The Academic Publishing Empire Strikes Back
There’s an article in this morning’s Grauniad in which a representative of the academic publishing industry, by the name of Graham Taylor, tries to counter the vociferous criticism that has been aimed at this sector in recent months. Mr Taylor is right when he comments that most of the furore relates to the issue of Open Access, i.e. the fact that academic articles are often hidden behind paywalls when published, even when the research on which they are based is funded by the taxpayer.
Mr Taylor actually claims that the publishing industry is all for open access. Perhaps this is true, but if that’s the case it’s because they’ve been forced to that point by pressure from external agencies. The latest sign of this pressure is a petition in the US to force taxpayer-funded research out into the open. I’m sure academic publishers are smart enough to read the writing on the wall, so it has now become politic for them to pretend that the proposals for open access were what they wanted all along.
However, the main thrust of Mr Taylor’s argument is that we must ensure that any new model of academic publishing is “sustainable”. What he means by that is that he wants academic publishers to be able to sustain their healthy profit margins at the expense of the taxpayer. I disagree with his arguments in almost every respect, so much so that it actually made me rather angry to read the piece.
Here’s an example
The publishing process involves: soliciting and managing submissions; managing peer review; editing and preparing scripts; producing the articles; publishing and disseminating journals; and of course archiving.
This description bears very little relation to what happens in my field. Journals do not “solicit” manuscripts – they just wait for submissions to arrive. “Managing peer review” merely involves farming the job out to unpaid external referees. “Editing and preparing scripts”? All journals I deal with require authors to typeset and copy-edit their own papers. “Producing the articles” is done by the authors! Moreover, everyone in my field also publishes their work for free on the arXiv. Articles can be disseminated over the internet at negligible cost via a number of routes as well as the arXiv.
No, Mr Taylor, the process of academic publishing you describe in your article went out the window years ago. Now virtually everything is done by academics apart from the bit at which the academic publishers really excel – the imposition of extortionate costs to maintain your profits. The fact is that the academic publishing industry is not only redundant but also parasitic. The only viable solution is to bypass it altogether.
Another particularly specious bit of argument is the following:
Scholarly publishers support 10,000 jobs in the UK and we are significant net revenue earners for the UK. The members of the Publishers Association pay more in taxes to the UK exchequer than all UK universities collectively pay to all publishers globally for access to their journals.
This may be the case, but the problem is that the money that underwrites this thriving export industry is taken from a budget that was intended to be spent on research. As the science budget dwindles – yes, it is dwindling – an ever-increasing proportion is being devoted to supporting these racketeers. Can you imagine the outcry if taxpayer’s money were used to support other private publishing interests, perhaps even the porn industry?
And consider this:
However, in 2010 – the last year for which Society of College, National and University Libraries data are available – UK universities had access to 2.42m journal subscriptions, an increase of 93% over 2006. The price paid for these subscriptions, £134m, increased by only 31% over the same period, so the price paid per journal accessed actually fell by 32%.
The real scandal is that the cost of journal subscriptions has gone up at all when the real cost of digital publishing has plummeted over the same period. All the price increase has done is line the pockets of folk who seem to think they have a God-given right to sponge off the public purse. And so what if they have created a plethora of extra journals? That’s just to acquire more raw material to mark up and sell on to the gullible consumer.
Returning to the subject of Open Access, Mr Taylor argues for a model in which scholarly publishers can continue to fleece the research sector but in a way that’s different from their current racket. They want authors to pay a huge fee up-front (a “paper management fee” perhaps £2000) to have their paper published. Such a system would have the merit of making research available free of charge to anyone who is interested in it, but in terms of its function as a scam it is just as ludicrous as the current racket. Since authors do all the work anyway, there’s no reason to charge an amount anything like this. It simply does not cost £2000 to publish papers on the internet! Any fee of this magnitude would just be fed to the parasites.
The activities of academic publishing industry are no longer relevant when it comes to dissemination of research results; academics can do that for ourselves. You have done very well for yourselves at our expense, but you’ve been rumbled. Time to face the music.Follow @telescoper