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.


11 thoughts on “Billion Dollar Science”

  1. Great article mate. Great seeing you for a meal and beer in Double Bay last week, too. Make sure you stay in touch, ok?

  2. And Jacinko appreciate that industry has a lot more firepower, particularly when it comes to engineering solutions that, for example, turn discoveries in chemistry into drugs we can all use, but I can sure you academics still do plenty of useful work! (Admittedly some focus on rather obscure fields..but that’s kind of the point)

  3. Regarding financial incentives, it still be peer reviewed, and probably by high quality researchers who, like all of us, do better work when they’re paid and appreciated. The difficulty in replication is more of a general issue for science common to any publishing model.

    This is specifically a suggestion to direct publishing revenues towards those actually doing the work, and in doing so encourage more people to enter and stay in the field.

    Naturally there would be politics and controversies that accompany people everywhere, but probably no more or less than is the case now. Also, since you are paying reviewers, you can select to keep it impartial, rather than using whoever in the field you can find to actually do it.

    Elsevier themselves give quite a bit of data – I’ll look into it and post in the comments..

    1. I wonder how much dollar a “high quality researcher” would want for this service, to be a reviewer I mean. I’m just playing devils advocate here and don’t want to be the buzzkill, but can you imagine being able to sway all those grey haired profs we love (and some we hate) to change their ways? Move from what they are used to…getting a Nature paper….to something other than that? And how much money are you going to be able to offer the scientists who submit to publish? I know everything gotta start somewhere and you being a finance guy might have a better handle on that kinda economics stuff, but seems like the incentive would have to be substantial (but then what ‘justifies’ such a reward, and how is that sustainable?). Also as a business, where does the money keep coming in to feed the machine? Seems like you’re going to be offering money to authors and money to reviewers….where is the return? Don’t get me wrong…having lived the life of a poor post doc I know what a disincentive that can be for staying in science, but it’s not the only one (e.g. the paucity of faculty jobs). If you’re angry at Elsevier fine, that’s okay, I get the point. PLOS I think is doing a pretty reasonable job even though you seem to be a little dismissive. I’ve never really read much about the business model behind PLOS so I’ll take a look as it may offer something.

    2. Agree swaying grey haired profs would take a little time – certainly years – but at least you have hard cash to offer, rather than ‘please submit to my new journal that noone’s heard of’.

      Maybe I was too submissive of open efforts by PLOS – that’s certainly a great project. But I really think the issue is more that valuable work is being given away for free, and open source doesn’t change that, and will struggle to attract Nature/Science quality research.

      In terms of funding, initially you would have to guarantee payments for (say) the first year. This would mean raising those funds. It would make sense to keep it a profitable enterprise, rather than not, as this would allow you to raise the equity funding to make it happen.

      It’s like the whole open source movement. It’s great, and should be encouraged wherever possible, but it will always be limited by the lack of commerciality, and the impossibility of raising equity finance. Linux distributions will never have enough money for research, marketing and development as, say, Google can throw at android, Apple can throw at mac os or Microsoft at Windows. And while Linux was superior for decades (certainly compared to microsoft) that lack of profit motive meant it was fringe and meant your standard computer user hasn’t even heard of it.

      All the funds would come from subscriptions (at fraction of elsevier’s prices) and once real science started to be done institutions would be obliged to subscribe.

      I would suggest that your grey haired prof would FAR prefer an article in Nature to PLOS. Give him a 50k cheque, however, and he may just be more inclined to try the new journal.

    1. Oftentimes, the same data that is used in a paper is used in a patent, they aren’t necessarily dissociated. The best scientists do both.

  4. What happens though when researchers have a financial incentive to publish? Don’t you think that will tilt the balance of publishing ‘true’ unbiased results? This can be a problem as things currently stand, with unreproducible data being published all the time. One venture capital who funds life science company has noted that his fund will always doubt anything coming out of an academic lab even if it’s got hot Nature/Science/Cell etc publication. They want to see the data replicated independently before considering it ‘validated’. I dunno…I just see a lot of research coming out in my own field that I never see replicated or can’t replicate myself. There’s a guy at Stanford (who’s name escapes me now) who has written about this, Google should help you find out more about him. I’m also curious about who is paying for these services (i.e. journal subscriptions) at the moment, university libraries? Why do they do so and is there anything that can be learned from who Elservier’s customers are?

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