Is Academic Publishing Finally at a Crossroads?
“Two stories today that update the earlier discussion of academics on boycott. (Hat-tip to Boingboing for original pointers.) To review: academics who publish provide free material and free labor to big publishers like Elsevier who take this free material and package it into things like journals that are then sold at great expense to places like libraries. And by ‘great expense’ I mean tens of thousands of dollars per journal per year. More on that below. Often, to be published requires not just giving up your time and energy but also all kinds of rights on your own writing. Some academic publishers will, for example, forbid authors from having copies of their own papers on their own Web sites. Sometimes you're not allowed to submit the entire body of your writing to a scientific indexing service, just an abstract. Both of these hurt authors by making their work harder to find and read, but bring more revenue to the publishers who charge for things like reprints, access to their walled ‘digital libraries,’ and so on. If you think this is nuts, you're not alone. The Cost of Knowledge anti-Elsevier petition, for example, is up over 10,000 signatories as I write this. That brings me to the first item, a story by John Naughton for The Observer titled ‘Academic publishing doesn't add up’. In his column, Naughton reviews the costs, power structures, and ‘intrinsic absurdity’ of the academic publishing racket, pointing out among other things that at least one estimate of the free labor provided for peer reviewing states its value at over UKP 165,000,000... About that ‘pay’ bit... Boingboing recently highlighted a letter from Harvard Library's Faculty Advisory Council. In it, the Council expresses the view that the costs of these journals will soon put the library out of business. Remember those tens of thousands I mentioned? They add up really fast, particularly when you want to run a world-class research library for a multi-disciplinary faculty. Harvard (or MIT or Boston University or Tufts, just to name four world-class institutions close to where I sit) doesn't just have to keep in the high-prestige journals in biology. They also need the journals in mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, computer science, mechanical engineering, and on and on and on. They don't have the option to leave out some. The result, at least in the case of Harvard, is an annual cost just for journals of USD 3,750,000. That doesn't count access fees, reprint fees, and other costs. And the memorandum points out that the rate of increase in these costs far exceeds other measures such as the rise in tuition costs, inflation, and so on. In plain English, the publishers are gouging ever harder. So, where does that leave us? Libraries are grumbling, funders are disquieted, and individual faculty members are happy to sign petitions of protest. But none of this addresses what I see as the key issue: faculty give these journals this much power because they rest entire careers on them. You get tenure based on your academic publications. You submit your publications list when you apply for grants and funding. Look at any academic C.V. and you'll see that it's structured so that the big name journals in which the person has published are listed promptly. It's one of the first things that gets looked at when someone applies for an academic job. Until that changes, nothing is going to change. I'm sorry to be so consistently negative but ‘publish or perish’ is still the law of the ivory tower.”