Academic Publishing is a Massive Corrupt Scam, Pt 2

Since my last post, I have been hard at work like the good little tox minion I am. I have published numerous case reports and gotten my name on others written by my more skillful and motivated co-fellows. I am very proud of these case reports. They accurately reflect my internal cognitive dissonance at Skillfully Playing the Game while also knowing that The Game Is Total Bullshit.

Here is a short reminder from last time. The medical journals we submit to are:

  • Almost entirely online only
  • Are owned by one of five-ish major online publishing companies
  • Have practically zero overhead costs by virtue of having zero paid staff
  • Collect millions in institutional subscription fees annually
  • Collect hundreds of thousands in individual subscription fees
  • Collect “article processing fees” from the people who actually do the work writing their articles for the privilege of publication
  • Pay their reviewers and editors $0.

In short, medical journal publication is a unicorn business model that is as close to a golden goose as you can get. One study I read while raging silently one day mentioned that the operating margin for some journals is forty percent. FORTY PERCENT!!!

In case you’re curious how outrageous that actually is, the operating margin of the highly ethical and much-loved Exxon is, as of 2022, 11.2%. Google sits at a healthier 26%.

Anyway. Since publishing a few things, I’ve realized that the corruption and the scumminess of academic publishing is, incredibly, even worse than I thought.

First, let’s talk about the article processing charge (yes, again, because it gets worse).

I recently submitted a case to a journal that I would charitably characterize as a Moderately Shitty. This Moderately Shitty Journal had a new twist: it asked me to name my own peer reviewers (seven of them!!) and supply their contact information. This is basically the equivalent of being able to list your best friend as a reference, or nominating your chemistry lab partner to grade your lab report while you grade hers. It outsources, for free AGAIN, the key function of an honest academic journal – peer review. If you’re keeping score, at this point the journal literally does nothing but collect fees and hit the “publish” button on their crappy Geocities-based article management software supplied by their parent company.

Anyway, I named fellow toxicology people I know as peer reviewers along with Kim Jong Un (DearLeader@missilealert.nk) and the crazy guy that lives on my corner who spends most nights screaming at the void and repetitively hitting the stop sign with a piece of rebar (no email address on file). He is actually quite nice and, he tells me, a deep thinker.

I assume they will both approve my manuscript.

After I did all their work for them, the journal then asked me to approve the article processing charge of $2,300.

I did not blink. I do not have $2,300. But you know who does? My institution!

In fact, my institution – and hundreds of similar institutions in this country – have contracted with these evil overlords. They will pay most, if not all, of a predatory article processing fee on my poor behalf. This is to “encourage young researchers” and to “promote academic curiosit”- hahaha no that is not why. Big institutions like mine do not use dollars as currency, they use prestige. Prestige comes from researchers doing studies that bring attention to the university, which then leads to more grant money for expensive things like new buildings.

On a smaller scale, every paper that comes out of the institution increases its prestige – even stupid case reports by yours truly. The universities have calculated that it is beneficial to them to subsidize predators in the pursuit of academic clout. They are no different than an Instagram influencer.

(This concept is not my idea. It belongs to Murray Sperber, an English professor, who wrote a book called Beer & Circus in 2000. His central thesis is that large academic universities, in a prestige rat race, devote attention and resources to research endeavors instead of actually educating its undergraduate students. To prevent students from realizing that their hefty tuition dollars were going to waste, these universities turned collegiate sports into a massive spectacle as a distraction. In the introduction, one student says of his school, “This place is a four-year party… with an $18,000 cover charge.”

Great book, highly recommend.)

Anyway. In this nonsensical world of publishing, my university is paying the owner of this Moderately Shitty Journal a lump sum almost equivalent to what they pay me as my monthly salary for the pleasure of publishing a 1700-word polished turd. Incredibly, my university is also paying this same journal (through a bundle with its publisher) for access!

This would be analogous to Nestle paying Whole Foods individual fees for the privilege of stocking each of its products on the shelves, and then also paying Whole Foods an enormous annual subscription fee for the privilege of being allowed to shop there. It’s absolutely bat-shit insane.

In case you’re wondering, the subscription bundles are secret, but in 2014 Science Magazine weaseled some information out: the University of Michigan, as an example, paid Elsevier $2.16 million annually for access to its suite of journals, not coincidentally including the garbage dump journal featured here.

So after all this, you might be wondering how to tell a Shitty Journal from a Good Journal. Unless you are in medicine – and even if you are – this is surprisingly hard to do. One commonly used metric is something called the Impact Factor. Impact factor is a number that is supposed to serve as a rough metric for journal prestige/value/worth/importance.

Before we go through the scam that is the impact factor, it’s worth mentioning that this entire discussion is irrelevant: your university only cares how much you publish, not where you publish. It’s the number of lines on your CV that the promotions people care about, not whether you matter.

Anyway. Impact Factor is a simple calculation:

Impact Factor for 2023 = (Citations of Journals’ articles in 2023) / (Articles published in Journal in 2021 and 2022)

This makes intuitive sense; journal articles that are cited heavily elsewhere implies that the article had some intrinsic worth to the scientific community. A journal that publishes relatively few articles but has those articles cited often will have a high impact factor.

Unfortunately, impact factor is gameable. Predatory and crap journals, such as the one I’ve submitted to, will pump up their numbers by publishing lots of review articles, even when they suck (these tend to get heavily cited), articles that cite articles within the same journal, etc.

The New England Journal of Medicine, pretty much universally held to be the Most Important Medical Journal, had an IF of 176 in 2021. In contrast, the most prestigious toxicology journal, Clinical Toxicology, had an IF of a whopping 3.73 last year. Niche fields like tox are heavily prone to gaming: my disreputable Moderately Shitty Journal has an IF of 4.8!

So once you get away from the big names – NEJM, The Lancet, Science, Nature, JAMA and a few others – everything disappears into an indistinguishable morass of garbage. It rapidly stops mattering if your article gets published in your subspecialty journal of choice or a predatory bottom feeder with an APC large enough to afford a Manhattan luxury rental.  

Of course, with exponentially diminishing returns on the Impact Factor front, and lots of money to gain via author fees, journals that do not sit atop the scrap heap have basically nothing to lose by accepting whatever comes their way, quality be damned. So people like me, in pursuit of promotion (or, in my case, having my bosses leave me alone) submit trash with the scientific merit of a moldy russet potato.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go submit my next article to the World Journal of Latvian Toxicology and Robot Science. Here’s Otis.

4 thoughts on “Academic Publishing is a Massive Corrupt Scam, Pt 2

    • this was also very interesting.
      its important to let us know which “important journals” are really not.
      love, grandam

  1. this RANT must have made you feel good! hahaha
    I love Otis’ expression. he agrees with you and your conclusions.
    keep smiling, love,grandma

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