February 16, 2009

The Bubble In Academic Research

And history is quite clear on this: once a bubble pops, it never reflates.

From Science:

A controversial policy requiring researchers to make their papers freely available to the public at a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site is facing a potential roadblock. Last week, members of a powerful House committee held the first-ever congressional hearing on the policy and floated a proposal to overturn it.
Breathe.  Think about this. NIH sponsored research was supposed to be freely available in an open access format (PubMed Central), under the intricate logic that if taxpayers funded it, they should be able to read it.  But

Law professor Ralph Oman of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., argued that NIH's policy is a "dilution of the rights of the copyright owners" and "will destroy the commercial market" for science and technology journals.
Well, duh.  That's obvious, and by obvious I mean, of course, a red herring.

Don't make the mistake of thinking this has anything to do with maintaining a journal's revenue stream.  They certainly didn't complain when Pharma sponsored studies had to have their data open access.  So why would they care about NIH open access?

Apparently, it costs a journal $4000 per article to publish it, at 50% gross margins.  I have no idea where that money goes-- the authors get nothing for writing the article, and peer reviewers get nothing for reading them-- but that's enough reason to destroy this unnecessary system.

The mistake is thinking that open access is a threat to a journal.  The trickis: subscriptions are paid by big buyers (e.g. universities), and they don't get to choose what they are subscribing to.  You buy the Elsevier Package, and you get whatever crap journals they happen to be offering.  Say you want only American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology- $600/year.  Too bad-- it's coupled to Brain Research, at $23,000/year.  I defy anyone to disagree that there has never been, and never will be, a finding in Brain Research worth $23,000.

Universities will pay whatever it costs to get the crap journals in which their NIH sponsored research is published, even if they also have to buy the other crap journals.

Open access articles isn't nearly as big a threat to publishers as simply unbundling the journals from each other, letting universities decide which ones to buy.

So open access doesn't threaten subscription revenues, it threatens the number of journals they can publish.  It's the multitude of journals, each with its inflated subscription rate, that brings in the real money.  Also, each crap journal carries advertisements; even a crap journal with a small niche can have higher ad rates because of the bundling.

Elsevier alone made $3B in revenue last year.  That's a lot of business to be at risk, by science.

II. 

But wait: this is a bill blocking the block the open access policy of the NIH that was put in place last year.  Why weren't researchers putting their stuff up on the internet before that, anyway?  Just for fun?

Why didn't each lab simply create a website and reprint everything?  It would take no work-- I assume they didn't write out their findings longhand with a quill.  It is technically a violation of copyright, but have you ever heard of a journal coming after the author of a paper for violating copyright?  Me neither.

The answer is that a lot of the payoff of research is the publication itself.  Where it gets published often matters much more to the researcher than what was actually discovered.  Research is often conducted with a journal in mind and "what's hot" in a field--- as decided by the members of the editorial board of the journal, who decide based on their particular interests (read: funding streams and prejudices.)   BTW, these are often the same guys who are grant reviewers.  This almost completely drives decisions "on the ground" on what to study and what not to study.  (Or did science sufficiently crack the mysteries of lithium to warrant a complete move to Depakote?)

Would anything in AJP be worth reading if it wasn't actually in AJP?

If you think about it, the entire past 15 years in psychiatry have produced no discoveries at all.  None.  We have different medicines, okay; but they're not better, just different.  We don't have a better handle on the anatomic or genetic or anything causes of anything-- we're not even any further along in defining our terms.  Thousands of articles rehashing the same old ground have kept thousands of academics employed, to no benefit whatsoever for mankind.

Take away the journals and the system collapses.  Force researchers with NIH grants to publish their findings without the marketing and packaging of a journal, and you've effectively halted half of the NIH research, until another generation of researchers with a different research model show up for work.  For sure, unquestionably, you've killed off psychiatry as it functions today.

The academic research system is flawed because it does not incentivize research, it incentivizes the process of research. 

Academic research is a bubble, money keeps flowing into it as long as it produces quality research.  Who decides quality?  Journals are the rating agencies, Moody's, they keep it sustainable by giving it AAA rating.  The ratings agencies are precisely what keeps the bubble inflated, just like with the mortgages, they are what keeps research money pouring into the system. 

If someone could look behind the ratings, and take measure of the actual value of the research, the bubble would pop faster than, well, you get the idea. Then there's the "systemic risk."   Journals collapse, academic centers collapse from lack of funding, Pharma loses the AAA rating on their studies which are done by academics, published in journals, etc.

Research would be forced to change completely-- and for the better.  But you'll have a decade or so recession in science and education while the old generation dies out and the new one becomes old enough to start work.  







