28 December 2011

Academic Publishers: Suicide Bombers Against the Academy

I lost my marbles the other day when I saw this article from Cambridge University press offering to rent me some academic articles:
For just £3.99, $5.99 or €4.49, users are now able to read single articles online for up to 24 hours, a saving of up to 86 per cent, compared with the cost of purchasing the article.
Of course, you can’t save, print, or do anything with the article except read it on line, then it disappears. What useless crap! Say you’re doing some research and you need a citation. $5.99 might be OK if you only needed one article. But the average academic article has 20-100 citations. And honestly, a good article is not something you read once and have done with it – you need to check it a few times and do some re-reading to absorb it. So this rental is really just a ‘teaser’ – it’s just enough access to decide if you really need to have something, after which you have the privilege of buying one of these articles for $30-$75. Yes, that’s really how much they charge! For one fucking article!

So when I read something like this:
Cambridge University Press is committed to widening dissemination and lowering barriers to accessing journal articles.
… I can smell the bullshit. Article rental is a scam. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg in the larger and much more heinous scam being run by the major academic publishers – Springer, Thomson, Elsevier, a few others – who are looting the academic commons for private profit while denying access to the public and increasing inequality.

Does that sound harsh? I hope so. Because most academic knowledge is produced by scholars whose pay comes from the public purse. The rest – i.e. tuition dollars – is still subsidized heavily by the government as in the form of below-market-rate student loans.

Like with so many other things that used to be public goods, academic knowledge (in the form of journal articles) has effectively been privatized in the last few decades. The ‘big four’ academic publishers have acquired rights to the articles you need to make it as a scholar, and have been jacking up prices steadily every year – an average 8.5% increase between 1996 and 2004. For a reality check, see the Springer price list for 2012. Institutions pay an average of $2168/year for a Springer journal.  For four issues! The humanities and social sciences are cheaper – The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, for instance, costs just $764. Anything to do with chemistry, mathematics, or medicine will set your library back $3250-6500. And what are the publishers’ costs? Content is provided for free. Peer reviewers and editorial boards also work on the public dime to do quality control. You do need decent copy editors and some computers. (The posh office building in New York or London and multi-million dollar executive salaries, however, are perhaps not integral to scientific production).

And the cost of making a digital copy of a journal article? Zero, or so close to it that it makes no difference.

So what to do about this? Internet commenters naively suggest that scholars boycott for-profit journals and only publish in open-access ones. But that also means boycotting ‘having a career’. In most universities, scholars are rewarded for publication and only publication (rewarding good teachers remains a quaint idea). And because of ‘university reform’, publications are increasingly valued by ‘impact factor’, numerical metrics that purport to measure the quality of an article based on how often it gets cited. Take the University of Bologna, where I work. Starting this year, promotion for researchers and professors is based on publication in journals listed in the Scopus index. Those are the only journals that count. The idiocy of judging academic work by its popularity I hope is obvious, but there even more foolish consequences.  

If this continues, archaeologists are screwed: many of the most important journals in the field do not have an impact factor. People publish a lot in edited volumes and obscure yearly serials. And what happens to your career if you want to go open access? That work is invisible. You’ll never get a raise or a promotion. The result: a scramble by scholars to find journals with an impact factor, whether they’re really appropriate or not. And, not surprisingly, the journals with impact factors – and the ranking system itself – belong to the big publishers. Scopus is produced by Elsevier, one of the biggest publishers. The most commonly-used impact factor ratings are created by ISI, owned by Thomson Reuters. It’s a pernicious, self-reinforcing racket. The management, dissemination, and assessment of academic knowledge, produced with public funds, has been outsourced to a cartel of unaccountable corporations without anyone quite noticing what was happening.

I’ve done a lot of research in two of the world’s richest and best university libraries (Berkeley and Michigan) and I’ve seen and heard them being squeezed hard by the dual forces of budget cuts and price increases, to the point that they have had to seriously cut journal acquisitions. In the book world the call it the ‘serials crisis'.  (See this article for another example - and look at the 2009 graph) I’ve been spoiled by such libraries: the University of Bologna library is provincial by comparison. Doing research is a string of frustrations as I find journal after journal where we don’t have subscriptions, or whe have a limited range of dates online. The same is true in Australia, according to Simon Marginson of the University of Melbourne:
Few universities can afford to maintain the full set of minimum necessary journals to be able to provide research infrastructure on a comprehensive basis. Indeed, even the strongest Australian university libraries are forced to do without material they need to hold. In New Zealand the problem is significantly worse, and in major universities in such countries as Indonesia, Philippines or Vietnam there is simply no possibility of providing even the most minimum set of necessary journals.
And the are the rich countries, doing without basic journals they really need! Imagine the situation in Nigeria, Brazil, Malaysia, or, really poor countries like Nicaragua or Zambia. No matter how talented the student, how ambitious the professor, they simply have no access to the full range of relevant scholarship. Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg nails it in a recent interview:
It is a completely feudal system.The costs of the research production are borne by the universities, and as a result, by public monies, in most cases. Then, private companies publish the research, and charge the universities and public institutions for the very research outputs that they paid for. This is effectively the subsidy of the private sector by public money.

