Update – Publish AND perish: how the commodification of scientific publishing is undermining both science and the public good

(since this post appeared 10 days ago it has been updated a few times which is why I am re-posting it)

Key messages

“Everybody is writing, nobody is reading, everybody is writing for nobody.”

  • Academics are spending hundreds of hours a year, getting their work published, in peer-reviewed journals, providing free labor to commercial publishing companies.
  • The pressure to ‘produce’ and grow is huge, both in academia and in the publishing industry; this undermines quality and the university’s ability to serve the public good and, indeed, public trust in science.
  • Open access journal Sustainability publishes over 4000 contributions in its current Volume 10 – where most contributors will have to pay 1400 US Dollars* to have their work published. Its publisher MDPI has close to 200 journals working in a similar vein.’
  • Sustainability has 561 associate-editors from mostly public universities all working for free for the journal.
  • Of all industries, the publishing industry has the highest profit margin according to a recent article in the New Scientist.
  • A transition in science is needed to restore quality, trust and a culture of co-learning, peer-to-peer feedback and dialogue, and to unlock the the power of science in creating  more sustainable world.

* Sustainability just announced that the fee for having an article published in 2019 has been raised to 1700 US dollars…


Let me apologise first, for this post has turned into a bit of a rant but I had to get if off my chest. Here we go:

The open-access journal Sustainability (IF 2,025) just published Volume 10, issue 11 which contains 508 papers of which – with some, often, negotiated exceptions – the authors, provided their labor free (that is, usually sponsored by public money to cover their salaries) will have paid its publisher MDPI 1400 Swiss Francs (about 1400 US Dollar) per paper. I looked into this after being invited by the journal to edit a special issue a few weeks ago. Below I share what I found out.


Dear Prof Wals,

We invite you to join us as Guest Editor for the open access journal Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050), to establish a Special Issue. Our suggested topic is ‘Higher Education and Education for Sustainable Development’. You have been invited based on your strong publication record in this area, and we hope to work with you to establish a collection of papers that will be of interest to scholars in the field.


I have published in Sustainability (Impact Factor: 2,025) before and am currently also involved in co-editing a Special Issue for the same publisher, MDPI, but for another one of their journals called Water (Impact Factor: 2,069), so my initial response was positive. The invitation seemed serious and the journal seems reputable. It was not one of those almost daily invitations from a bogus journal that usually starts with: “Greetings!! We read your paper on social learning and believe you could make and excellent contribution to our forthcoming issue in Preventative Cardiological Medicine” (usually a journal on a topic I know nothing about) and ends with something like: “I hope you have good days ahead”. No, this one was serious and caught my interest.

I responded by saying that I found the proposed topic a bit outdated – there is a lot available and being done in the area of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (in fact there is an entire journal on the subject that’s been around for more than 20 years) but that I would like to focus on the role of higher education in sustainability transitions. The assistant-editor responded immediately that that would be fine and she sent me the template to fill out. I drafted a text for a Call for Papers with input from two colleagues and asked her if the text was fine. Instead of getting a reply I received a link to the Special Issue Announcement (will be removed shortly by MDPI at our request).

“Wow, that went really fast,” I thought. Then, just days later, I received an invitation from another colleague working in more or less the same field:

“We write to invite submissions of papers to a Special Issue of the Sustainability Journal focusing on “Innovation, Higher Education and Sustainable Futures” which we are editing. We think that the work you are doing in this area would make an excellent contribution to this journal.”

I was very surprised: basically, our SI would be competing with that of my colleagues which is on more on less the same topic! Why did the editors not check for overlap or connect us? I then decided to have a look at the journal’s special issue website and was shocked to find that at the moment “Sustainability” has planned about 200 (!) Special Issues  for the year 2019 have a look here….

Let’s think about this. Sustainability publishes 12 issues per Volume and integrates these ‘special issues’ in one of those issues. On average each issue will have 10 articles normally, I figured naively, based on old times when publishers would actually print journals, but then I started thinking: how can they cram in all these special issue articles in the 12 issues of a volume? This became clear yesterday when I received an advertisement from MDPI announcing its ‘release’ of Sustainability’s Volume 10, Issue 11 titled: Historic Rural Landscapes: Sustainable Planning Strategies and Action Criteria. The Italian Experience in the Global and European Context.

