The public subsidy of scientific publishing monopolies

There is an increasing recognition that the world of academic science production is going off track.  Richard Horton, the editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, wrote earlier this year:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.

The issue is not a new one, and one often cited reference claims that statistical and methodological biases result in a daunting fact: “most published research findings are false”. For those that are true, it is still an open question to know how many are useful. 

The consequences of science going wrong, are serious. For example, in biomedical science, George Poste noted the discrepancy between

more than 1500000 papers documenting thousands of claimed biomarkers, but fewer than 100 have been validated for routine clinical practice.

Very often the response to these concerns are efforts to make science more reproducible, and reduce biases. These are worthy, useful, and correct efforts. They are also largely downstream of root causes and deeper factors. The larger problem is an institutional and structural one related to how we organize, produce and reward science. The issue is multifaceted, and here I want to point out a single one of these structural factors: the business of academic publishing.

Most scientific research in academic institutions is funded by public money, yet universities subscribe to academic publishers to be able to download or read the reports of research. The public is thus compelled not only to subsidise research, but also the business around it. I submitted Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests to some of the major UK universities to find how much they spend paying to academic publishers in 2014. Oxford, Imperial College London, and Cambridge’s four top expenses are presented below

foi

Elsevier for example, gets about a million pound per year per University. And that’s three UK universities alone. Other FOI requests, revealed that KCL and UCL spend each, per year, more than 3.3 million pounds in academic publishers. Multiply that by all major European universities and you get a sense of how much money the European public is paying to publishers for them to supply universities with what the public already paid to produce.

The business is a profitable one – for a wealthy few. Researchers at the University of Montreal called it “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers“. As part of their larger work, they collected data on the profit trends of Elsevier and the author’s figure is reproduced here.

journal.pone.0127502.g007

Operating profits, and profits margins for: (A) Reed-Elsevier as a whole; (B) its Scientific, Technical & Medical division.

The authors note that these profit margins put academic publishers

on a comparable level with Pfizer (42%), the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (29%) and far above Hyundai Motors (10%), which comprise the most profitable drug, bank and auto companies [..].

Part of the reason for these margins is that the producers (scientists) of the product (scientific knowledge) deliver their product to the publishers for free, only for it to be sold back to the wider community who cannot fight the oligopoly prices. In fact in our system of knowledge production and dissemination, the producers compete to have their publicly funded product accepted by the publishers, and we’ve made their careers depend on it.

There are many other structural factors that affect the way modern science production works. The public subsidy of private business based on mass production of “studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, […] pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance” is only one of such dynamics. Improving the way modern science is made needs to go beyond calls for reproducibility and transparency. It needs us to reorganize the way science is produced, evaluated, distributed, and funded. There is much to be changed.


The owner of this blog and writer of these words works at the frontier of academic science and translational medicine, for the British NHS and is has an honorary affiliation with Kings College London.

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The (continuing) humiliation of europeans – by their leaders. (part 2)

Regardless of what one thinks of the path of fiscal measures in the greek state, what is happening in the higher levels of european bureaucracy and state politics is a new low.

After EU ministers issued statements of Eurozne institutions without the consent of one its member states, and had meetings deliberately excluding one of its ministers, now EU government ministers as well as unelected officials are campaigning against a member state government position, by misrepresenting it, and are threatening the greek people with expulsion from eurozone institutions.

After the last round of negotiations, the Greek government, a coalition with a major party who got 36% of the vote,  decided to ask the Greek people to have the final word on the issue. The Greek people will be asked to either accept or reject the EU/ECB/IMF proposals and conditions for new loans. Outcries against the idea of asking the people, were swift.

The most insulting of the reactions (so far) came from the unelected president of the European Commission who urged the Greeks to vote yes because “[voting] No would mean that Greece is saying no to Europe”. Mr Juncker, the former prime minister of the  tax haven of Luxembourg, should be ashamed of himself and stop insulting other Europeans by suggesting that disagreeing with his prefered fiscal policy is somehow anti-european. Others might object and say that for unelected officials to issue threats to member states of the Union, is out of place.

