I’ve always thought that two of the most overpriced things in the world are lattes at places like Starbucks, and the prices of some academic journals. Most laypeople, whose taxes go to fund scientific research through institutions like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, aren’t aware that if they want to have access to the results of their largesse—the scientific articles that emanate from that research—they have to pay huge amounts of money. And some of those journals turn huge profits from the bloated subscription fees and prices for journal articles (the latter can reach more than $50 US to buy and read a single article online!).
In Monday’s Guardian, author George Monbiot reveals the sordid and grasping capitalism of academic publishing in a piece called “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist.”
If you’re a scientist, read and weep: Elsevier, one of the most notorious offenders, turned a profit of 36% last year. As Monbiot shows, the journals claim that these exorbitant profits reflect the value added by the journal, but that’s hogwash. Remember that virtually all of the scientific vetting of the papers published is done for free: as a public service by other scientists! We get nothing for our close scrutiny that decides which papers get published and which are put in the cylindrical file.
Further, the subscription rates to libraries are often equally exorbitant (though cheaper online): Monbiot notes that a paper library subscription to Biochimica et Biophysica Acta is an astonishing $20,930 per year. Of course, if you belong to a university that can afford such a subscription, you can get the papers for free, either in the library stacks or online, but that still leaves the layperson—and scholars at the many institutions that can’t afford these subscriptions—out of luck.
Open-access publishing, free for everyone, is a better deal, but it’s still somewhat of a scam, for in many such journals the authors have to pay thousands of dollars in “publication fees” just to get their articles to appear. Where does that money come from? From taxpayers, for it’s simply taken out of the part of research grants devoted to “publication.” The taxpayer gets the results online free, but also unknowingly foots the bill.
Monbiot’s solution, at least the first part, is eminently sensible.
In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.
It outrages me as a scientist that I review papers for free (and this often takes an enormous amount of time), while the journals for which I review rake in huge gobbets of cash. It’s unfair to scientists, and it’s unfair to the taxpayers. I’m not sure how good a suggestion a single global “publication,” is, though—it would be nearly impossible for a scientist to winnow for good research, for we often direct our attention to those journals known to have stringent quality control and a history of publishing good papers. But at the very least, the public should have low-cost or free access to the research it funds.
Academic publishing is the Starbuck’s latte of science, and the scam has to stop.
h/t: Matthew Cobb