In his new article “Putting the ‘Public’ Back into ‘Publication’”, Mike Valente uncovers the outrageous profit-making model of commercial publishers of academic journals. Publishing houses like Elsevier and Springer generate enormous profits without actually contributing anything to knowledge production. They neither produce content nor pay the ones who do. They do not even review papers, but instead delegate this task to voluntary academic editors and reviewers. Yet, publishers continue to charge $30 or more per paper download and $4,000 to $20,000 for annual journal subscriptions. Thanks to online distribution and reduced printing costs, publishers can turn 40% of their revenues into profit. Commercial publishing has not only hindered public access to academic knowledge, but has created high costs for university libraries and justified high student fees. So, why does nobody care to change this profit-making model, and what would it take to change it?
Commercial journal publishing is not inevitable. Nonprofit journals have existed for a long time; they charge libraries roughly one tenth of commercial journals – with no difference in quality or prestige. In fact, a large proportion of the highest-impact journals are nonprofit or run directly by academic associations, such as the Academy of Management. So why do commercial journals exist at all? For once, those who read them – academics – do not pay for them since they get access for free through university library subscriptions and licenses. The latter are financed primarily by student fees and donations. Of course, academic papers can also be purchased online, but nobody does that, since academics do not need to and non-academics see no point in it. In other words: commercial publishers continue to make enormous profits because academics do not care, students do not know, and the public neither knows nor cares about the academic journal business. So, who can do anything about that, and what should be done?
Five years ago Internet activist Aaron Swartz tried to make a difference by illegally downloading and giving free access to Thousands of academic papers from the commercial distributor JSTOR using an MIT license. What followed was an over-the-top prosecution in the course of which Aaron took his life. It seems absurd that activism with such dire consequences was needed to raise awareness of this issue. But it is equally disturbing to see how little has changed since then – commercial publishers and distributors continue to prosper.
We argue that the only ones with the power to crush the commercial journal business are academics themselves, because publishers depend on them entirely. Without them, there would be no content, no editors, no reviewers, no readers. But do academics also depend on publishers? In fact they don’t. Imagine for a second, Elsevier, Springer and other publishers just disappeared. Nothing would change for academics. Editorial teams, whose work is voluntary anyway, could simply turn to virtual outlets, and hire cheap copy editors, page formatting experts and webmasters through elance.com to be able to post articles online. Maintaining a journal website would perhaps cost $1,000 annually. All of a sudden, libraries would not need to buy expensive subscriptions or licenses anymore. Academics, students and the public could be given free access to academic knowledge.
So why have academics and their associations not tried to do exactly that? Main reasons are inertia, lack of incentives and inability to adjust. Unfortunately, most publishers own the rights to their journals’ names. Journals (and their names) are part of a system of peer-reviewed publishing that gives academics credibility and prestige. Giving up on commercial journals just to shift to less costly nonprofit publishers may require building trust in new journal brands, which is tedious, even though this has happened occasionally. Also, the market of academic publishing is highly concentrated with a few publishers dominating the entire industry, which makes it difficult to get rid of them entirely. Plus, academic associations that publish their own journals have adopted commercial subscription practices which allows them to generate revenues beyond membership fees. Finally, recent attempts towards promoting alternative online journals have largely failed the ‘credibility test’ vs. established journals. The latter, in turn, have responded to the growing push for a publishing reform by ‘offering’ so-called ‘open access’ solutions, which would give anybody free online access to specific papers. Yet most authors are unwilling to pay the extra fee – the so-called ‘article processing charge’ – required to ‘buy’ their articles ‘out’ of the regular publishing process.
Facing this dilemma, a more radical solution is needed. Some have suggested that university libraries, as the main buyers of academic journals, need to form an alliance and refuse to renew subscriptions and licenses unless publishers lower their prices. Certainly, the watchful eye of deans and perhaps increasing student awareness about how their fees enter the pockets of publishers could support such efforts. However, such a resistance strategy might also work against the interest of academics (and students) who need access to latest journal issues. Instead, academic associations should form an alliance and threaten publishing houses to turn their lead journals into e-journals and move entire editorial teams unless publishers change their business models. However, hardly anybody will put pressure on academic associations to do so. Instead it needs to become their moral obligation to act – in face of library budget constraints, rising student fees, and an increasing interest of the public in engaged academics who are willing to share their knowledge with the rest of society. Some recent petitions to boycott publishers like Elsevier lead in this direction, but more coordinated action is needed. At the same time, guerrilla projects like Sci-Hub and LibGen have started to make Millions of academic papers freely accessible online.
To create a lasting effect, however, both academics and administrators need to acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative forms of publishing. Book publishing provides an existing precedent, with independent academic publishers, and the growing field of self-publishing that offers authors unprecedented control over their content. Major distributors like Amazon already give advice about how to self-publish. And to avoid the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ effect – the self-publishing of poorly written and edited books – academics simply need to apply their excellent voluntary peer-review and editing standards and infrastructures that ensure high quality, no matter if an article is submitted to a journal with restricted access, or an independent outlet. One good example is ephemera, an independent peer-reviewed journal that provides content for free. We therefore urge the academic community to promote the legitimacy of nonprofit and independent forms of peer-reviewed publishing so that publishers can no longer restrict access to our own work while using us for free. Instead, we should create a new system, in the spirit of activist Aaron Swartz, that would help safeguard the knowledge interests of academics, students and citizens alike.
Tweet your support to #puttingpublicbackintopublication (see Mike Valente’s blog)
Public Knowledge Project at Stanford University
Elsevier Boycott Petition ‘The Cost of Knowledge’
Resources for independent book publishing
Further resources related to academic journal publishing reform
Library Genesis and Sci-Hub providing free access to academic papers
Picture taken from: Norrie, J. “Academics line up to boycott world’s biggest journal publisher” in The Conversation (Feb 14 2012)