Mr Juncker is not alone in what Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz called “Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy”. German, French, and Italian top officials publicly said that rejecting a negotiating proposal for a loan is equivalent to rejecting the Euro. There are no mechanisms for a country to leave the Euro – the threat therefore is quite an aggressive one. As the greek minister pointed out:

European Treaties make provisions for an exit from the EU. They do not make any provisions for an exit from the Eurozone. […]. To ask us to phrase the referendum question as a choice involving exit from the Eurozone is to ask us to violate EU Treaties and EU Law

The move of the european elites to threaten and bully the Greeks, is one of the most depressing moments in post-war  European Democracy. As the former advisor to the European Commission, and current senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics,  Philippe Legrain, points out:

the hijack of eurozone institutions by narrow-minded creditors is proving far more tyrannical than earlier currency crises ever were. The beautiful European ideal of peace, prosperity, and democracy has given way to brutal power politics.

The humiliation of europeans – by their leaders.

As a European, and a supporter of the European project of democratic collaboration and solidarity among peoples, I find it more than a little humiliating that European heads of government have made such a mess of the financial and economic crisis, that it is now the Americans who are entering the game and exerting pressure against the obvious danger of collapse.

The American secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew,  has now pointed out what is obvious to everyone: that Greece will never be able to pay its debt, and needs some form of relief.

The American President has gotten involved, calling the German chancellor, to try and avoid further collapse, and note that Greece needs reforms and growth. This is not the first time Mr Obama points out the obvious. He had previously said:

you cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression. At some point there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts and eliminate their deficits. […] when you have an economy  that is in a free fall there has to be a growth strategy and not simply an effort to squeeze more and more out of  population that is hurting worse and worse.

Larry Summers (former US Secretary of the Treasury) points out in the Financial Times:

Financial historians may look back at the events of next week and wonder how Europe’s financial unravelling was permitted.

They will wonder indeed. In their account, I have no doubt, will feature the observation that European heads of government lacked the strategic depth and vision that the Americans, as a global superpower, still have. It’s no coincidence that the Americans are the ones pointing out that Greece is a member of the European Union, a member of NATO, and it’s severing from Europe is major security risk.

What credibility does the European Union have with such a spectacle unfolding? Not even European Institutions are cohesive.  The recent behavior of the Eurogroup may be a sign of things to come: this group of Finance Ministers of the Eurozone, has decided to issue a statement without unanimity, and to have a meeting excluding one of its members (the greek finance minister). Any nation with a sense of honor and credibility would not take this humiliation lightly.

European citizens are already paying the long term costs of the egregious mismanagement the heads of government have inflicted on the EU. We have to hope that Larry Summers’ warning over financial unravelling does not turn into a political unraveling. The consequences then would be unpredictable.

Homes, not pictures.

London, as anyone who ever lived here knows, has a serious housing shortage problem. Not too far from where I live there are large developments of social housing. These are now to be demolished. There are panels around the protected area adorned with representations of famous paintings, but these have been the canvas for protest. Some examples from this morning:

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«From hell’s heart I stab at thee» – four selected quotes

Here are some of the most memorable quotes of my reading of Moby Dick:

 

Ishmael, the narrator, starts to describe how he became a whaler

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
 

 

Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of the ship, reflects on how he has got the crew on his side for his mission of hunting the white whale.

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.

 

 

Ahab tries to express his obsession with hunting the whale.

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall.

 
 

Perth, the blacksmith of the ship, a man who suffered great tragedy, is talking to Ahab. Ahab is surprised that he is not scorched; and surprised he’s not mad.

“look here, they burn; but thou—thou liv’st among them without a scorch.”
“Because I am scorched all over, Captain Ahab,” answered Perth, resting for a moment on his hammer; “I am past scorching; not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”
“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?”

 

How much are European countries doing to help shelter Syrian refugees?

