Monday, 15 February 2016

The Arcane Art of Academic Publication

The British Financial Times publishes a list of the 'best' business schools, which still surprisingly feeds into journal quality (Harzing, 2015). Why surprising? Because most of the academic journals are no longer owned by the schools which created them. They are instead owned by for-profit publishing houses.

Like accounting firms, there are five key players in the academic journal business. They are Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage (Vocativ, 6 October 2015). When the journals were published by the schools who did the research, the Universities tended to lose money on publications. So they sold the rights - often for very little - to these five behemoth publishers.

And now, to quote a Guardian headline, "Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist" (Monbiot, 29 August 2011). That's referring to Rupert Murdoch, raper and pillager of the media empire known as News Corp. These five publishing houses vigorously police access to academic information, and charge academics like a wounded bull for that privilege.

The lecturers in the schools who actually do the research still write the articles. For free. What is more, those same researchers still peer-review all the papers submitted to those journals. Also for free (Gershman, 6 May 2014).

The editing of the articles, following the peer-review, is still done by the researchers themselves. For free. The layout and presentation of the articles to comply with the editing rules of the journal is still done by the researcher. For free. No journal article authors ever get a royalty for how many times their articles have been published, downloaded or cited. Wow. Oh, and those researchers still teach... in their spare time (Gershman, 6 May 2014).

The schools - and therefore the Universities - which created the journal articles then have to pay to read it and to share it: sometimes as much as $95 for one twelve page article. What really is crazy is that most of these articles are not even published in hardcopy any more. You just 'rent' access to a pdf of the article, usually for just 12 months. You are supposed to renew after twelve months if you still need it. Even if the original author is dead and that it should be outside copyright by now. Ouch.

The taxpayers in each country where those researchers live and teach have funded the research. Those taxpayers have also funded the tertiary institutes, the researchers, and the libraries who get the papers back in. However, those big 5 publication houses 'own' the papers. In 2011, Reed-Elsevier alone made $1.1b profit: a 36% profit (Gershman, 6 May 2014). In 2013, a 39% profit (Schmitt, 23 December 2014). Ouch again.

As a private individual, getting access to papers is nigh on impossible. You need to go through a tertiary institute. Newspapers and journos generally can't afford access either, unless you are an elite magazine like The Economist.

Worse still, lots of tertiary institutes can't afford access to the journals themselves. This not only due to the rorting of the journal system, but also because, overlying the big 5 publishers, are databases which index and search the articles themselves and lock access on behalf of the publishers.

For example, Thomson Reuters Web of Science is so expensive that neither of the institutes which I teach for can afford to pay the annual database access subscription. I was reading a post which related that the University of California San Diego library spends 2/3rds of their entire library budget to getting access to databases, and that just getting "to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR -- only one of the many databases and collections of information -- [they] pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that" (McKenna, 2012). That is ONE collection at JSTOR, which is in turn only ONE of the databases. And that 2/3rds of the library budget is journal access appears common throughout the higher education sector.

If you head off to Wikipedia and take a look at the list of databases, you will start to see that this too is a sector of a few, rich, tax-dollar parasites. Ebesco, JSTOR, ProQuest, Thomson Reuters, Wiley-Blackwell, Reed-Elsevier... starting to sound familar...?

We can find any piece of research online, by doing a Google search, or a Google Scholar search. We don't actually need the databases. What we should call them is "gatekeepers", because they lock up the articles, which we access unless we pay rental (even for a single letter published in a journal in 1939).

Considering all the research that is 'disseminated' by these companies is actually paid by the public purse, it seems madness that our tax dollars go to making these fat cats fatter.

Bring on open access. It would also significantly lower the cost of tertiary education.



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