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.

35 Responses to “The Academic Publishing Empire Strikes Back”

  1. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Well, paying £2k every time you published might at least have the beneficial effect that you published only when you had something worthwhile to say. I love the arxiv, but an awful lot of the papers on it are “not even wrong”, as Pauli might have said. But as I write, I realise this is an unrealistic hope: most of these worthy but dull productions that clog the arxiv do end up getting published – and a lot of them go to ApJ, where page charges are of this order already, so fees are clearly not a disincentive. The reason for this is that the fee is paid for by a research grant. So perhaps what we need is for the arxiv to insist that authors pay £10 per page out of their own pocket (and each author, to cut down on the consortium papers signed by a cast of thousands, many of whom have never read the publication in question).

    • telescoper Says:

      Perhaps a better way to achieve what you suggest is to ration each author’s annual number of submissions?

      • Also, the year 2150 posted this for us on its Facebook wall:

        “… Even as late as the mid 21-st century, it was common to view a researcher’s output as broken into segments, termed ‘papers’ for historical reasons, rather than through the data stream model that would eventually assume prominence. The web of connections between these discrete papers served the dual purpose of connecting each disembodied work to its intellectual forebears, and of providing an evaluation, widely deemed too crude to be effective, of the work’s merit.

        “The task of assessing the impact of a researcher—for a brief period a very fashionable exercise—was resolved only later with the realisation that interaction between researchers and their ideas occurred across a much longer baseline of time than a ‘paper’ could allow for. Studying the crossings between continuous data streams proved a natural measure of both the extent and depth of a researcher’s influence on her wider community, albeit one that had no functional purpose once the contract system of research funding was superseded by… “

    • This problem is solved not by curtailing submissions but by resolving the challenge of connecting researchers with the material that is relevant to them. We all agree it’s a rare paper on the arXiv that is truly useful to no-one (or no-one but the author).

      The model in which an academic casts their eye over the whole of the daily offering before swooping upon the choicest morsels is, as someone once said, ‘no longer relevant to the dissemination of research results.’ There is too much information (or text, if you prefer) for this task to be carried out effectively without some automation of the process of ‘find papers that connect to or extend my current research and/or that are likely to have an unusual impact in their own field’.*

      This is an interesting challenge, and a worthwhile one, that will be met in time. Encouraging or forcing individuals to hold back or suppress material is, as a solution, not even wrong: the solution is to realise that this is not a problem.

      * Readers: Have a go at your own definition!

  3. Thank you for this very clear response to Graham Taylor’s misleading article. You may be interested in my own response, touching many of the same points, which I posted as a series of three comments on the article itself. (What I wrote was too long for a single comment). See this comment and the two that follow.

  4. telescoper Says:


    I’ve taken the liberty of putting your comments together below. Thanks for doing such a thorough demolition job, and if you object to me copying your effort here please let me know and I’ll delete it.


    As we discuss the access crisis and Academic Spring, it’s great that the Guardian is allowing a platform to representatives of the academic publishing industry. It gives them a chance to demonstrate how utterly bankrupt their position is, and it’s kind of Graham Taylor to oblige. His article is a catalogue of distortions and mispresentations from start to finish.

    I don’t really have time for this, but I suppose I ought to respond to some of the grosser distortions.

    Much has been written about journal publishers over the past few months but unfortunately this has focused almost exclusively on one side of the debate: the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs …

    There is a very obvious reason for this. Everyone, with one trifling exception, is on one side of the debate. Funding bodies want the work they pay for to be universally available. Researchers want their work to be free to anyone who wants it. Other researchers want to be able to freely access what their colleagues have produced. Businesses want to use the research that their taxes have funded. So do private citizens. We want our doctors and nurses to have access to medical research. We want our teachers and lecturers to be up to speed on current science. We want our legislators to have up-to-date information. We want the £200 billion of new insights that text-mining can give us. We want the huge economic growth that free access to the research we funded will give us, to get out of this recession.

    Against all those interests stands just one on the other side of the debate. Publishers. They and only they stand against greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, and for a depressingly obvious reason: because it will cut into their profits.

    And yes, it will. But that is a problem for publishers to solve, not one that need concern funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. We all stand on one side; publishers on the other.

    And that, of course, is why academic publishers have become the enemies of science.

