Undoing Robert Maxwell

May 4, 2021

“The Big Short” opens with the following lines:

In the late seventies, banking was not a job you went into to make large sums of money. It was a fucking snooze. <…> And if banking was boring then the bond department at a bank was downright comatose. <…> That is, until Lewis Ranieri came on the scene at Solomon Brothers…

What Lewis Ranieri did to banking by introducing mortgage-backed securities, Robert Maxwell had done to scientific publishing by exploiting the broken incentive structure of that industry.

The Sundae

Scientific knowledge is disseminated through academic publishers: scientists perform research, they submit their findings to journals, and then others scientists read about those findings, usually through their university library which purchases access to the periodicals. The bottleneck of this whole process, at least in the UK, used to be trying to have your papers be even considered by the journals. These were usually created by scientific societies that were slow and focused almost exclusively on works published for their own members [1].

But in the early 1950s, there comes this guy—Robert Maxwell—whose tactics are much more aggressive. Having recently become the majority shareholder of Pergamon Press, he takes a very proactive approach to scientific publishing. He goes to conferences, invites researchers to parties in villas or on private jets1 with one goal in mind—to convince individual scientists that their field needs a new journal and to recruit them as editors [2].

And just like that, Robert Maxwell began quickly turning Pergamon into a household name. By 1960, it was publishing 59 journals, and more were added every year [1]. It seemed that it was a win not only for the publishers, but for the scientists too—more of them were now able to share their findings with the world. And although the exponential growth of this industry was worrying to some, most believed that that’s what the market was demanding, thus the move towards a new economic equilibrium seemed only natural.

The problem was that the industry wasn’t operating under the free-market principles. Maxwell’s genius was to recognize that. As new journals were emerging, scientists wanted to keep up with all this knowledge, and libraries were willing to satisfy that need. Universities began subscribing to every new journal that Pergamon or other major publishers created. With government funding for research only increasing throughout the sixties and seventies [2], there was no incentive for Maxwell (and others who mimicked him) to slow down. And so the publishers became the kingmakers of science.

Seafood Stew

Half a century later, we are at a point where each of the major academic publishers controls thousands of journals, and most of the following is usually true:

The last point has especially troubled governments for decades. But academic publishers—being the crafty and morally onerous supporters of science that they are—have finally embraced a solution proposed by activists: Open Access. For a small fee (of up to $11,200 per article) many journals now offer the authors to make their work open to the public.

Publishers want everyone to believe that they provide great value to the scientific community and that they are already being generous, but the data just don’t support that. In 2019, Nature Springer had an operating profit margin of 23%, Wiley—of 27%, and Elsevier (which had absorbed Pergamon in the nineties)—of 37%. And that’s not surprising—most of the work for them is done for free. Their costs are mainly the salaries of the editors and the people who format the accepted papers2; hosting the papers on the website is unlikely to be expensive3. Publishers are just middlemen.

The B-Word

I was wondering how to remove the need for publishers altogether, and I’m slightly embarrassed by the first thing that popped into my mind. Blockchain. I roll my eyes 90% of the time when I hear this word because it almost always is a solution in search of a problem. However, in this specific case, it could actually solve a real problem. I was reassured after I had found out that others too are taking this idea seriously.

Blockchain approach would allow scientists to share and assess each other’s work without middlemen. More specifically, it could facilitate

The technology to replace academic publishers is clearly here, but that’s not enough. Different journals have become (non-perfect) proxies for the quality of the research—if the author has the freedom to choose to submit their paper to either Nature or some new crypto platform used only by libertarian weirdos, they will pick the former every time. Sure, the equivalents of journals with different impact factors and prestige attached to them could naturally arise in the blockchain implementation, but not until their widespread adoption.

I love free-market solutions, but they may not be sufficient to convince the scientific community to abandon traditional academic publishers. The whole industry is just too heavily distorted by government influence. Obviously, I’m angry at the publishers but, really, I shouldn’t be. Robert Maxwell did what he was supposed to do—maximize profits. Similarly, scientists don’t have enough skin in the game, or more precisely, there aren’t enough incentives for them to consider the public interest. Both of these phenomena are emergent from the way science funding works and only governments can fix it, unfortunately. And although the move towards Open Access didn’t address the oligopoly of academic publishing, it at least showed that large-scale changes are possible.

References

  1. B. Cox, "The Pergamon phenomenon 1951–1991: Robert Maxwell and scientific publishing," Learned Publishing, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 273–278, 2002.
  2. S. Buranyi, "Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?," The Guardian, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science [Accessed: May. 2, 2021].

  1. I wonder if this was an inspiration to his daugther’s partner who also loved to hang out with scientists. ↩︎
  2. By the way, the formatting is often terrible. Using a simple LaTeX template would do a better job most of the time. ↩︎
  3. See page 9 of arXiv’s 2020 annual report. ↩︎
  4. Just to be clear, I am not saying that this paper was very rigorous. It’s just that if we apply such standards selectively, a bias will be introduced favoring certain types of conclusions. ↩︎