Chrysopoeia

Science was once an insular sport. Scientists were viewed as eccentrics, possibly madmen, who performed all sorts of bizarre experiments, paced the countryside observing its flora, fauna, or geology, collected specimens, and scribbled furiously in notebooks.

Many of those laboratory trials were in fact rather strange, right back to the days of the alchemists and the philosopher’s stone. The attraction of mercury, due to its odd properties, probably concealed its deadly nature. A good many scientists of that era probably went slowly crazy due to mercury’s effects on the central nervous system, which may have compounded the oddity of their experimental protocols.

Before the XIXth century, researchers in different European nations were mostly unaware of each others’ work. It must have been a moment of great excitement when any of them found a kindred spirit—these were men driven by ideas, for whom the very notion of an intellectual battle was high jinx.

Scientists throughout the world continue to treasure intellectual jousting, but the discussion of concepts, methods, and results is played on two altogether different stages—conferences and academic journals.

The oldest ‘science club’ in the world is the U.K.’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. There, the most eminent thinkers met and discussed their theoretical and practical research. Other societies were created in France, Germany, and elsewhere, and discussions began to flourish—a legendary exchange took place in Oxford in 1860, when Bishop Wilberforce asked T.H. Huxley whether it was ”through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.’

Huxley, in his defense of Darwinism, replied:

I would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

The step from the spoken to the written word began when members began writing letters to their society’s president—these letters were the precursors of today’s journal articles.

It became standard practice to send such letters out for comment to a Fellow’s peers—in other words, this was the start of the scientific peer review process. In time, the approved letters turned into publications—today’s academic journals. The entire process of peer review was considered an obligation for scientists and academics throughout the world—a duty to be performed free of charge.

What has changed is the nature of the organizations that publish scientific papers. Throughout the XXth century, scientific societies mushroomed, with each subject area creating its own association, often country by country—and as different academic institutions began requiring that their staff publish journal papers in order to demonstrate their scientific capacity, science publication became big business.

With the advent of digital journals, the field boomed. No longer was it necessary to build, staff, and maintain huge, ivy-walled libraries, the ex-libris of Harvard, Oxford, or Bologna—the only requirement was a server farm. And along with the reduction in production costs came consolidation.

Nature and Science are the truly elite journals, but a huge set of upper- and mid-level journals are in the hands of a small group of publishers: the Dutch giant Elsevier—itself a child of behemoth Reed-Elsevier, the German colossus Springer, and a few others.

But one thing did not change—the free work that academics perform for the editorial conglomerates. This is now a system that can be safely qualified as abusive—no longer is this a set of dedicated intellectuals working on all four sides, i.e. writing, reviewing, publishing, and reading, but a money-making behemoth exploiting the good will of the academic community.

ScienceDirect, the flagship Elsevier website, contains a mere 12.5 million papers, from three thousand five hundred academic journals, along with thirty-four thousand e-books.

Each year, Elsevier publishes two hundred and fifty thousand articles, and interestingly, ‘a small minority‘ are apparently fake. One comment on the ‘minority’ states that for a scientist, that might be one percent, which suggests that out of the total repository, perhaps one hundred twenty-five thousand papers are fake news—even more interesting is one of the ways this deception is performed—since journal editors ask would-be authors for suggestions of reviewer names, some authors provide fake email addresses for their lists.

Since each one of these 250,000 articles is typically reviewed for free by three scientists, and probably takes about three hours to review, we are talking about two million person-hours per year. At about thirty dollars an hour, that’s a saving of sixty million bucks a year—multiply that by four or five majors, and we’re talking well over two hundred and fifty million bucks saved.

Maybe that’s chrysopoeia, the philosopher’s stone—turning quicksilver intellect into solid gold cash.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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