Journals have been the principal means of broadcasting science since the 17th century. Scientists publish their original research in scientific journals, which are fundamentally different from news magazines.
Within a scientific article, scientists present their research questions, the methods by which the question was approached, and the results they achieved using those methods. They present their analysis of the data and describe some of the interpretations and implications of their work. They must undergo a professional publishing review, in which other scientists (the professional peers of the authors) evaluate the quality and merit of research before recommending whether or not it should be published. This is a much lengthier and more rigorous publishing and distribution process in the STM publishing industry than the editing and fact-checking that goes on at news organizations.
The reason for this thorough evaluation by peers is that a scientific article is more than a snapshot of what is going on at a certain time in a scientist’s research. When published, each article expands the library of scientific literature available to all scientists and contributes to the overall knowledge base of the discipline of science.
The way to make money from a scientific journal publishing looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to drop most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to STM publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.
According to critics, the journal system actually holds back scientific progress. In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.
Many scientists also believe that the publishing trends exerts too much influence over what scientists choose to study, which is ultimately bad for science itself. Journals prize new and spectacular results – after all, they are in the business of selling subscriptions – and scientists, knowing exactly what kind of work gets published, align their submissions accordingly.
All STM/Scholarly journals play a critical role in the advancement of science and distribution of information. Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. Sensible reforms could change this system, ensuring that researchers’ results are made public more quickly and without any compromise on quality.