Academic? You’re just a cash-hamster spinning a publisher’s profit wheel

9 09 2019

mindslaveI contend that publishing articles in nearly all peer-reviewed journals amounts to a form of intellectual slavery.

I defend my use of the word ‘slavery’ here, for how else would you describe a business where the product (scientific results) is produced by others (scientists) for free, is assessed for quality by others (reviewers) for free, is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others (editors) for free, and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s knowledge consumers at exorbitant prices? To make matters worse, most scientists have absolutely no idea how much their institutions pay for these subscriptions, so there is little consumer scrutiny passed from researcher to administrator. In 2015, Jason Schmitt of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York quoted Brian Nosek, Director of the Center for Open Science, to sum up the situation:

“Academic publishing is the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs. I, as the researcher, produce the scholarship and I want it to have the biggest impact possible and so what I care about is the prestige of the journal and how many people read it. Once it is finally accepted, since it is so hard to get acceptances, I am so delighted that I will sign anything  —  send me a form and I will sign it. I have no idea I have signed over my copyright or what implications that has — nor do I care, because it has no impact on me. The reward is the publication.”

Some journals go even beyond this sort of profiteering and also inflict ‘page charges’ of hundreds to thousands of US dollars on the authors for the privilege of having their work appear in that journal.

I am not just grumpy about what many might assume to be a specialised and irrelevant sector of the economy, because it is in fact an industry worth many billions of dollars annually. In fact, one of the biggest corporations, Reed-Elsevier*, made over £1.8 billion (nearly US$2.8 billion) in adjusted operating profit in 2015 (1). Other major publishing companies like Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Sage Publications, which with Reed-Elsevier collectively published more than half of all the academic papers published in 2013, make many billions in profit each year as well: Wiley-Blackwell took in US$965 million in revenue in 2016, Springer had a 2012 revenue of US$1.26 billion, and Sage Publications had a 2015 profit of $585 million.

If those sounds like huge sums, they are, for the reasons I outlined in the paragraph above. Worldwide, scientific publishing has huge profit margins; for example, in 2015 Reed-Elsevier’s profit margin was a monstrous 37%, with Springer following closely at 35% and Sage Publications at 28.2%. For comparison, Apple — one of the most profitable companies in the world (ranked first by Fortune 500 for profitability in 2015; the company had a 2015 revenue of US$182 billion, and profited US$39.5 billion) had a profit margin of 29%, Google’s was 25%, mining giant Rio Tinto’s was 23%, and the car maker BMW’s profit was 10%.

Many other scientists have of course noticed this profiteering, and in protest have stopped submitting manuscripts to the journals of particular companies, or have refused to review or edit for them. Back in 2012, there was a huge push to boycott Reed-Elsevier in particular because of its exorbitant journal subscription prices, and while certain scientists have maintained their disgust by refusing to do any work for that company, the main movement has largely lost steam. One of the more recent iterations of mass protest is a petition by Finnish academics who are demanding fairer pricing for journal subscriptions and increased open access from — you guessed it — Reed-Elsevier.

While I empathise with such protests (and have participated in them myself), I fear that they actually do little in the end to fixed our damaged system. This is mainly because of the clever way that publishing companies ‘bundle’ their subscriptions together, such that nearly all academic disciplines will have at least some of their most important journals bound into their library’s subscription package. This means that for your average scientist it becomes self-harming to boycott an entire company because you will miss the opportunity to publish in some of the most reputable and highly ranked journals in your discipline.

So, how do we fix this system? I’ve proposed ways before, but they seem to have had little real consideration. I really don’t know — I’m fairly jaded by the whole, corrupt system. Will totally open-access journals fix the problem? It will only address the paywall issue for access, but it will do nothing at to end the overt profiteering. Why, just this week I’ve had to shell out nearly AU$10K for mandatory open-access charges for … wait for it … three articles. Truly we are knowledge slaves.

(modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)

References

  1. Relx Group (2016) Annual Reports and Financial Statements 2015. (mslgroup.co.uk, London, United Kingdom)

Footnotes

*Ironically, this company provides a ‘Modern Slavery Act Statement‘ at the bottom of their landing page — I almost choked.

 


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