Archive for November 18, 2009

The Academic Journal Racket

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve had this potential rant simmering away at the back of my mind for a while now, since our last staff meeting to be precise.  In common, I suspect, with many other physics and astronomy departments, here at Cardiff we’re bracing ourselves for an extended period of budget cuts to help pay for our government’s charitable donations of taxpayer’s money to the banking sector.

English universities are currently making preparations for a minimum 10% reduction in core funding, and many are already making significant numbers of redundancies. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us here in Wales yet, but I suspect it will be very bad indeed.

Anyway, one of the items of expenditure that has been identified as a source of savings as we try to tighten our collective belts is the cost of academic journals.  I nearly choked when the Head of School revealed how much we spend per annum on some of the journal subscriptions for physics and astronomy.  In fact, I think university and departmental libraries are being taken to the cleaners by the academic publishing industry and it’s time to make a stand.

Let me single out one example. Like many learned societies, the Institute of Physics (the professional organisation for British physicists) basically operates like a charity. It does, however, have an independent publishing company that is run as a profit-making enterprise. And how.

In 2009 we paid almost £30K (yes, THIRTY THOUSAND POUNDS) for a year’s subscription to the IOP Physics package, a bundled collection  of mainstream physics journals. This does not include Classical and Quantum Gravity or the Astrophysical Journal (both of which I have published in occasionally) which require additional payments running into thousands of pounds.

The IOP is not the only learned society to play this game. The Royal Astronomical Society also has a journal universally known as MNRAS (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society) which earns it a considerable amount of revenue from its annual subscription of over £4K per department. Indeed, I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that without the income from MNRAS the RAS itself would face financial oblivion. I dare say MNRAS also earns a tidy sum for its publisher Wiley

If you’re not already shocked by the cost of these subscriptions, let me  outline the way academic journal business works, at least in the fields of physics and astronomy. I hope then you’ll agree that we’re being taken to the cleaners.

First, there is the content. This consists of scientific papers submitted to the journal by researchers, usually (though not exclusively) university employees. If the paper is accepted for publication the author receives no fee whatsoever and in some cases even has to pay “page charges” for the privilege of seeing the paper in print. In return for no fee, the author also has to sign over the copyright for the manuscript to the publisher. This is entirely different from the commercial magazine  market, where contributors are usually paid a fee for writing a piece, or  book publishing, where authors get a royalty on sales (and sometimes an advance).

Next there is the editorial process. The purpose of an academic journal – if there is one – is to ensure that only high quality papers are published. To this end it engages a Board of Editors to oversee this aspect of its work. The Editors are again usually academics and, with a few exceptions, they undertake the work on an unpaid basis. When a paper arrives at the journal which lies within the area of expertise of a particular editor, he or she identifies one or more suitable referees drawn from the academic community to provide advice on whether to publish it. The referees are expected to read the paper and provide comments as well as detailed suggestions for changes. The fee for referees? You guess it. Zilch. Nada.

The final part of the business plan is to sell the content (supplied for free), suitably edited (for free) and refereed (for free) back to the universities  paying the wages of the people who so generously donated their labour. Not just sell, of course, but sell at a grossly inflated price.

Just to summarise, then: academics write the papers, do the refereeing and provide the editorial oversight for free and we then buy back the product of our labours at an astronomical price. Why do we participate in this ridiculous system? Am I the only one who detects the whiff of rip-off? Isn’t it obvious that we (I mean academics in universities) are spending a huge amout of time and money achieving nothing apart from lining the pockets of these exploitative publishers?

And if it wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the matter of inflation. There used to be a myth that advances in technology should lead to cheaper publishing.Nowadays authors submit their manuscripts electronically, they are sent electronically to referees and they are typset automatically if and when accepted. Most academics now access journals online rather than through paper copies; in fact some publications are only published electronically these days. All this may well lead to cheaper publishing but it doesn’t lead to cheaper subscriptions. The forecast inflation rate for physics journals over this year is about 8.5%, way above the Retail Price Index, which is currently negative.

Where is all the money going? Right into the pockets of the journal publishers. Times are tough enough in the university sector without us giving tens of thousands of pounds per year, plus free editoral advice and the rest, to these rapacious companies. Enough is enough.

It seems to me that it would be a very easy matter to get rid of academic journals entirely (at least from the areas of physics and astronomy that I work in). For a start, we have an excellent free repository (the arXiv) where virtually every new research paper is submitted. There is simply no reason why we should have to pay for journal subscriptions when papers are publically available there. In the old days, the journal industry had to exist in order for far flung corners of the world to have access to the latest research. Now everyone with an internet connection can get it all. Journals are redundant.

The one thing the arXiv does not do is provide editorial control, which some people argue is why we have to carry on being fleeced in the way I have described. If there is no quality imprint from an established journal how else would researchers know which papers to read? There is a lot of dross out there.

For one thing,  not all referees put much effort into their work so there’s a lot of dross in refereed journals anyway. And, frustratingly, many referees sit on papers for months on end before sending in a report that’s only a couple of sentences. Far better, I would say, to put the paper on the arXiv and let others comment on it, either in private with the authors or perhaps each arXiv entry should have a comments facility, like a blog, so that the paper could be discussed interactively. The internet is pushing us in a direction in which the research literature should be discussed much more openly than it is at present, and in which it evolves much more as a result of criticisms and debate.

Finally, the yardstick by which research output is now being measured – or at least one of the metrics – is not so much a count of the number of refereed papers, but the number of citations the papers have attracted. Papers begin to attract citations – through the arXiv – long before they appear in a refereed journal and good papers get cited regardless of where they are eventually published.

If you look at citation statistics for refereed journals you will find it very instructive. A sizeable fraction of papers published in the professional literature receive no citations at all in their lifetime. So we end up paying over the odds for papers that nobody even bothers to read. Madness.

It could be possible for the arXiv (or some future version of it) to have its own editorial system, with referees asked to vet papers voluntarily. I’d be much happier giving my time in this way for a non-profit making system than I am knowing that I’m aiding and abetting racketeers. However, I think I probably prefer the more libertarian solution. Put it all on the net with minimal editorial control and the good stuff will float to the top regardless of how much crud there is.

Anyway, to get back to the starting point of this post, we have decided to cancel a large chunk of our journal subscriptions, including the IOP Physics package which is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of  a lecturer. As more and more departments decide not to participate in this racket, no doubt the publishers will respond by hiking the price for the remaining customers. But it seems to me that this lunacy will eventually have to come to an end.

And if the UK university sector has to choose over the next few years between sacking hundreds of academic staff and ditching its voluntary subsidy to the publishing industry, I know what I would pick…