Banned from commenting at Nature AGAIN.

April 3, 2013

Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.

SERIOUSLY, NATURE PUBLISHING GROUP. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering — nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.

It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.

Sort it out.

For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:

My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.

If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.

Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.

And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.

If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.

Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.

If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.

Thanks for listening.

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5 Responses to “Banned from commenting at Nature AGAIN.”

  1. Richard Van Noorden (@Richvn) Says:

    Thanks again for writing a blog about this Mike, and apologies again. I have asked the IT team here at NPG and I’ve been told that we are switching to new commenting software soon. Meanwhile your comment has been retrieved, you’re unbanned, and I hope this doesn’t happen again.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Richard.

    It won’t happen again, because I won’t be commenting on Nature articles again until the new system is implemented. Please let me know when that is. Until then, I simply can’t afford to keep spend an hour every time I want to contribute to your discussion.

    On 3 April 2013 10:10, Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

  3. Richard Van Noorden (@Richvn) Says:

    Will do. And here’s my reply to your comment:

    ‘Re ‘…a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions’. I looked for this too, and according to Outsell reports, the proportion for the industry as a whole (not for the Big Four), seems to be just under two-thirds. That’s from a recent (proprietary) 2013 report, which the Economist used in its recent article on NPG buying Frontiers [ http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/02/scientific-publishing ]. You’ll see in the sixth paragraph they refer to subscriptions making around $6 billion for publishers in 2011, which is about two-thirds of $9.4 billion in total revenues. One problem with this figure is that I don’t think it includes income from indirect subscriptions such as membership schemes.

    Another (slightly conflicting) data-point comes from the STM 2012 publishing report, which quotes a 2008 RIN report and says: ‘Journals publishing revenues are generated primarily from academic library subscriptions (68-75% of the total revenue), followed by corporate subscriptions (15-17%), advertising (4%), membership fees and personal subscriptions (3%), and various author-side payments (3%)’. [page 19 of http://www.stm-assoc.org/2012_12_11_STM_Report_2012.pdf ; note that the balance might have changed since 2008 with the relative rise of OA journals].’

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Richard, that is extremely informative. I guess the moral here is that if you want information, ask a journalist, not the actual company you want information about.

    As for the balance of income changing with the rise of OA: it would be great to see numbers on this but my sense is that the great bulk of OA growth is in new OA-only journals rather than hybrid-OA options of existing subscription journals. Certainly in 2010 Elsevier published 691 sponsored articles. Sadly the page saying this is no longer on their site, but it used to say:

    Because the uptake of sponsored articles since 2006 has been very low it has not had a discernible impact on Elsevier’s journal subscription list prices. 691 Elsevier articles across some six hundred journals were sponsored in 2010. Sponsorship revenues from these articles amounted to less than 0.1% of Elsevier’s total revenues.

    I’d love to see more up-to-date figures, but (all together now!) they are hard, maybe impossible to find.


  5. […] we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see them. Here is one that has […]


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