers to five authors instead of two, or that guaranteed a 48 review turnaround.
Professional typesetting. Journals do make things prettier than I can do on my own.
Archiving. Institutions do a better job of this than individuals, and publishers have a decent record of this (see “Bringing old print archives online” above). But the fact remains that for profit publishers are not guaranteed to be around forever. Many publishers have been bought up by other companies. Publishers could go bankrupt. Publishers are certainly not the only ones interested in, or charged with, archiving. Google Scholar, PubMed, and university libraries all do this. I am not sure publishers are doing a better job than those entities.
Publishers, if Brown’s giving the best arguments in your favour... you’re in worse trouble than you think.
Lion picture from here.