World of academia bites back 2012-05-08


“MY AFFECTION for DC Thomson deepened when I discovered that to subscribe to The Beano cost more than to simply purchase it weekly at the newsagents. The majority of publishers operated on the notion that a loyal subscriber, someone who wished to read every issue of their publication, not just whenever they could be bothered to pick one up, deserved a little reward, so the cost of an annual subscription was always less than the cover price. Unless, of course, you happened to be DC Thomson who I learned, while in discussion with the editor of The Beano many years ago, decided that the proper model for subscription should be the cover price plus the cost of an envelope and second class stamp. I thought of The Beano while pondering Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, which, as I’m sure you know, is the publication of choice for organic chemists and is a must read for every aspiring lab rat who has a tattoo of Boron on their butt. It is to chemists and biologists what Variety is to the Hollywood agent, essential reading. So guess how much an annual subscription costs? Go on. Well, it is currently £15,210. Now, before you get all upset and start sputtering into your coffee or, perhaps begin to ponder just what a good deal a subscription to The Scotsman is, it should be said that for your £15,210 you do get a total of 100 issues of a quality, peer-reviewed publication that will keep you up-to-date with the latest reviews of cancers and molecular cell research but also biomembranes, too, so this is surely a snip at roughly £152.10 per issue. So why does it cost so much? Well, there are the overheads to think of. You don’t think that academics from around the world write long, detailed articles on the fruit of sometimes years of hard work for free do you? Well, actually, they do write them for free. OK, how about the scientists and academics who peer review the articles prior to publication – surely they are on a fat wad of cash? Sadly, it would appear not. The editors of the publications? As far as I can gather, some get paid and some don’t. The reason that Biochimica et Biophysica Acta cost £15,210 for a single annual subscription is that university libraries will pay £15,210 for a single annual subscription. The reason they pay £15,210 for a single subscription is that they don’t really have any choice as their chemists and biologists have to be kept informed of the latest development in their fields. And what is more is that, unlike other publishers, who will allow you to subscribe only to the publications you actually wish to read, Elsevier, the Dutch publishing house behind Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, has a much better idea which they call ‘Bundling’. A library cannot call up Elsevier and say simply: ‘Phew, we’ve had a vast ‘bring and buy’ sale and so we can now afford to take up a subscription to Biochimica Acta.’ For Elsevier, while no doubt lighting a cigar with a €100 note, will say no, you can’t have only the magazines you wish, what you have to accept is a bundle with lots of other expensive journals that you don’t really want. Elsevier are like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. In one episode of the American sitcom, a new soup shop opened selling the most wonderful tasting soups, but service was strictly on the proprietor’s terms. If you asked for something else, or commented on the high price of his Mulligatawny, he would snatch it back and say: ‘No soup for you.’ Apparently, again according to a senior professor, university libraries who try to negotiate with the company find that they are ‘ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals’. The way the system appears to operate is that we, the British public, fund universities through our taxes as well as the Research Councils UK, who provide grants for academics and scientists to conduct research into new fields. After we, the taxpayer, fund the work the scientists are required to publish their work in the appropriate academic journal who, of course, do not pay them for the articles, but claim copyright of them – 70 years will do – and then charge us, the taxpayer, to read the results of what we have funded. C’mon you have to doff your cap to the likes of Elsevier, and the other leading academic publishers such as Springer and Wiley who, in an age when publishing has taken a pounding from the rise of the internet, are apparently impregnable behind their pay walls and exorbitant subscription fees. If you wish to read a single article in one of Elsevier’s journal the cost is £19.47, Springer charges £21.60, while Wiley-Blackwell charges £25.96. When George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist, peered into the accounts of the three leading academic publishers he discovered that their returns were staggering. In 1998, before the explosion of the internet, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36 per cent; 12 years later it remains 36 per cent with the company last year earning a profit of £724 million on a revenue of £2 billion. If I was a shareholder in Elsevier then I would be delighted and urging them to charge not just £15,000 for a subscription to Biochimica et Bio



08/16/2012, 06:08

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Date tagged:

05/08/2012, 09:16

Date published:

05/07/2012, 16:53