    Kind of ironic when you think what the word “publish” actually means. So-called publishers are the only people out to hinder publication.

    … the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, which publishers are painted as somehow resisting and restricting.

    What can Graham Taylor mean by “painted as”? What can he mean by “somehow”? This is not open to discussion. Try to access an article: BAM, paywall. Read publishers’ statements in support of the RWA and against the FRPAA. It’s as clear as day. Publishers Resist Access To Research. That’s their business model.

    (Note: to be clear, this is not true of all publishers. There are those, like BioMed Central and PLoS, that make their money by actually publishing research — making it available — rather than locking it up. They are the good uysd: with them, I have no quarrel.)

    Publishers are exploring fee-waived walk-in access via the public library network.

    SERIOUSLY? That’s their answer? A 20th century solution to 21st century problem? Publishers expect people to get in a car and physically drive to a public library — if they can even find one after the most recent cuts — to electronically read material that they could easily read with devices they have in their own homes?

    I could complain about the environmental impact, the appalling waste of time, the reliance on an ever-shrinking resource … But all of these fade into insignficance compared with the overwhelming disconnection from reality that this “solution” represents. If publishers really believe that physically going to a special magic building is a rational way for us to get access to the research we paid for, then they are more incompetent than I realised.

    Much of the focus of this debate has been on the value of peer review and the role that scholars and researchers play in this process. By implication publishers are perceived as contributing very little, other than simply assembling articles into journals and pushing them onto cash-strapped libraries to make a gargantuan profit.

    Very nicely put — I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    That is a gross distortion of reality.

    Please, Graham — don’t sell yourself short. It’s an excellent summary.

    The publishing process involves [long list of things]:

    Let’s take this list apart andLet’s take this list apart and see what’s actually involved.

    * soliciting submissions;

    Nope — completely irrelevant. I have never once in my life made a submission to a journal on the basis of a solicitation, and I doubt anyone I know has, either. Researchers know what the relevant journals are in their field, without needing to be spammed by publishers.

    * managing submissions;

    This is done by software, and has basically zero marginal cost. The setup costs of buying the software in the first place may have been significant, depending on how inefficient the publishers is, but there’s no reason it need be: free software such as SFU’s Open Journal Systems and the Annotum platform allow journals to be set up at no financial cost.

    * managing peer review;

    This is done by handling editors who are of course volunteer academics in 90% of cases.

    * editing and preparing manuscripts;

    Editing is done by the editors (clue’s in the question) who we remember are volunteer academics. Preparation of manuscripts is of course what the author does — that’s why we call them authors. All at no cost to the publisher, indeed often the authors pays the publisher for the privilege.

    * producing the articles;

    I have no idea what, if anything, “producing” means here. Perhaps typesetting? I’ll give publishers that: in some fields (not maths or physics), publishers typeset papers. This is hardly onerous. When I had to do the same with one of my own papers recently, it took about an hour — that’s for a paper of 39 manuscript pages, so it came out to something on the order of two minutes per page.

    * publishing and disseminating journals;

    What does “publishing” mean? This whole process is publishing, remember? And in the breakdown of all the things that entails, Taylor includes “publishing”? Right — and when I do research, one of the things that entails is research.

    I assume “disseminating” is code for “spamming”.

    * and of course archiving.

    Something that institutional repositories, subject repositories, LOCKSS, Portico, PubMed Central and many other services all do as well as, or better than, publishers.

    * And the end result acts as a calling card and mark of quality, helping readers find content that is relevant to them and is trusted.

    Now we’re getting somewhere: this is the true “value” that publishers provide: brand. When I say “value” I don’t mean that it has any actual value, of course, any more than the label on pair of Levi jeans does. But just as the right brand of clothes makes a kid appear cool to his classmates, so the right journal brand makes a researcher look cool to the kind of idiot adminstrators that too often have control over jobs and promotions.

    That’s why people publish with barrier-based journals: brand-name. That’s all.

    At a time when we are looking for an export-led recovery, UK-based scholarly publishers account for over £1bn in export sales.

    And costs us two hundred times as much in lost opportunties, due to text-mining barriers alone.

