The biggest money-spinner in the western world

Academic publishing is the biggest money-spinner in the western world, according to a provocative column by the Guardian environmentalist George Monbiot.

Monbiot, like his Guardian colleague Ben Goldacre of Bad Science, uses academic research to support his arguments and likes to direct readers to the original sources. Usually, these are articles in subscription-only journals published by conglomerates like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell or Taylor & Francis (the journals arm of Routledge). Access rates can run into three figures for an individual yearly subscription covering 4-10 issues a year; viewing one article from one issue without a subscription is likely to cost £20-30, and the digital copy may not even be permanent.

So what’s the point if the general reader can’t access them, Monbiot writes today:

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

One of the comments on his article, a contributor to the Guardian comment blog, suggests that journal subscriptions are getting in the way of academic research having public impact:

In my occasional forays into writing for CiF and elsewhere, I’ve often wanted to refer to academic articles. If I were to pay for just two or three of them, I would literally be working at a loss. Because I’m not attached to a university, I can’t even get free access to most of them in person.

The day Monbiot’s column appeared, the price of articles became the topic of the day in the higher education Twittersphere, with responses pointing towards blueprints for transforming academic publishing through open access and social media and (in the contrarian corner) reasons why publishers’ profit motive supports innovation and counterbalances risk-averse peer reviewers, plus a reminder that Canadian universities are involved in a related struggle with copyright clearing houses.

Most journals are published by commercial publishers and charge for access. Open access journals which make their content freely available online from the beginning are usually smaller and operated by academics or institutions themselves (two examples are Anthropology Matters, a journal set up through the Association of Social Anthropologists postgraduate network, and Narodna umjetnost, the bilingual journal of the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb). However rigorous their peer review, they are rarely considered as prestigious as Anglophone academia’s established ‘top’ journals.

Researchers regularly complain to each other about journal access fees – though the strain is greater on librarians, whose budgets may not let them take out a new institutional subscription unless they drop an old one. As funding is cut, academics shouldn’t expect to take even the current subscriptions for granted.

I run into journal paywalls several times a month, even at a well-resourced university. Last week, it happened with recent issues of one of the top-ranked International Relations journals, Security Dialogue; not perfect, when you write about international intervention.

I can use British Library Direct to buy a DRM-restricted PDF of the article at less than the publisher charges (or at least I could; the landing page was full of 404 errors when I tried to confirm pricing for this post).

I can email the author for a copy and hope it isn’t computer failure day, sabbatical time or maternity leave. (Not much use if, say, I’m researching a paper on postsocialism and the author is Daphne Berdahl, an authority on postsocialist East Germany. Berdahl died in 2007, so independent scholars won’t be reading her articles on nostalgia and consumption any time soon.)

What I’ll probably do, if the article is marginal, is just end up citing someone else.

If I transfer a syllabus to a new institution, I need to look up the journal readings again to check whether students will have access to them through e-journal subscriptions and the VLE for the module or whether I will need to bring in 25 print-outs of an important article.

It’s better than it used to be. Research councils like the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funds my current project, expect that any work they fund will eventually be made publicly accessible. Journal publishers now ask for a period of exclusivity, usually 18 months, before authors can make articles public through an institutional repository of ‘e-prints’ or a self-archive (the searchable SHERPA/RoMEO database helps you check journals’ policy on self-archiving).

E-prints repositories are getting better, but still don’t work perfectly. The e-prints of my own articles are spread between the institution where I did my PhD and the institution where I’ve worked since 2008. I could bring them together by listing them on (a social network for academics I’ve hardly used as yet) and hosting them on the document sharing site Scribd. I could upload them to a discipline-specific repository like the new Social Science Open Access Repository, and hope that it lasts longer than the anthropology repository Mana’o, which shut down after prolonged technical problems in 2009.

One anthropologist I know has a departmental web page, with links to pages for his publications on the e-prints server, and a personal web page, where you can download the same publications as PDFs by clicking on a direct hyperlink.  Guess which link I give out to my students?

It’s academics’ own scholarly practices that give academic journals their status. Journal articles go through peer review (but that’s not what costs money, since peer reviewers, like article authors and many journal editors, work for free).  That’s institutionalised in evaluations such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, which doesn’t recognise book chapters (papers submitted to be chapters in edited volumes) and makes authors rush to submit to journals in 2011-12 so that their article can pass review and be published by the REF deadline of October 2013.

The modularity of research tools such as Google Scholar and Mendeley work against the book chapter, since they can easily retrieve articles’ metadata (and sometimes text, if you’re logged in through a university) and make them much more visible in the researcher’s information universe.  Working on an interdisciplinary project, it can become less relevant what journal an article is published in, more relevant how high it comes in a Google Scholar keyword search.

If the system is broken, though, it might get worse.

One model for commercial open access publishing is the ‘author-pays’ open access model being introduced by at least two journal publishers, Springer and Maney. Springer’s new suite of fully ‘open’ science, technology and medical (STM) journals charge ‘article processing fees’ of £475-£1310 (with institutional membership options and waivers for low-income countries), and its OpenChoice option to publish an article in other Springer journals as open access costs €2000.

OpenChoice at Maney costs £1250 for STM journals and £500 in humanities, with a long article surcharge ‘in recognition of the fact that many humanities papers can be lengthy in their final published extent’.

In an academic publishing world dominated by author-pays OA, researchers would have to cost publication fees into their grant applications – and ensure the article was published during the period of the grant. Rich departments might choose to support publication for some or all of their staff members; unaffiliated researchers, and academics working in poorly-funded departments who hadn’t won an external ‘big bid’ for their research, would find publication much more difficult. (Yet another way to transfer risk on to the individual.)

Full author-pays OA would even prevent researchers from overshooting publication targets the way that my colleagues on my current (research-council-funded) project have happily been doing. Even from a corporate managerialist perspective, that must seem like a bad move.

Maybe future researchers will need to think in terms of writing two ‘outputs’ per article idea – one for the subscription-only audience and one for public engagements. A few months ago I submitted an article to a journal that’s also associated with a website that addresses the wider public, and I certainly have that in mind – as long as I can find suitable royalty-free images, which should be a post in itself.

In the meantime, the low-tech solution wins out, as @DrTomFlynn tweeted during a discussion of the Monbiot column this morning: ‘@georgemonbiot’s article about publishing misses one vital fact: ask any academic, and they’ll send you it for free’. (Apart from Daphne Berdahl, I suppose. Do we need to be appointing literary executors for ourselves?)

The biggest money-spinner in the western world, though? I used to work in an office supplies retailer; so sit down, and let’s talk about inkjet cartridges…