Cognitive Daily

This week’s “Ask a Scienceblogger question” is:

Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?


The public isn’t qualified to determine whether research is worthwhile. Why do you think researchers spend nine-plus years studying their specialties?


I do think that research paid for by public money should be freely available to the public. That means that the journal publishing industry would have to be turned upside down. Today subscribing to a journal can cost hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. Greta and I just had to cancel our subscription to Visual Cognition because they doubled their subscription rate to $558! Who can afford that? Not Davidson College’s library: the institutional subscription rate is over $1000 per year for the same journal. And this is considered an “inexpensive” journal.

The only people who can afford these rates are the researchers with giant grants. Most grants include large allowances for journal subscriptions. So public support of research pays for for-profit companies to publish research that the public can’t afford to see.

I’d prefer to see all publicly funded research distributed on the model of the Public Library of Science. There, the journals are available for free to anyone who has internet access. Publishing is paid for by the researchers who write the articles. Granting agencies are happy to pay the fee: they want the research they paid for to be publicly available.

In the end, the same money would go to the same people: granting agencies would pay for publication (but instead of subscribing, they’d pay for it at the time of publication), and publishers could still make money. But instead of an elite few seeing the results of the research, everyone would have free access to it.

Some publishers already offer scholars the choice of paying for publication or publishing for free under the old, copyright-based model. This might be a good compromise between the two models — since many scientists who do good work (like Greta) are not supported by grants.


  1. #1 Gyan
    May 29, 2006

    The public isn’t qualified to determine whether research is worthwhile. Why do you think researchers spend nine-plus years studying their specialties?

    I hope you take this comment in the right spirit.

    In India, a caste system developed which partitioned the populace into 4 categories. The highest echelon was that of the Brahmins i.e. the priest class. They claimed that only they could properly interpret the holy texts and thus advise the others on the path to salvation. This polarity pervaded the overall social power dynamics, and its malignant aftereffects are still potent today.

    Officially, science avoids the construction of a system based on such appeals to authority, by fashioning itself as an objective enterprise. As per this dogma, there are opinions and then there is the truth; science is not perfect, but it is “self”-correcting; anyone who so chooses can verify the validity of the current models. Your statement seems to go against that grain, because it encounters some pragmatic roadblocks: all objects are bound to subjects; the activities of scientists operate upon a dataset far removed from the non-initiated, and there’s a huge barrier of time, effort and aptitude that has to be overcome to appreciate science.

    In that light, does the public need to take on faith what science has done & maybe can do? If yes, why ought the modern public treat scientists differently than the priests?

  2. #2 Dana Leighton
    May 29, 2006

    Hi Dave,

    This is a very interesting topic. The public (via the Government, with a captal G) already does make some decisions — While it is possible to get some off-the-wall basic research funded, the vast majority of research dollars go into topics which the funding agencies (part of the Government) deem important (e.g. currently Alzheimers, etc). Since these agencies are part of the Goverment, they are at (to a greater or lesser extent) the whim of the Legislative and the Executive branch. Presumably the Congress and president are representing the public interest (although we all know how much they are beholden to corporate interests).

    Regarding the issue of having a Brahmin caste, we already exclude the public when we write journal articles for the initiated (vis. have you tried reading a biology journal lately? YIKES!). We put up walls around our disciplines through our use of language, as much as we try not to. In another example, I have to be a “gate keeper” to exclude people whenever I flunk a student who doesn’t display the appropriate behaviors that will allow him or her to proceed in psychology. I think the Brahmin analogy is a bit too extreme — but we DO exclude the public (and scientists from other disciplines even!).

    Dana C. Leighton
    Psychology Instructor
    Tri-County Technical College

  3. #3 ArmchairAnarchist
    May 29, 2006

    I can’t believe (as a non-academic non-scientist, I grant you) that subscription to *any* journal, in this age of affordable web publication, RSS, blogs and so on, can possibly cost that much! I mean, I know the cost of wood pulp is on the rise, but that’s just ridiculous! $600 for a year’s material? How many issues do you get for that? How much do they pay the writers?

    Surely there’s other ways these institutions could monetise the material they’re putting out? I’m sure that all these journals must be operating as wings of professional bodies, from whom they also glean membership fees? It sounds like government isn’t the only sphere where people are happy to rake in a little extra money from a captive audience.

    And if they cite the print costs as being the issue, surely web publishing is the way forward? If all their subscribers paid 10% of that fee, they’d surely be able to run a secure subscriber-only website (if that was their desire) without any trouble at all that would adequately serve the same number of people, and instantly gain themselves a huge number of new subscribers due to the affordability!

    Sorry if I seem a bit incredulous here, but that’s because I am. There’s loads of stuff that hungry science laymen like myself would micropay for; it seems that there are some business models in serious need of updating here.

