Thursday, January 26, 2012

More adventures in academic publishing

The for profit model in academic publishing is increasingly intolerable. As prices for journals and books skyrocket (I'm looking at you, Elsevier, and you Springer) , more and more people are locked out of the information trapped behind paywalls and inaccessible to the general public, including scholars whose libraries can't afford to subscribe. Yet, those same scholars are the source of the trapped content, (Oxford University Press, what is the deal with new contracts which treat authors as 'work for hire' content providers?). Who supports this research? Universities and research institutes, often via public funding.Yet the universities which already paid for this research has to pay again for access. And the general public, whose taxes subsidize the research, is locked out.

Laura McKenna observes:

The publisher is key, because he needs money to print and distribute the journal for its tiny community of readers. To make that money, the publisher sells the rights to an academic search engine company, like JSTOR. For the publisher, this venture is highly profitable because, unlike traditional publishing, the publisher does not have to pay the writer or editor. It only has to cover the costs of typesetting, printing, and distribution.
Having bought the rights to the academic research, JSTOR digitizes the material and sells the content back to the university libraries. To recoup their costs of leasing the information from the publishers, the academic search engines use a subscription model to restrict the content to those who can pay the hefty price tag. A substantial part of the university library budget is devoted towards subscriptions to those databases. The UC San Diego Libraries report that 65% of their total budget goes towards getting access to JSTOR and other databases. To get access to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR -- only one of the many databases and collections of information -- university libraries must pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that.
Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public -- which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system -- has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.
At New APPS, Eric Schliesser worries that an effort to boycott Elsevier will fail:
After a high profile mathematician got the ball rolling again (and he does not pull his punches ["The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to"]!), our friends at Crooked Timber are calling for a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its pricing practices. This is an issue we return to regularly at NewAPPS (here and here). This call to action will probably fail, too, because as we learned in the Synthese debacle (a Springer journal) and from the rigged ESF rankings (again, involving Springer journals) too many powerful academics benefit from the status quo. (I have named names on these issues, but this is not just a European problem.) Given the the way academics are evaluated and advanced, it pays to "capture" an established journal for one's intellectual niche(s) come what may. I predict: we will only see a change if the influential folk that protect the status quo are bribed in the right way, oops, I mean brought along in advance.
Non-academics need to know that scholars publishing in journals, as well as peer reviewers who vet submissions, DO NOT GET PAID. An article published by a journal which might charge a non-subscriber $50 for access does not net the author and the scholars who vet it a dime (sometimes they get free copies of that journal). Scholars accept this deal because publication of research is critical for its dissemination and (of course) required for tenure and promotion at their universities. So scholars are working as unpaid content providers for profit making publishers who leech off the financial support of research provided by universities.

Over the years, there has been a move toward open access journals. Peter Suber provides a good overview of how that works, and while there are quality control and general access issues, more and more scholars are heading in that direction.


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