Comments

Might universities secretly... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2009 7:09 PM | Posted by Jim: | Reply

Might universities secretly not want open access? All these bundled C and D list journals mean it's easy to publish garbage in journals that every top 50 research center subscribes to. This helps pad C.V.s for researchers listed in grant applications, so they can pull in more funding, so the university can take it's typical 50% overhead cut.

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I work with research in a m... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2009 7:25 PM | Posted by Bob: | Reply

I work with research in a major university (not in the health sciences though) and I fully concur with your observations.

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This is just another exampl... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2009 8:27 PM | Posted by Ryan Sprute: | Reply

This is just another example of 21st century economics, open source taking over a walled garden. Just another industry to be broken and reshaped.

And none of that was me talking, just some guy named Umair Haque.

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This is especially poignant... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2009 8:46 PM | Posted by Dyson: | Reply

This is especially poignant to me as I'm going to interview with several graduate schools for a spot in their clinical psychology programs.

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Why didn't each lab simp... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2009 8:52 PM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

Why didn't each lab simply create a website and reprint everything?

If the lab is affiliated with a major research university, they didn't do it because they probably didn't have to--their libraries already had. For the last decade, there's been a major trend toward academic libraries hosting institutional repositories for work produced at their institutions.

As a librarian I agree that Elsevier is evil incarnate, or at least evil incorporated. They've been playing nicely with the repositories, though, allowing researchers to place the post-reviewed, pre-publication version in the free-to-the-public repositories at no cost.

I think this strengthens the idea that Elsevier is more like Moody's than it is like Random House. They're willing to give away the right to republish their stuff, because the real value they add is in the journal titles, not the journal contents. (And also, possibly, because they know authors are often unwilling or too lazy to release their stuff to their repositories.)

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This explains so much to me... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 10:02 AM | Posted by jessa: | Reply

This explains so much to me. I'm a former patient, and in reading scientific papers in psychiatry, I've been frustrated to see that it is all crap. The studies are structured in such a way as to provide absolutely no useful information for treating patients. Sure, information comes of it, but that information doesn't help give better patient care, that information doesn't really give us anything we can extrapolate to apply outside the study itself. Why would they do this? What is the point of doing studies in psychiatry if not to have something to extrapolate and USE? hurumph.

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So, is there any justificat... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 10:05 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

So, is there any justification to INCREASE the budget of NIH as the Obama administration plans to do?

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Why weren't resea... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 10:47 AM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

Why weren't researchers putting their stuff up on the internet before that, anyway?

See, for example, Springer's open access policy.

Springer is one of the major publishers in both psychology and computer science. For comparison, for quite some time now most of the computer scientists have been taking advantage of the permission to put a copy of the paper on their personal or institution's web site, without needing to pay any extra to Springer. 12 months after publication you can put it online on the funding body's web site, and, if you're willing to pay an extra $3000, you can put it on the funding body's web site right away.

So I agree - why isn't more of the psychology research free online? (CS departments have a bit of an advantage because they already have high-bandwidth Internet connections, fast servers, and full-time staff to run them, because they need them for other reasons. But still - web hosting is a commodity these days).

2.

You're right, a lot of the point of a journal publication - as opposed to just putting random stuff on your blog - if that it convinces the people who determine your pay rise/whether your contract gets renewed (Tenure? We should be so lucky!) that the peer reviewers thought it was OK.

But, as the publisher doesn't pay the reviewers (or even the editor, in many cases), the whole peer review system could carry on pretty much as before in an open access model. I wouldn't hold out too much hope for any radical change in the content of what's being published.

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Lots of stuff in many journ... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 1:50 PM | Posted by Mr. Gunn: | Reply

Lots of stuff in many journals is crap. Perhaps the problem is just worse for economics/psychology/anthropology because it's harder to sort the crap from the good stuff?

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This is why I read your blo... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 1:57 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

This is why I read your blog. Brilliant.

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Apparently, it cos... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 2:59 PM | Posted by bill: | Reply

Apparently, it costs a journal $4000 per article to publish it, at 50% gross margins.

That link goes to a 2006 article from Elsevier, where the author/s further claim:

None of the Open Access Gold Route journals are charging authors the actual rate. Instead, they are relying on subsidy of one form or another to float their open access publishing efforts.

In 2009, BMC, Hindawi and Medknow are all making a profit, as is PLoS ONE. Since none of them charge nearly $3000/article, it's clearly possible to get costs well below that range.

Perhaps that profit margin (which the latest figures I could find put at around 36%) has something to do with it?

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"Lots of stuff in many jour... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 3:55 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"Lots of stuff in many journals is crap. Perhaps the problem is just worse for economics/psychology/anthropology because it's harder to sort the crap from the good stuff?"