In the email the table of contents was embedded and I started scrolling down to read some of the titles. Then something odd seemed to be happening, there was no end to the list of papers; I kept on scrolling and scrolling… How many papers are in one volume I wondered… well 508!  Feel free to check this here.

So, I then checked Issue 10: 468 articles…, Issue 9:  401 articles, and noted that with every new issue the number of published papers tends to go up. On average the journal has published just over 380 articles per issue this year which will result in about 4560 articles. Now for some of the editorial papers and for some other papers, authors will get their open access fee waived. Let us assume that about 10% of all papers will have the fee of 1400 US Dollar waived. The total revenue for 2018 for this MDPI journal would be 1400 x 4100 = 5.740.000 US Dollar.

Now, figure this, MDPI publishes more than two-hundred journals varying from the Journal of Acoustics to the Journal of World Electric Vehicles, all using more or less the same business model. Here is a list of MDPI-s journals And let us not forget the other big publishers like Taylor & Francis/Routledge, Elsevier, Springer, etc. who use the same or a similar model.

Now, to be fair, I must say that scrolling down the ToC of Vol. 10 (11), I saw many intriguing titles and some very inspiring and high-quality authors: there is some good work out there and indeed it is open access – that’s what the 1400 US pays for after all… But all the journal needs to do is to invite lots of Special Issue editors (when telling this story to colleagues at an international conference, it seemed that everybody there had been asked recently to do a SI…), have a good manuscript management system with a big reviewer database and have a good website where papers can be easily downloaded, plus they need mechanisms to make sure that the impact factor of the journal goes up (that’s another blog post…). They don’t need to print anything anymore, neither do they need to do any graphic design work as nowadays people submitting need to do that themselves in accordance the journal’s instructions.

The job of the assisting editor is really one of acquisition editor: soliciting special issues and making academics responsible for gathering content, reviewing content, editing content, citing content, all for free! I would not be surprised if journals and editors receive bonuses based on growth in revenue. The whole industry is driven by targets, growth and expansion. This leads to a lot of pressure on everybody involved which undermines scientific quality. See below an example of this: “An Aberdeen University researcher resigned from a prestigious international journal after claiming she was put under pressure to do “mediocre” work.” Aberdeen researcher washes her hands off of overbearing publisher(excerpt below)


To return to the journal Sustainability… since the first version of this post appeared there has been a lot of activity on twitter with lots of comments, including the one below.


Sadly our ‘business’ of academia has been contaminated by the same modus operandi: an increase in the production of papers and number of citations and the growth of one’s ‘h-factor’ (see an older post about this here), is driving much of what we do today. Quantity over quality. Who has time to review, to read with intend and concentration, to organise a seminar or a debate? All activities for which no brownie points can be earned but essential for scientific quality.

Academics trying to stay on top of their game or trying to climb the tenure track ladder, are frantically trying to get their work published, all working for free for the private sector, paid for by, often, public money, then having to pay the journal to make the publicly funded research accessible for ‘free’ to the public. This leads to absurd performances: I know of colleagues, some with whom I have co-authored papers, who average one scientific peer-reviewed article per week, per week

As suggested already, all this also has implications for the quality of the work of course: as people only get rewarded for their production (published papers) and not for their contributions to assuring quality (e.g. reviewing and critical reading), the quality of the review process goes down rapidly as both the people working for the publishing industry and the academic industry need to achieve their targets and show growth to remain competitive and to climb the rankings.

There is a huge unsettling paradox in contemporary academia where everybody is writing while nobody seems to be reading, really, which means that everybody is writing for nobody. This also makes me wonder: what does it mean to be cited? In the meantime, all that time we spend behind a screen making letters flow from our brains, through our hands to a computer screen, is sponsored mostly by public money, which we then move to the publishing industry, where the top management and the shareholders are all anticipating the next quarterly earnings report, good salaries and bonuses, and good returns on investments.

