Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? appeared last week in The Guardian. Much of it tells the story of British tycoon Robert Maxwell and his role in creating an industry that surprisingly rivals Google’s profit margins. But first, author Stephen Buranyi uses the example of Elsevier to bring home the point that despite its narrow audience, scientific publishing has become “a remarkably big business.” In his account, “scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs” usually associated with traditional publishers. Mr. Buranyi offers a succinct description of how scientific articles are produced, peer reviewed and published. It’s a process that he critically likens to magazines like the New Yorker or the Economist demanding “that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill.” He also discussed how this has impacted scientists and their work noting that “according to critics, the journal system actually holds back scientific progress.” However, Mr. Buranyi concludes that scientific publishing with its significant profit margins is here to stay and the reasons he gives make fascinating reading.
But, all of this serves as a introduction to the additional focus of the article: the “transformative and ingenious … Robert Maxwell, who turned scientific journals into a spectacular money-making machine that bankrolled his rise in British society.” Mr. Buranyi covers Maxwell’s remarkable, and sometimes scandalous, career in which Maxwell “would go on to become an MP, a press baron who challenged Rupert Murdoch, and one of the most notorious figures in British life.” But Mr. Buranyi also argues “few people in the last century have done more to shape the way science is conducted today than Maxwell.” His impact on our industry is undeniable and as this article makes clear his influence is still being felt today.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Buranyi’s analysis, his article is thought provoking, challenging and informed. It also offers a historical perspective of which many may be unaware. It’s a fairly long article but it’s well worth the time an effort.