    Perhaps most important of all, from an access point of view, is the amount publishers have invested in platforms that support researchers in numerous ways. These include investments in article enhancement, visualisation, social networking, and mobile technology; valuable tools such as searchable image databases, navigation, alerts and citation notifications, and reference analysis. Publishers are also working on text-mining tools; linking to the datasets behind journal articles; and research performance measurement tools such as SciVal.

    No, no, no. No-one cares about any of that stuff. Everything publishers are clumsily trying to do with visualisation, social networks and the rest, other people — specialists — are doing much better. People who are actually doing text-mining don’t want publishers’ “tools”, they just want publishers to get out of the way and let them get on with their work without harrassment.

    The profit margins of some of the larger publishers are portrayed as a moral affront, given the budgetary challenges that libraries face.

    Why, yes. Yes, they are. Because the profit margins of the Big Four academic publishers are all in the range of 32%-42% of revenue — much more than, say, Apple’s best-ever 24% margin in 2011. And that’s without actually creating anything.

    Not only that, those margins are constantly increasing: for example, Elsevier’s profit margins have increased every year from 2005 to 2011: 30.57%, 31.65%, 33.41%, 34.91%, 35.74%, 37.3%. And no wonder when they don’t pay for their content or peer-review or most of their editing.

    Unfortunately, publishers seem to be part of a broader backlash against perceived corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility.

    What’s unfortunate about that? Turns out that corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility are bad things. Who knew?

    Mandated deposit in repositories is not a publishing model, has no associated revenue stream and, worse, threatens to erode the revenues deriving from the subscriptions on which the model depends.


    And we do not care.

    Mandated deposit in repositories is good news for funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. If it’s bad news for publishers, then those publishers need to find a different business model or die.

    OK, I’m done. Congratulations to anyone who made it to the end.

  5. Hi, Telescoper.

    I’ve taken the liberty of putting your comments together below … If you object to me copying your effort here please let me know and I’ll delete it.

    You’re very welcome. BUT please reinstate the important [blockquote] tags, which show what text is Graham Taylor’s and what is my response! At present it looks like I said all those silly things, not him!

  6. 50% of the human race is middlemen, and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Remember what happened to the human race in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, once they got rid of the telephone sanitizers….

  8. A few points on this oft-discussed topic, which I’ll put in separate comments. Some are related, though.

    A question to Peter: Which, if any, astronomy journals do you consider reasonable enough (i.e. profit margin is not too high)? Which do you publish in yourself?

  9. arXiv is a practical solution for distribution and does keep out most of the obvious crackpots, or at least puts them in their own category. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. One is that the quality would probably be much lower if most of the stuff were not intended for a refereed journal (see next comment). Another is that it is a good thing is that there is one arXiv; in some cases, competition is bad, and this is one. The other side of this, though, is that arXiv decides what is suitable and what is not. As long as keeping out crackpots is the goal (whether or not they have a Nobel Prize), I think this is OK. However, mistakes can be made and there is no sort of formal process one can go through to address problems. With a journal, one can always write to the editor-in-chief. If the journal is sponsored by a professional society, one can address the society. The arXiv referees, at least in astrophysics, are anonymous. At best one can complain via email. That’s it. With a journal, if all else fails, one can go to another journal. (If all journals don’t want to publish something, then of course they might be right.)

  10. I think that journals do add value. Even if their prices are too high, this doesn’t mean that they do nothing. Due to a selection effect, most people who comment on English-language blogs speak English well. The average English ability of scientists is probably below that of the average blog commenter (at least on this blog). Some journals offer significant editorial help with regard to language, style etc. Also, although referees do the work, the fact that the paper is accepted usually only if the referee wants it to be does provide some quality control. Theoretically, one could post something on the arXiv and expect to get one or more referee-report style comments. In practice, this doesn’t happen. Most scientists referee papers. Most scientists do not read stuff on the arXiv and offer unsolicited comments to the authors. It is still a mark of quality: apply for a job with 50 refereed-journal publications, none of which are on the arXiv and chances are reasonable; do it with 50 arXiv articles, none of which are in refereed journals, and the chances are much worse. Yes, one can do both, and should. However, the fact that arXiv does one thing (cheap distribution) well does not mean that everything journals do (whatever the price) is not necessary.