HERE is a trivia question for you: what is the most profitable business in the world? You might think oil, or maybe banking. You would be wrong. The answer is academic publishing. Its profit margins are vast, reportedly in the region of 40 per cent. (Source: The New Scientist)


Needless to say, this is a system that will run itself into the ground eventually. Science for impact factors in journals will need to transition towards science for impact in society. This will require that the world of higher education and academia becomes more autonomous and independent from globalising neo-liberal forces that undermine academic quality and integrity. Fortunately there are counter-movements in science seeking to disrupt this tragically resilient system such as the science-in-transition movement, the global alliance for community-engaged research  and the living knowledge network (send me more examples if know of nay, I will add them here). Furthermore, mainstream universities are beginning to recognise the problem and are beginning to emphasise the importance of healthy working environments, societal impact, citizen science and knowledge co-creation. More on this in another blog post.

p.s. you may also find the Beall’s list of predatory journals and publishers an interesting resource to help you check whether a journal or publisher you are considering is legitimate (also read the cautionary note stating that this is a rather dynamic and fluid world where a list like this one needs constant updating)


Environmental and sustainability education in the Benelux countries: research, policy and practices at the intersection of education and societal transformation

The journal Environmental Education Research recently published its third regional special issue covering trends and research in environmental and sustainability education in the BeNeLux countries. Together with Katrien van Poeck (UofGhent, Belgium) and Katrien van Poeck (UofLuxembourg, Luxembourg, I was a co-editor. Earlier regional special issues focussed on the Nordic countries (Scandinavia) and on Germany. Here you find a link to the introductory paper we wrote: BeNeLux Special Issue and here is a link to the Special Issue itself: Routledge Link to SI

Below some more information.


Table of Contents




Irish Radio Podcast – Sustainability and Disruption in Education

IrishRadioThank you Seán Delaney for giving me the opportunity to share some ideas about ‘off-the-grid’ education that can become relevant, responsive, responsible, re-imaginative and reflexive in light of urgent globals challenges. Here you find the link to the interview Seán held with me last August. Podcast Sustainability Education in Times of Systemic Global Dysfunction Below a description!


Duurzaam voortgezet onderwijs – special in “Van twaalf tot achttien”


This post is a rare post in Dutch!

Onlangs verscheen een speciaal nummer uit in “Van twaalf to achttien” – een van de oudste onderwijsbladen voor het voortgezet onderwijs – met daarin fraaie praktijkbeschrijvingen en vergezichten van de wijze waarop onderwijs leerlingen actief, betekenisvol en hoopvol kan betrekken bij lokale en mondiale duurzaamheidsvraagstukken. Het is een fraai vormgegeven nummer dat niet alleen inspireert maar waarin ook concrete adviezen staan. Ik hoop dat het ook digitaal beschikbaar komt binnenkort. Frans Ottenhof interviewde mij over mijn visie op duurzaam onderwijs. Ik heb een scan gemaakt van het resultaat – (zie onderaan deze post!)


Hier is het hele interview te lezen! InterviewDuurzaamOnderwijsSpecial_2018

Act Now for Environmental Education – A renewed global pledge for strengthening education and learning for a more sustainable world

GlobalActionThe Global Environmental Education Partnership (website) has created a pledge for reinvigorating Environmental Education world-wide in light of urgent sustainability challenges. In the pledge the global environmental education community is asked to work toward three visionary goals:

Every nation has an environmentally informed, empowered, and active populace and         
The leadership of every government, business, NGO, and educational institution uses
    environmental education to achieve environmentally sustainable outcomes.
Every educational institution incorporates environmental literacy into its mission, goals,
   and activities.
A tall order? Yes. But goals should be tall to keep them in sight as we advance step-by-incremental-step towards attaining them.

pledge letter  can be found here. By signing it you are endorsing these long-term goals and committing to do your part to achieve them. This website highlights 10 suggested areas for action. Hundreds of educators around the world have vetted these actions and helped outline key areas of focus for the field. Over time, GEEP will provide resources and support, including ongoing campaigns and activities, to help inspire action to move our collective agenda forward. By signing the pledge, you can stay connected to this global network.

Groundbreaking Network ENSI hands over the baton with a great collection to accelerate sustainability in schools


Last week a wonderful collection of contributions recognizing the work of the Environment and School Initiatives network (ENSI) became available as a free online open-access pdf. In 32 chapters people who have played a role in the network reflect on history, trends and prospects of education engaging with sustainable development in a meaningful way. Below a part of the introduction by one of the editors and driver of ENSI Christine Affolter. Here you find the link to the book.ENSI Final Book

ENSI – 30 Yearof Engagement for Educatioand School Development

by Christine Affolter

ENSI has been an independent, self-managed network of experts drawn from the fields of Environmental Education (EE) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and financed by member countries and individual members. During the life time of the organisation ENSI often anticipated upcoming themes and new demands and through analyses, reflection, and participative debates drew up an annual working programme to meet these needs.

