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Monday, April 23, 2012

The costs of academic publishing

Academic publishing doesn't add up

-- says John Naughton in the Guardian.

The world of university research has long been held to ransom by academic publishers charging exorbitant prices for subscriptions – but that may all be about to end.

As he goes on to say, if you're a researcher in any academic discipline, your reputation and career prospects are largely determined by your publications in journals of mind-bending specialisation – like Tetrahedron, a journal specialising in organic chemistry and published by the Dutch company Elsevier.

Everything that appears in such journals is peer-reviewed – vetted by at least two experts in the field.  These two experts are recruited from academia, and it is in their interest to do the research to back up their opinions and comments.

These peers review the papers, and do the research involved, for absolutely nothing. They don't get a penny. Or a cent.

The scholar who has written the paper gets exactly the same payment --- zilch.  His or her career depends on being published in these esoteric journals, and so the gratification of publication is considered quite sufficient.

Yet the journals charge an absolute fortune to the libraries that subscribe to them.  Ordinary scholars could not possible afford a subscription, believe me.  As Naughton describes, in the publish-or-perish academic world, the vulnerability of scholars gives enormous power to outfits that publish key journals -- outfits like Elsevier.

An annual subscription to Tetrahedron, for example, costs a university library $20,269 (£12,600). And if you want Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, that'll set the library back €18,710 (£11,600) a year. Not all journals are this pricey, but the average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is still $3,792 and many journals cost far more.  Most major British universities are spending between £4m and £6m a year on journal subscriptions -- and yet it is the universities, funded by the taxpayer, that are paying the authors and reviewers.

The worm, however, is beginning to turn. An eminent Cambridge academic, Professor Tim Gowers, announced in a blogpost that he would not be submitting articles to Elsevier's journals and that he would also be refusing to peer-review articles for them.

And lo, his post proved hugely popular, attracting thousands of readers and commenters. Even more importantly, it triggered the set-up of a website, The Cost of Knowledge, which enables academics to register their objections to Elsevier.

To date, more than 9,000 have done so.

As Naughton remarks, if this marks the end of the "academic publishing racket," Professor Gowers should get not just a knighthood, but the Order of Merit too.


Caron Eastgate Dann said...

I agree wholeheartedly that something is amiss in the whole academic journal publication racket. I had no idea how much these subscriptions cost. For the minority of academics lucky enough to be in continuing (used to be tenured) positions, at least they have research time as part of their job, for which they are paid. However, the majority of academics these days are employed on a sessional (casual) or short-term contract, and we have to somehow find time to do this research, write and publish papers, because we know there will be no hope of finding a full-time job without them. Ditto conferences. I was speaking at a conference a while back and when I looked around me, I thought 'The catering people are being paid; the venue is hired; the cleaners who will come in later on are being paid; the maintenance man across the hallway is being paid; the person on reception is being paid; the mini-bus driver for the overseas guests is being paid. Then there is me, muggins, who has spent many weekends and evenings preparing this paper and who is now presenting it...for no pay whatsoever. What's more, even when speaking at a conference, you usually have to pay to be there. I once took out a personal bank loan to speak at a conference in Hawaii. I have narrowly missed a couple of full-time jobs because the other applicant had 'more journal articles' than me. Writing for a newspaper, read by 500,000 people, doesn't count; writing for a journal, read by a couple of hundred at best, does. And that is true even if you are teaching media or journalism at uni. Then critics lambaste academic journalists for not continuing to practise journalism!

Joan Druett said...

Wow, many thanks for this passionate comment. I knew that speakers at conferences had to raise funding to get there and stay there, but I was under the impression that the conference organizers paid an honorarium. Maritime museums have generally been very good to me, though some have balked at the mere $50 plus expenses that is my absolute bottom line. After all, like you, I am coming from the south Pacific! It would probably be a good idea for speakers to get together, like contributors to academic journals.

I once spoke with an American academic who was a professor at a major university. He told me that he was told that his tenure depended on getting his PhD dissertation published. He did that with the university press (not royalties, but no costs, either) -- but then was told that his tenure depended on him making his own book a required text for his courses. This meant that his students were shelling out well over a hundred bucks for the same information he was imparting on the podium.

Dale said...

There are virtually no economies of scale in academic publishing. The readership for these extremely specialised journals is tiny, and the cost of producing them is eye-watering.

I worked for Elsevier in Amsterdam for four years: the staff were all highly qualified (a lot of academics among them) and well paid, which is why I stayed so long! But the work is meticulous and demanding.

Joan Druett said...

Fascinating! What did you do there, Dale? Check the contributors' facts, or find referees? Did they all function in English? I'm assuming that the journals were published in English.

Dale said...

I was what they called a bureauredakteur or "in-house editor", on the production and content side of its Earth Sciences division. There were about 16 of us in that division. Each editor managed and quality-controlled three or four journals which were monthly or quarterly, and filled in any unallocated time by editing books for the medical publishing division.

Whereas our overseeing staff editors were qualified in the specialist topic of the journal - from economics to nuclear physics - the bureauredakteurs' qualifications, although tertiary, were allowed to be more general.

We published material in English, French and German, and liaised with the publishers in Dutch, and were expected to be competent in all four languages (thank heavens they never checked me thoroughly on that!). However the international scientific community prefers to publish in English, so that was seldom an issue; at the time I was competent enough to subedit in French for the few French papers we had in. In four years I had only one German paper submitted, and as my German is fairly rubbishy, I swapped it with the German-born editor down the corridor and did one of hers in return.

I remember working with NASA scientists on moon-rock analysis papers, among others - they were always in a hurry and wanted long phone calls to the US that cost Elsevier and NASA a fortune. One of them once checked proofs of conference papers over the phone with me for an hour and a half. The hidden cost not only of the space race, but of academic publishing!

Joan Druett said...

Well, that has certainly opened a window into a different world! Thank you so much for taking the trouble and time to write in such detail. Much appreciated.