Billion Dollar Science

TLDR: Add 10 billion to the annual income available to scientists around the world and see how fast we cure cancer.

Elsevier is one of the more irritating institutions in the world. It has a number of businesses, but the one of interest is its collections of scientific journals, which it on-sells to libraries and universities in incredibly overpriced bundles.

Without wanting to sound communist there is a huge pot of value here. Its market cap is over $15 billion and made over $800 million last year. The entire scientific publishing industry is worth about $10 billion a year.

Of the multiple and varied flavours of immorality in which Elsevier chooses to indulge, the worst is that not a cent of those billions in earnings is paid to scientists who author the papers and review the articles in the journals. And Elsevier is not alone.

It’s as if a broke author submitted a manuscript to a publisher – who then made a fortune, kept the lot, and then strong-armed public libraries into buying it for $14,000 per year, while restricting the hold-outs from accessing any of their books.

There have been a number of responses to this ludicrous state of affairs. Some scientists (or in this case, mathematicians) have organised a boycott. Unfortunately this is unlikely to really achieve anything.

There have been some great attempts to set up journals in the spirit of open-source but I really don’t think that’s the solution.

There are two sides to this problem: Players like Elsevier charging a fortune and blocking government funded research from non-subscribers, and the fact none of the money flows to researchers. Open source is great for access but makes no use of the fact that scientists are actually doing something worth about $10 billion a year, and could easily command a slice of that pie, and use it to bring more scientists into the field.**

People tend to follow the money. If you create demand for mortgage backed securities, then you can be damned sure people are going to build houses no-one wants in the middle of the desert.

Likewise I imagine if you pay researchers a fortune, more and more people will scramble for a piece of that tasty cash pie, and less will be attracted to, say, the zero-sum brawl of finance*, all with the added benefit of progressively better cures for the painful diseases that will kill you and those you love.

How about this for a solution:***

1. We start a (say) monthly journal.

2. Set up a simple, lucrative payment for accepted articles. As a first stab, how about $10 000 paid personally to the researchers responsible. Similarly, each reviewer receives $2,000 for each article reviewed.

I imagine this would be enough to attract some serious submissions. So serious, in fact, that universities and libraries would be obliged to subscribe (at drastically reduced prices). Oh yeah, and you can only submit articles if you or your institution is a subscriber.

So every month hundreds of thousands of dollars would be distributed to scientists, and there would be a monthly prize pool for excellent research. And I bet the journal would be a cracking read (or as cracking as stiff scientific prose ever is, anyway).

But why not take it a step further.

3. Assuming, of course, you executed that first step and attracted some worthwhile research, you could simply distribute all of the profits. So if you attracted 5% of the market… say 50% penetration at half price, you would be able to distribute 250m a year (I know, I know).

I imagine a star researcher would prefer to get paid $200k rather than submit to Nature. And as the quality of the new journal improved, it could even end up becoming more prestigious.

You could actually replicate the current system, with flagship general journals (Nature, Science) and a host of more specific titles. There’s no way of losing money as you’re simply distributing what you earn. And even practitioners of the more esoteric fields would probably prefer something rather than nothing.

Most importantly it would stick one up to operations like Elsevier that screw the struggling authors of their over-priced journals.

Anyone want to help me do it? We could make a schnazzy video and hit the crowd-funding market.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with that

** and buy cars and the like

*** There are other ways to get this done. You could (for example) takeover elsevier. You would need at least $15 billion to do it, and probably a $5 billion equity cheque. You could treat the whole thing as debt, and as you were paid your money back, you could start increasing payments to the authors are reviewers of the articles you are selling.

Also I realise 10 billion is not the amount that could actually be available, but if publishing went down this route – and there are huge economic incentives for it to do so once the ball gets rolling – we are certainly talking billions.