An analysis of mine was published in The Conversation. You can read the original by following this link, or find it reproduced here below.


Close to four million refugees have fled from Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. This is the largest refugee population currently under the care of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

According to Amnesty International, around 3.8 million Syrians are being hosted by the nation’s most immediate neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Only 1.7% of them have been offered sanctuary by other countries, and Europe has a particularly patchy record in this respect. Using data from the CIA World Factbook and the UNHCR, I was able to crunch the numbers and get an understanding of who is pulling their weight, when it comes to taking in Syrian refugees.

Number of pledges offered by European countries

In the graph above, we can see that Germany has made by far the most pledges to shelter Syrian refugees, offering about 30,000 places. They can be proud of that, no other country is anywhere near that number. By reconfiguring the graph with a log scale – so that the smaller numbers take up more space – we can take a look at the pledges of other European countries in more detail.

Below, we can see that Hungary only offers around 25 places. Portugal and the UK offer less than 100 places each. Sweden offers about 2,500. We can also see that every country apart from Ireland and Finland have more applicants for asylum than places offered.

Number of pledges offered by European countries, alongside numbers of applicants, visualized with a log scale.

But these countries are all quite different. Surely it would not be reasonable to expect Portugal to offer the same number of places as Germany. One obvious explanation might be that countries with bigger populations offer more places.

But that is not actually the case – Germany still offers far more places than all the others, relative to their populations, while the UK and France, the next two most populous countries, fall far behind. In contrast, Sweden is quite small, yet it still offers the second largest number of places.

Number of places offered by country, relative to population (in millions of people)

But perhaps it’s a matter of wealth. One might expect countries with greater financial resources to offer more places. We can assess this by comparing each country’s gross domestic product (GDP) with the number of places it offers to refugees. But again, leaving Germany aside, there seems to be no relation between how much money a country has and how many refugees it is willing to take in. Richer countries are no more willing to help.

Number of places offered by country, excluding Germany, relative to GDP (in millions of US dollars). 

The final check – and in my opinion, the most interesting one – is to what extent there exists a relation between the number of pledges per capita, and GDP per capita. A country’s offer of places should be proportional both to its population and its amount of wealth per person. If a country is either poor or small, it can’t offer many places. And countries with more resources per person should, in theory, offer more places relative to their population.

Number of pledges in relation to population and wealth. 

This plot shows several interesting things. German people are very rich, and they offer far more places in relation to its population than all others. Sweden does quite well too. In the bottom left corner are some of the least wealthy countries of the EU: Hungary, Poland, and Portugal. As we might expect, these countries offer only a few places for Syrian refugees per million inhabitants. But apart from these predictable results, there is a very weak connection between the number of places offered to refugees and the GDP per capita.

In fact, think about the bottom right corner: these are countries with a high GDP per capita – in other words, with wealthy citizens – which are reluctant to offer places per inhabitant to Syrian refugees. Ireland is a complicated case, because its GDP is highly influenced by the companies that use it as a tax base, but whose money can easily flow out of the country.

France, the UK, Denmark, Belgium, and The Netherlands all stand out as being European countries which could afford to shelter more refugees of the Syrian conflict – if they wanted to. There are, of course, other ways to help and several reasons why a country might choose to close the door on Syrian refugees: concerns about terrorism could be one of them – yet this applies to Germany and Sweden as well. Domestic politics and approaching elections may weigh heavier on the hearts of decision makers than the struggles of refugees to whom the doors are shut. Whatever the reasons, these are the numbers. And they make you wonder.

« Are Welfare Programmes Just Keeping People Out of Work? »

Tax to GDP ratios in the past 100 have risen substantially. One of the reasons for this is that taxes are used to fund welfare programmes. But what if giving people this access to these programmes, makes some of them want to try scam the system? A “moral hazard” effect.

A lecture at the LSE looks into it:

Let me summarize the claims in the lecture: Does this, moral hazard effect, make a difference? Yes. What is the magnitude if these effects? Mostly small. But have a look at the lecture. It’s worth it.