An excoriation of for-profit academic publishers

George Monbiot has just published a piece in The Telegraph berating for-profit academic publishers that will surely be castigated by some as over the top hyperbole and praised by others as a trenchant criticism of the state of academic publishing*. Starting off with the, perhaps, ever so slightly, contentious title of Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist Monbiot proceeds to fire zingers like

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

and backs up his position with a recent analysis by Deutsche Bank

The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer’s words) because they “develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years”. But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.”

finally ending with a call to arms that even your, never shying away from a good fight, narrator would have toned down a bit**

The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws. Let’s throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us.

Go read the whole thing. This is something that folks are going to be talking about, and I think it’s another good opportunity to ask ourselves whether the the group that contributes the least to the overall scientific process should the one that benefits the most financially. I take it as yet another sign that 2011 is the year that the war over academic publishing officially began.


*Yes, once I used the word “excoriation” in the title I got a little carried away with the big words.

**Though not for lack of agreement with the general sentiment; clearly.

10 Comments on “An excoriation of for-profit academic publishers

  1. At the very simplest level, academic publishing should be getting cheaper, not more expensive, the same way that textbooks should be free by now. I don’t mean “should” in a moralistic sense, I mean economically. These publishers spend time tearing down infrastructure more than they build it up.

    I still don’t go for the government grant angle, the “we fund this research, we should get it for free.” Taxpayers don’t do the research, even if they fund it.

  2. Yeah, it definitely seems like a little bit of correspondence, typesetting, and serving… what… maybe a gig of bandwidth per paper, should be something that can be done relatively affordably.

    At the very least I think that not making science publicly available (or at least affordable to private citizens; I mean $30, really!) can lead to suspicion and scepticism among the public. This will of course be there anyway, but anything that can be done to help, and to help justify the government expenditures, is a good thing in this day and age.

  3. I tend to be sceptical of folks arguing in their own financial best interests (the SSP board includes folks from NPG, Wiley-Blackwell, CrossRef, and other publishers of for-profit journals; Kent Anderson makes his living as a CEO/Publisher of a journal). In contrast I tend to find it more compelling when folks who are part of the system call it out against their own interests.

    I also find the argument that the general public is too stupid to be able to gain value from scientific literature to be rather insulting and unproductive.

    Monbiot’s piece is definitely over the top, there’s really no denying that, but it sure reads to me like intentional hyperbole*. I guess whether or not one finds that rhetorical* device productive or insulting probably depends on ones views on the issues.

    *Oh yeah, two more big words FTW.

  4. I guess here’s the real question. If a member of your family gets a life threatening illness and has to make a treatment option (and I’m not picking something inflammatory here, this is where a lot of the calls for taxpayer open access originate) and they call you up and ask you to look into their options. Do you:

    a. Want to sift through reports on 3-5 years of research on all sorts of things that are at best tangentially related to the question you have to answer (including 15 papers worth of information on other diseases, general science methods, etc., plus lots of details on how someone educated their grad students and the software they published to help other researchers quickly identify different cell lines), all the time remembering that none of this has been peer reviewed allowing the authors to include things that you probably don’t want to be making decisions on yet (as the author of the piece you link to does: “The research report contains what are to my mind the most interesting findings, which are not included in the journal article, as they are too speculative”) and maybe even some real mistakes because no one reviewed it and the researcher was writing it at 11:30 at night and accidentally left out a kind of import use of the word not.


    b. Read the article title “The impact of Treatment X on the survival rate of patients with Disease Y” that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    I know what I would want to be able to do.

  5. Continuing to pepper you for your thoughts on this stuff, what do you think of the fact that several leading open access publishers have substantial profit margins (now 20% at Public Library of Science)? Are you ok with those profits (or profits of any size the market will bear?) if they’re derived from an author-pays financial model and associated with an open access publishing policy?

  6. Thanks for continuing to push me to think about this. I think at this point what I need is a well thought out piece on my thoughts on what an ideal system would look like or maybe just my vision of how to improve the current system. I’ve added it to my accumulating list of posts to write if I ever get to the point this semester where I’m not working late every night just to keep the absolutely critical balls up in the air.

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