The price tag of publishing presents a tricky research barrier
The H-index is a metric that measures the impact of publications by keeping track of how many times a publication is cited by other authors. Is it time to reevaluate this metric? What does the H-index cost? Is a revolution needed in scientific publishing?
The Higher Council of Scientific Research of Spain recently published a list of the 5000 most important female Spanish scientists ranked according to the H-index.1
The Instituto Universitario de Oftalmobiología Aplicada (IOBA) of the University of Valladolid, Valladolid, Spain, has five female researchers on this list, and of course we are delighted because we are a small group compared to others from around the world.
The H-index, proposed by Jorge Hirsch, PhD, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, in 2005, was intended to measure the professional quality of physicists, based on the number of citations their articles received.2 It is calculated by ordering them from highest to lowest according to the number of citations received, ie, the H-index is the number in which the order number coincides with the number of citations.
The so-called H-index has become an icon for many organisations and many wield it as an absolute index of quality. However, I have serious reservation that this statement is not always true. I think it is an index of the researcher’s role and the interest of his/her topic as a reference in a particular subject. The narrower the scientific field, the lower the index, regardless of the quality of the published work.
In addition, the H-index is also part of a business machinery that is questioned by many researchers.
In this context, let’s reflect on the cost of the phenomenal business of many scientific journals that bombard us with emails in which, having been “dazzled” by one of our publications on the toxicity of per-fluorocarbons liquids (one of my fields of expertise), they ask me to submit a paper for the journal “Plants and Nutrition,” and offer me a position on their Editorial Board and generous discounts.
Many readers know what I am talking about. For junior researchers, the history of scientific publications usually starts with their doctoral thesis. At least in Spain, young researchers have to have an indexed publication to be able to present their thesis and earn the PhD degree, and that’s when the problem starts. What was designed to improve the quality of theses has become a headache for doctoral students and mentors.
Of course, after a few years of working on a reasonable project, almost any PhD student is capable of writing something interesting. But the European regulations require that the work was previously accepted, and this is where the problems start. A PhD candidate writes the paper and must pay for the services of a certified
English editor to avoid rejection. In some journals, it seems that reviewers already have prewritten the phrase that “the English should be improved” (no problem).
Next, the candidate faces the decision about the journal and publishing system to choose. This is not a trivial issue. If they send it to Ophthalmology, the charge is €3,500; that for Nature is €10,000 (assuming they accept the paper).
The second big question involves deciding whether to publish in an open-access journal. Many “normal” journals can take 6 or more months to reply and often reject the work. The PhD student is in a hurry to publish and present his/her thesis.
The open-access journals have identified a golden vein. They are much more expensive, but they take a little less time to evaluate the paper, and that is where the pressure begins for the PhD student and the mentor: the publication has to be paid for. And the big scientific question arises: Where do we charge the bill? Because one of the countless advantages of belonging to the European Union is not administrative simplification. If these expenses were not contemplated in the project application of a publicly funded project, they are “ineligible,” a very popular word among researchers that means that you cannot “scrape” anything out of them.
To mitigate the problem, in Europe, some public universities have reached agreements with some publishers to reduce or eliminate publishing costs, but only for members of those public entities.
This situation is compounded by other problems. One, already mentioned, is the proliferation of non-indexed journals, which bombard researchers with requests to send them papers and offer very favorable economic conditions. However, a researcher-teacher wants to publish in an indexed journal, with a high impact index, and if possible, in the first quartile (Q1).
Moreover, for certain scientific regulatory agencies establishing groups of excellence, for receiving funding, at least 65% of the publications of the member of the group must be in Q1. In other words, if a member of the group publishes in Q2 or Q3, the percentage drops.
The other effect is that low-level journals (so-called “predatory journals”) ask researchers to review papers all day long. A big problem is the lack of peer reviewers. In a week, two groups of our university have had the same problem. After months of waiting for Q1 journals, editors informed us that they cannot find “appropriate” evaluators.
And here yet another question arises. Since journals are now paid, how is the reviewer paid? This work is complex and demanding. If the reviewer accepts, the journal’s computer systems send frequent reminders that the deadline is approaching and may be missed. That could influence the quality of evaluations that have been fundamental to improve scientific production.
The reward is nothing, a certificate, or a small discount if you want to publish, naturally in their journal. The result is as expected: When a paper is submitted, the journal may take 8 or 9 months to respond to the authors, and then inform the authors if they have suitable reviewers. In addition, more and more scientists are refusing to be evaluators. These issues run deep and solutions should be adopted in partnership.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The IOBA publishes about 40 publications a year. We invest in this issue because we are evaluated every 5 years by the Regional Agency for University Quality. One of the parameters they use is the H-index and publications in Q1.
At an average of €3,000 per publication, we spend the equivalent of four or five pre-doctoral contracts on publishing alone. But it is obvious that not publishing, for us, is not an option. One of our researchers has an H-index of 45, achieved thanks to 200 publications, so her index has cost more than €650,000 (figures corrected to 2023). That’s about €15,000 per point. Of course, research is expensive. However, not getting involved in these dynamics gets the researcher automatically
expelled from the university system. Expulsion results in the researcher not having scientific recognition for 6-year periods of productivity, not being able join commissions of selecting professors and not being able to supervise theses, and many other “calamities” that are unacceptable for a researcher. But the situation is already unsustainable, especially for groups that are just starting out. Editors and scientists should rethink these standards and explore new approaches to evaluating impact on research.
Jose Carlos Pastor, MD | E: email@example.com
Dr Pastor is emeritus professor of ophthalmology, IOBA (Eye Institute), University of Valladolid, Valladolid, Spain. He has no financial interest in this subject matter.