  11. Monica Grady Says:

    What place should journals published by academic societies occupy? For example – Monthly Notices, now published by Wiley, makes a parcel of money for the RAS which is then ploughed back to fund meetings, speakers, etc etc. The infrastructure of Wiley allows the journal to be published every 10 minutes, or so it seems. The RAS couldn’t run an operation that effeciently. So there is a role for publishers.

  12. Monica Grady Says:

    So that is what Graham ‘turnip’ Taylor is doing now….

  13. Sooner or later in such discussions, the suggestion comes up to do away with refereeing, since it is associated with journals. I think refereeing is useful, but it doesn’t have to be tied to a journal. The RAS could just have a web page with links to arXiv articles which meet the same standards as MNRAS papers, and could organize the refereeing. Each such paper would receive a unique MNRAS identifier, which one could put on one’s publication list. Most people would probably rather referee for the RAS than for Wiley. Yes, this would mean breaking the long and fruitful bond between the RAS and MNRAS (which is no longer monthly and also doesn’t contain reports of RAS meetings); I suspect there is too much inertia here. I regularly read reports of RAS meetings in The Observatory; when will I read that a high-profile UK academic has suggested what I suggested above? If I won’t read this soon, why not?

  14. Nothing will change until there is some mark of quality comparable to refereed-journal articles because until then anyone looking for a job will not risk his career by publishing only on arXiv for idealistic reasons. I think the RAS (and similar organizations) should bite the bullet and stop sponsoring journals and instead have a web page with lists of “approved papers” on the arXiv.

    As mentioned above, I think that refereeing can and should continue even if journals don’t. However, if anyone seriously thinks that it should be enough to publish only on the arXiv, then he should put his money where his mouth is. Hiring people who have published only on arXiv won’t do it, since there are too few, for reasons mentioned above. An established scientist publishing only on arXiv won’t do it, because he doesn’t have much to lose if he has a permanent job and has already built up a reputation (based on refereed-journal papers). What needs to be done is for people to advertise jobs as part of a project with a time scale of a few years and as part of the contract there will be a rule against anyone involved in the project publishing in journals—and if people who do well in the project don’t get hired afterwards (because of lack of refereed-journal articles), then they automatically get permanent jobs with the PIs of the project—but I don’t see anyone willing to fund that.

  15. Ewan O'Sullivan Says:

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the publishers do a lot of work which they think is worthwhile, but which we think is wasted. You say typesetting and copy editing is done by the author, and that’s true if all you want is a PDF you can stick on the web – use latex and the appropriate journal style and you’re done. The journals still think of this as a print business, so their priority is to get your latex file converted into print standard software and re-typeset it. Plus they’ll argue they have to do a conversion to HTML as well. I think most of us would argue those processes are now unnecessary. Web-only journals in which the journal maintains the style files but doesn’t muck about with typesetting seems like a better option.

    • telescoper Says:

      The re-typesetting often also introduces errors which aren’t in the original manuscript…

      • Indeed. This can be a real pain, especially when the differences are not marked in the proofs. Some journals actually produce their output from the LaTeX provided, some convert it.

  16. What does the petition actually aim for? “Open access” is used by some to mean a model where the author pays the fees. This shifts the costs from the subscribers to the authors and is worse in my view since it reeks of vanity publishing. I think that in some cases “open access” is used as a deliberately confusing term.

    • Phillip, the petition itself has a short and very explicit statement of exactly what it’s aiming for. It doesn’t use the term “open access” at all; rather, “public access”, specifically to publicly funded research, by deposition in repositories.

      • OK, I didn’t miss anything; it is vague. What is “public access”? Does that mean anyone can access it for free? If so, a lofty goal, but if the means to this end are “author pays all the costs” (which might be determined by some publisher and include said publisher’s profit), then this might create more problems than it solves.

      • Yes, “public access” means that the public (i.e. everyone) can access the research — free at the point of use. That is the goal of the petition; it says nothing about means. Public access could be achieved in many different ways (including “green” and “gold”) and the petition doesn’t discuss those alternatives.

  17. […] and unabridged version of Mike Taylor's excellent point-by-point rebuttal of the Guardian article I posted about yesterday. Read it! […]

  18. […] The Academic Publishing Empire Strikes Back ( […]

  19. […] The Academic Publishing Empire Strikes Back « In the Dark […]

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