Another take on Academic Publishing..
Here’s another take on the Academic Publication racket that I found through a trackback to one of my posts. It misses the point in a number of places, but is well worth a read.
Originally posted on The Dreaded Nat:
Following the Wellcome Trust’s announcement regarding their forthcoming open-access journal, eLife and proposed policy that the results of the research they fund will need to be freely available within 6 months of first publication, there has been quite an increase in coverage of the so-called ‘Academic Spring’, in recent weeks, mainly in The Guardian. Following Alok Jha’s unnecessarily long-winded summary, we had Stephen Curry making the case for open access; predictable hot air from the Government (and RCUK); an Editorial and letters; followed by a ’roundup’ (apparently an ironic attempt to highlight the repetition and duplication we’d already endured). The following week saw more letters; Science Blog articles by Mike Taylor and Peter Coles; and, just when we thought it was safe, a fresh re-hashing by John Naughton in The Observer. I do not intend to attempt a synthesis here: the core issues have been discussed in ample detail in the aforementioned articles (and numerous preceding ones). If you’re looking for more detailed discussion of the various issues surrounding the subject, from the scientist’s perspective, the SV-POW! blog is a much better source than The Grauniad. To see for yourself where it all started, read Tim Gowers’ original blog post. My intention here is merely to put the subject into context and to make one or two observations.
In the 1990s, when journal articles were still almost exclusively on paper, the internet was of relatively little use to the majority of us, other than for email correspondence and (limited) bibliographic research. You could get thesis abstracts from ASLIB and lists of article titles from databases such as BIDS (occasionally you might even have found a few online abstracts), but if you wanted full-text articles it was off to the library with you. If you wanted to use articles from the current volume of a journal at home, you had no choice other than to queue (and pay) for the photocopier in the library. Back in those days, anyone could walk into most university libraries in the UK and read the current issues of all the journals subscribed to by that institution. It wasn’t uncommon to see groups of sixth-formers from local schools in the journal sections of university libraries, at lunchtime or after school. However, since the advent of online subscriptions, due to the high price of maintaining online access, largely as a result of the costly ‘bundling’ deals imposed by publishers, many universities have had to drastically rationalise their paper subscriptions. Stroll through the journal sections of many British university libraries, today and you will notice that the bound volumes of a large number of journals end abruptly around 2004-2006. This seems particularly tragic where those bound volumes extend back to volume 1 of a title (or into the 19th Century, in some cases). Those missing volumes can still be accessed on the computer terminals in those libraries, but only if you have an account. Aside from Nature and Science, one or two token titles for their more affluent departments is all many libraries can afford on paper, these days.
This is one example of how the internet can serve to make information more exclusive, in sharp contrast to the popular perception of the effect of the internet on the transfer of information within society. The ‘information super-highway’ is a toll road, for sure. Another key characteristic of the online journal subscription model is its ephemeral nature: with a paper subscription a library gets one copy of that year’s volume to archive and use forever; an online subscription gives access to all the volumes available online for a finite period – unsubscribe the following year and lose everything. It’s easy to see how, by using price and online bundling to drive down paper subscriptions, publishers have put themselves in an extremely powerful position from which they can continue to aggressively drive up the price of online subscriptions, regardless of whether or not they are allowed to continue their unethical ‘bundling’ practices. As the gap between libraries’ paper holdings and current volumes widens, the publishers’ grip on these universities’ short and curlies tightens. While 10,000 academics boycotting Elsevier, to a greater or lesser degree, has undoubtedly had some effect, whole fields of research are conspicuous by their virtual absence from the Cost of Knowledge list. These are the fields in which Elsevier own the vast majority of the high-impact journals. We’ll probably have to wait until after the next REF (formerly RAE) assessment, to see how many (if any) UK workers from these fields feel able to come out of the woodwork. Harvard University’s recent memo to its 2,100 staff may be a more critical sign that publishers have pushed their luck too far. If more institutions throw their weight behind their staff in this manner, we might start to see action on a much larger scale. Mike Taylor’s prediction may already be fait accompli.