Enough of the Academic Publishing Racket!

There have been some interesting developments this week in the field of academic publishing. A particularly interesting story concernes the resignation of the entire editorial board of the linguistics journal Lingua, which is published by – (no prizes for guessing) – Elsevier. Not surprisingly this move was made in protest at Elsevier’s overpricing of “Open Access” options on its journal. Even less surprisingly, Elsevier’s response was considerably economical with the truth. Elsevier claims that it needs to levy large Article Processing Charges (APCs) to ensure their Open Access publications are economically viable. However, what Elsevier means by “economically viable” apparently means a profit margin of 37% or more, all plundered from the tightly constrained budgets of academic research organizations. In fact these APCs have nothing to do with the actual cost of publishing research papers. In any other context the behaviour of publishers like Elsevier would be called racketeering, i.e.

Racketeering, often associated with organized crime, is the act of offering of a dishonest service (a “racket”) to solve a problem that wouldn’t otherwise exist without the enterprise offering the service.

Let me remind you of the business model that underpins the academic publishing industry.  We academics write papers based on our research, which we then submit to journals. Other academics referee these papers, suggest corrections or improvements and recommend acceptance or rejection. Another set of academics provide oversight of this editorial process and make decisions on whether or not to publish. All of this is usually done for free. We academics then buy back the  product of our labours at an grossly inflated price through journal subscriptions, unless the article is published in Open Access form in which case we have to pay an APC up front to the publisher. It’s like having to take all the ingredients of a meal to a restaurant, cooking them yourself, and then being required to pay for the privilege of eating the resulting food.

Why do we continue to participate in such a palpably  ridiculous system? 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? Is it simply vanity? I suspect that many academics see research papers less as a means of disseminating research and more as badges of status…

I’d say that, at least in my discipline, traditional journals are simply no longer necessary for communicating scientific research. I find all the  papers I need to do my research on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We simply don’t need old-fashioned journals anymore.  Yet we keep paying for them. It’s time for those of us who believe that  we should spend as much of our funding as we can on research instead of throwing it away on expensive and outdated methods of publication to put an end to this absurd system. We academics need to get the academic publishing industry off our backs.

All we need to do is to is dispense with the old model of a journal and replace it with a reliable and efficient reviewing system that interfaces with the arXiv. Then we would have a genuinely useful at a fraction of the cost of a journal subscription . That was the motivation behind the Open Journal of Astrophysics , a project that I and a group of like-minded individuals will be launching very soon. There will be a series of announcements here and elsewhere over the next few weeks, giving more details about the Open Journal and how it works.

We will be starting in a modest way but I hope that those who believe – as I do – in the spirit of open science and the free flow of scientific ideas will support this initiative. I hope that the Lingua debacle is a sign that change is on the way, but we need the help and participation of researchers to make the revolution happen.

16 Responses to “Enough of the Academic Publishing Racket!”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    The reason researchers continue to publish in some established journals is, of course, because the refereeing process over decades has created an expectation of quality for the research published in them. In the UK that is believed by many to feed into REF assessments, and hence into funding.

    Any new open journal will need to establish its reputation over time. It will take some years to build up. Rejecting mediocre papers will be necessary for that.

    • Everything @Bryn is correct about the current system, as for what any future system has to do — well it’s hard to make predictions especially about the future.

      Fundamentally, what people need is some reasonably good filter when they go browsing for abstracts. That doesn’t have to be a journal-like rejection system, perhaps a webbish system of upvotes/downvotes combinded can do the trick. StackOverflow does an excellent job of “peer/review” but it hardly evern “rejects” anything.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I stand by what I wrote. Journals add nothing.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      They provide coordination, but they charge inordinate sums for it. The internet now provides a way out and let us support those who, like Peter, are pioneering the way.

      In retrospect, it is a disgrace that the journals published by the IOP, AIP etc cost nearly as much to publish in as commercial journals. The organisations that are meant to represent scientists turned into parasites, instead of keeping journal prices so low that commercial competitors had little interest in competing. WE let that happen. Where were the campaigners for IOP or AIP President in the last 30 years who said “Enough!”

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Journal subscriptions provide a large part of the income of the Royal Astronomical Society. So, rather than my subscription funding the publication of MNRAS, MNRAS (and other journals) reduce the subscription I have to pay. Alternatively, we could see this as meaning the RAS is able to do a lot more than it could out of our subscriptions alone.

      • telescoper Says:

        But does the RAS do more for astronomy than institutions could do if they weren’t being subjected to a stealth tax of thousands of pounds per year, which is what a journal subscription is?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip: I should have said that it is a disgrace that learned-society journals cost academics about as much as commercial journals, whether the money is paid by contributors or in library fees. That is the point.

      Bryn: I’m cynical re the IOP, RAS, AIP etc. Did they ever ask us if we preferred costs as high as commercial publishers permitting them to do more, or whether we’d rather have lower costs? And do they provide value for that money?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The RAS annual subscription is £108 (but with reductions for some people a few years from completing university education).

      The RAS is very aware that its economic model is close to its end. The expectation is that new cheap, electronic-only, journals will undermine income from journal subscriptions. The RAS seems to be waiting until it has to change before doing anything.

      Of course, as Anton stated, we might have expected learned societies to lead the transition to cheap, electronic-only journals. Instead they seem to be waiting for new entrants to force the change.

      However, learned societies employ staff to handle their journal activities. These staff support the work of the editorial board, and the administration of the submission, refereeing and publication processes. Library subscriptions for journals pay the salaries of these staff. It will be interesting to see how new, cheap, electronic-only journals can keep these administrative processes while minimising costs.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Phillip, you mean MNRAS still does not produce the final, published, versions of papers from the authors’ LaTeX versions?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I remember being puzzled by the MNRAS practice of retyping papers, rather than using LaTeX code, 20 years ago. I had no idea that it still continues.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I suspect the problem we have here is that we don’t know what the proposed new open journal will look like. We hope that it will adopt the best practice of traditional journals, but we have no idea whether it will.

    • telescoper Says:

      You’re confusing “peer review” with “journal”. Some traditional journals have good peer review – though some clearly don’t – but you don’t need a traditional journal to do peer review.

    • telescoper Says:

      We’re not going to adopt “best practive of traditional journals”. We’re going to do much better than that.

  4. And as a minor point of interest (or of minor interest), we have had some problems convincing university finance to pay page charges for journals that have no pages. Apparently, whatever you call the charges, it has to be a word that appears in the open access funding guidelines.

  5. […] Grundsteinlegung des GMT, ein langer Artikel über SOFIA aus der Heimat des DSI, mal wieder eine Initiative zur Reform des Publikationswesens in der Astronomie – und ein bemerkenswertes Bild aus dieser Analyse des neuesten […]

  6. If publishing evolves, papers might evolve with them. Right now you need cross t’s and dot i’s to preempt objections from an imagined referee. In a different system, you might simplify the paper and then answer objections more interactively — a little like a blog post with a comment thread.

    Over a 100 years, the two concepts might merge.

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