  4. #4 Ron Zeno
    May 29, 2006

    I agree. Scientists shouldn’t have to justify their work to the public. Publicly funded research should be available to all.

    Responding to Gyan: “In that light, does the public need to take on faith what science has done & maybe can do? If yes, why ought the modern public treat scientists differently than the priests?”

    This is a false dichotomy, comparing religion to science. Science is open to all. Anyone can become a scientist. More importantly, anyone can examine science, the methodologies, the reasoning, the evidence, and the ethics.

  5. #5 Colst
    May 29, 2006

    ArmchairAnarchist –

    You would think, but it’s aggravatingly not the case. An example from my field: The Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry charges $2,352. There is an online-only option, but that is still $2,117. If you buy more than one journal from the publisher (but only in certain combinations), you’ll save a little, but not much.

    There’s obviously some way to make it work, though. Applied Spectroscopy charges only $70 for print and online access, as well as membership in its sponsoring society. Students, like myself, pay only $20.

    Both the Royal Society of Chemistry (publisher of the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry) and the Society for Applied Spectroscopy (publisher of Applied Spectroscopy) are not-for-profit.

  6. #6 Dana Leighton
    May 29, 2006

    ArmchairAnarchist asked:
    $600 for a year’s material? How many issues do you get for that? How much do they pay the writers?

    Usually academic journals publish 4, 9, or 12 issues per year. The journal price is unrelated to the publication frequency.

    Individuals who are members of the society which publishes the journal will usually get the journal quite inexpensively. Institutions are the ones who get hit for thousand dollar subscriptions because thousands of people have access to the material.

    The writers are unpaid. We do it for the praise and adulation of our colleagues (HA!). Actually we do it because it lets us keep getting more grant money to publish more articles in expensive journals, which gets us more grant money… On, and in a publish or perish academic model, it lets us keep our jobs.

  7. #7 Auke
    May 30, 2006

    I agree with the sentiment that scientists cannot be expected to justify their work to the general public, but at the same time, the communication of ongoing research (the process as well as the eventual findings) to the public shouldn’t be ignored.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    May 30, 2006

    Archair Anarchist —

    It costs so much for two reasons: first, the materials must be rigorously reviewed by peers (other scholars in the field). While reviewers usually don’t charge for their services, it’s real work to find qualified reviewers. No one’s going to do that for free, whether the publication is in print or online. There are proofreaders and other editors who must be paid, and graphic designers and typesetters and printers as well. If you go with online publication, you replace the printer with a web master, so you really only save on paper and ink.

    The second reason is that there are so few subscribers. A niche journal like Visual Cognition might only have 500 or 1000 subscribers. If it had ten times that many, it might be able to squeak by on, say, $100 a year, but there’s a limit to how low you can make subscriptions cost.

    But the same amouont of revenue could be generated by asking each author to pay, say $1000, for the privilege of getting published. While this may seem like a lot of money as well, remember that institutions give promotions and raises based on publication rates. If a university is willing to give a professor a $5,000 raise on the strength of 2 or 3 publications a year, it’s not much of a stretch to think they would be willing to foot the bill for publication — especially if their library no longer had to pay exhorbitant subscription costs.

  9. #9 Trisha
    May 30, 2006

    Like other people said, I think that they should at least be able to have online access only at a lower price. I’ve seen some journals where they offer an online only version, but it is the same price as the print version!

    Either way, there has to be some way for taxpayers to see the results of the research they paid for.

  10. #10 Gordon Worley
    May 31, 2006

    I think the best approach is to modify the arXiv in the following way. In order to post an article to the arXiv, you must review two other articles (to keep a few articles from getting highly reviewed because they are easy, a cap on reviews that count may be set at two or three per article; people can still review those articles, but they won’t count towards their posting points). Now authors must also be reviewers, and to avoid leaving poor reviews on unpopular articles metareviewing could also be incorporated for points.

    The details would have to be worked out and tested to see what really worked, but I think this combined with expanding the arXiv to more fields would give us a nice academic publication system with peer review and free public access, all with minimal costs (arXiv is largely automatic, so it only takes a couple people to run the whole thing).

  11. There is an initiative now in Congress to require all scientists who receive NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding to deposit a copy of their publications in the PubMed Central online database. Of course, the scientific societies are scared about losing revenue and there are copyright issues, so that scientists won’t be able to deposit the neatly formatted final versions of their papers, only the manuscript versions instead.

    I think it’s about time that journals lose their grip on scientists when it comes to publication. Hopefully, things will change in 10 years with advances in internet technologies and social networking, etc. I don’t see why scientists even need to deposit their publications with many of the more obscure journals, except that they need to stick to the current system if they want tenure. And the fact that scientists often have to pay to publish is robbery. I had to pay Nature $1400 just to use color figures in an article once – and they have plenty of advertising!

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