Often ENSI was the forerunner of themes and developments and as a result its work had a significant impact on schools in Europe, Asia and Australia through curriculum development, teacher education, and quality indicators. But having the favourable status of a self-managed network also involved a permanent challenge to find appropriate financing and over three decades ENSI had to find a balance between the professional quality of its work and the available funding resources.

Thanks to the commitment of the ENSI experts the network gained a high international reputation. Initially ENSI was founded by OECD/CERI in 1986 and aimed to respond to two related triggers (Elliott, 2018):

The increasing pressure from ‘grassroot-groups’ concerned about the impact of economically driven developments on the environment that were asking for school programmes to support students and teachers in the development of new competences such as critical thinking, dealing with complexity, and reflectivity.

Governments and schools that had to deal with the educational implications of the increasing social complexity resulting from rapid economic and social change. Schools needed to find answers in their local environment realising that centralized curricula couldn’t completely fulfil the needs of the local communities.

The chapter I wrote (see below) can be found here: Wals_Lessons_from_the_ENSI_Network-split-merge (1).



Socio-Psychological Perspectives on the Potential for Serious Games to Promote Transcendental Values in IWRM Decision-Making – new review paper



I was fortunate to be part of a comprehensive review paper identifying design principles for serious games that seek to move participants beyond improving their understanding of complex water management issues to also include discussions on values and ethics which are often forgotten or, worse, ignored in such games. Much applies also to the use and design of serious gaming in other sustainability related challenges. Special thanks to Diana Marini and Wietske Medema for initiating this paper and doing the bulk of the hard work to realise it. The article is part of a Special Issue in Water called Understanding Game-based Approaches for Improving Sustainable Water Governance: The Potential of Serious Games to Solve Water Problems which I am co-editing with some of the authors of this paper (led by Wietske Medema). Here is a link to that emerging SI: Gaming and Water Governance

Keywords: serious games (SGs); water management; value change; transcendental values; social equity; sustainability; Schwartz’s Value Survey (SVS); Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM); psychosocial perspectives; decision-making processes

Abstract: Modern day challenges of water resource management involve difficult decision-making in the face of increasing complexity and uncertainty. However, even if all decision-makers possessed perfect knowledge, water management decisions ultimately involve competing values, which will only get more prominent with increasing scarcity and competition over resources. Therefore, an important normative goal for water management is long-term cooperation between stakeholders.

According to the principles of integrated water resource management (IWRM), this necessitates that managerial decisions support social equity and intergenerational equity (social equity that spans generations). The purpose of this discussion is to formulate preliminary recommendations for the design of serious games (SGs), a potential learning tool that may give rise to shared values and engage stakeholders with conflicting interests to cooperate towards a common goal. Specifically, this discussion explores whether SGs could promote values that transcend self-interest (transcendental values), based on the contributions of social psychology.

The discussion is organized in the following way. First, an introduction is provided as to why understanding values from psychological perspectives is both important for water management and a potential avenue for learning in SGs. Second, a review of the description of values and mechanisms of value change from the field of social psychology is presented.

This review highlights key psychological constraints to learning or applying values. Based on this review, recommendations are made for SGs designers to consider when developing games for water management, in order to promote transcendental values.

Overall, the main conclusions from exploring the potential of value change for IWRM through SGs design are as follows: 1-SGs design needs to consider how all values change systematically; 2-SGs design should incorporate the many value conflicts that are faced in real life water management, 3-SGs could potentially promote learning by having players reflect on the reasoning behind value priorities across water management situations, and 4-value change ought to be tested in an iterative SGs design process using the Schwartz’s Value Survey (SVS) (or something akin to it). Keywords: serious games (SGs); water management; value change; transcendental values; social equity; sustainability; Schwartz’s Value Survey (SVS); Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM); psychosocial perspectives; decision-making processes

You can find a copy of the paper here for your own use: Personal PDF but you can of course also get the paper at MDPI’s website for the journal WATER here: Link to the paper on MDPI’s Water Website