I have a different view. In economics and psychology, more so than in the medical field, and the fields that are thinly veiled covers for marxism, the researchers consider themselves to be scientists, and the quality is easier to find. For psychology, if you just look at American Psychological Association journals, articles generally state exactly what the background is for the topic, they state what their hypothesis is, they state their measures, they state their data source fairly clearly, they state the analytic strategy decently enough so that you know what was done with the data, they present data fairly completely and fairly well, and in the conclusions, they state how findings fit within the context of the rest of the field - whether it supports some theory or not, how the finding expands upon current knowledge, etc.

Economic analyses generally are either evaluating how some money-type issue can be understood by classical economic principles, or are evaluating some data fro msome piece of the economic world to assess some valid issue, such as: do "charity" hospitals merely perform enough charity to barely clear the legal limit to reap the benefits of the 'charity' designation or not, etc.

From my experience reading effectiveness studies on a range of medical topics, JAMA, NEJM, BMJ, etc. are shocking for the lack of decent quality in study development and reporting. All ya gotta do to be decent is go by CONSORT (clinical trials) or STROBE (observational/epidemiological studies) guidelines to present sufficient details of a study. Shoot, just assign an intern (or nurse, etc.) to write it up if it is too difficult for ya, or you don't have the time. Sometimes I wonder: surely the grant must have been decent, although the article is lousy.

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I think the $3000/article i... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 3:57 PM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

I think the $3000/article is a bit high, but I'm willing to give them a little slack here.

I've recently been looking at the accounts of an academic publication that took the "to hell with it, we'll get it printed by the local print shop, not an academic publisher" route (name not mentioned to protect the guilty...) and printing a paper book is pretty expensive if you have a small print run (say, a couple of hundred copies for libraries and private individuals). You probably do want to have a paper edition as well as the online one, for reasons such as long-term archiving by libraries, and I'm assuming that's factored in to the $3000/article cost.

Then there's distribution: an academic publisher will take care of mailing out physical books to libraries. (Staff time, as well as postage, needed here).

Sure, if you drop the printed paper edition you can cut a lot of costs (and trust me, there's at least one editorial board that had an animated discussion on this topic), but then it's not a fair comparison with Springer's $3000.

Then there are administrative costs that will still be incurred in an electronic-only journal. If you've ever edited a journal issue, you'll know that not all authors follow the style guide (e.g. fonts, margins) when preparing camera-ready copy. Someone has to check this, and either fix it themselves or nag the author into fixing it. In my experience, the publisher does at least some of this work, though a common practise is for the editor to recruit someone to do most of it, and the person they get to do it is, like the referees, not paid by the publisher.

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BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2009 5:50 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Alone: | Reply

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Re: science bubble<br... (Below threshold)

March 3, 2009 7:09 PM | Posted by jim: | Reply

Re: science bubble

I don't think the article is stating that generally. Rather, there is a conflict of interest between publishers, funding/grants, researchers, and universities. Open access promises to "turn the tables" a bit, if you will, and indeed if the "old guard" die off, we might see research actually pertain to, say, societal interests rather then "publishing for publishing's sake".

The biggest problem is really that "Where it gets published often matters much more to the researcher than what was actually discovered," where impact factor and JOURNAL (not author or content) prestige is everything, instead of focusing on the actual author or content. Hence control is in the hands of the journals, which in turn are governed by grants, etc etc. Content is "manufactured" by grants, in a sense, with researchers mechanically regurgitating what their publishers think will make their journal better than the rest.

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Different people in the wor... (Below threshold)

August 13, 2011 11:22 AM | Posted by REBA27Clarke: | Reply

Different people in the world receive the personal loans in different banks, just because that is simple.

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This sounds like the kind o... (Below threshold)

October 28, 2011 11:01 PM | Posted by Bop nam: | Reply

This sounds like the kind of research that could have won Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award if any public money was used to finance it. Surely of all the ways to corrupt an election, the thought that an employer would dig out his old application forms and use them to determine how his workers voted is the least of our worries.

I'll grant your uses of verifying a test taker, or of spotting ballot box stuffing, but 92 votes would be a pretty small precinct. Anyone with time to spend trying to identify voters this way surely has time to think up a better way to swing elections.

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You obviously don't have an... (Below threshold)

October 28, 2011 11:02 PM | Posted, in reply to Bop nam's comment, by Biotin hair growth: | Reply

You obviously don't have any idea how academic research works, and how it benefits the public good. Even a totally negative result would actually be interesting for use by people wanting to make public policy decisions (like what kind of election protocols might be more or less secure).

Proxmire's award was the ultimate in hypocrisy, given that the amount of public money wasted by politicians has to be an order of magnitude (or two) greater than that wasted by academic researchers. Interestingly enough, it's often academic researchers who are pointing out waste and inefficiency in public policy legislated by politicians, this blog being a prime example.

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