…Simply put, students from poor backgrounds in large parts of the developing world will not have access to quality academic journals in their universities. This means that they will not be as well trained, and as a result will not have the same opportunities as the privileged. Is this not a violation of the principle of equal opportunities for all. There is a myth that this is an example of entrepreneurialism. In my view, all it does is facilitate enrichment at public cost with huge consequences for those most disadvantaged.
And we’re talking about access problems for graduate students and people with PhDs. Don’t have a library card and online login to a major university research library? You will NEVER read any of the research that your tax money goes to support. EVER. This crisis threatens to render academic research sterile and irrelevant. Like wealth, knowledge is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with more and more institutions cut off if they cannot pay preposterous sums to the new rentiers of  academic knowledge.

Or maybe I should say, it will make American and European academic research irrelevant.  That’s really what we’re talking about when we say ‘the academy’, isn’t it? Who publishes in so-called ‘international’ journals? Few scholars in the global south have full access to the fruits of the north’s scholarship. They can’t participate in academic debates if they can’t follow them, no matter how deep the pool of talent and no matter how fast the growth of their economic and geopolitical power.

Already places like Brazil, Turkey, and China offer better economic opportunities than Europe or America, despite radical asymmetries in access to knowledge, capital, and expertise from the so-called ‘developed’ world. Why shouldn’t they just tune out the Anglo-American dominated academic discourse entirely?

This system can’t last forever (though its pernicious effects might). The big four will eventually see revenues drop as they squeeze the last drops of blood out of the world’s universities. But even as they undermine their own business model, they will destroy the power of universities to generate knowledge for the betterment of society. (Yes, I’m old-fashioned that way.) Meanwhile, universities, governments, corporations, and ordinary citizens will turn to other sources of information – which they can get for free, or at least affordably – undermining the relevance of public scholarship.

For-profit academic publishing is a suicide bombing mission against the academy. In pursuing their doomed business model, the big publishers risk turning the work we do as scholars into a giant echo chamber. Students take on a lifetime of debt, partly to pay for journal subscriptions that enrich a few corporations. Scholars are turned into serfs who must feed the beast new product for it to sell, or risk losing their already tenuous livelihoods. Institutions bankrupt themselves paying for ever more expensive journals without which they cannot compete. Fewer and fewer people can read the rapidly increasing number of scholarly articles.

Is that grim enough for you? It’s all true. Let me call your attention to American hero Aaron Swartz of hacktivist group Demand Progress, who downloaded 4 million articles from JSTOR from the MIT servers using anonymous logins and automated programs.  JSTOR and the university freaked out and called the cops, and now Swartz faces federal charges and up to 35 years in prison. Not for disseminating the information, just for downloading it. But ‘theft is theft’ said the MIT administration. JSTOR bills itself as a harmless public repository of knowledge - as long as you don't want too much of it.

The copyright zealots who make it their business to restrict access to the world’s artistic, musical, and visual patrimony are perverts. Two hundred years ago these guys would have been hanging hungry people for stealing food. Under the logic of copyright, the miracle of the loaves and fishes would be theft from the bakers and the fisherman, and Jesus and his disciples criminals who should pay $1 million per loaf illegally downloaded from heaven. Who cares if we can make an infinite amount of bread, and a lot of people are hungry? Think of the rights of the bakers!



  1. Thank you for this post. As an untenured professor at a major research 1 university, I for one would like to stop sending my papers to publishers like Elsevier. Unfortunately however, to get a job and keep it promotion and tenure committees, department heads, and deans all want to see "high impact" research. Add to this, it seems that many in our field are quite skeptical of most open source journals (see various posts in Publishing Archaeology). Together, these two conditions appear to render us untenured faculty duty bound to continue reproducing the ridiculous publishing farce that you describe so well. As far as I can see, one recourse to resist this situation is "self archiving". Though I publish in these overpriced commercial journals, I try to make everything that I write available for free on the web. I believe this is important as many of my foreign colleagues do not have access to said journals. Thanks to services like Academia.edu, Mendeley, SelectedWorks, (I mirror on all three) and others effective self archiving is possible. Ideally, I'd like to see a shift away from commercial publishers and a move towards high quality open source peer reviewed journals. Yet, until spineless careerists like myself actually start publishing “high impact research” in said venues (rather than continuing to feed the commercial publishing leviathans) change will never come. I realize and admit that I am part of the problem, and it eats at my soul—this type of business mentality is not what brought me to archaeology. Maybe it is time to "occupy academics"?


  3. Thanks so much for writing this. As a former academic who tries to remain engaged, I often feel well meaning academics are unknowingly complicit with this hording of their knowledge.

    When I was at universities I never gave a thought to the barriers that kept out the population at large. That is really the business model of private (and increasingly, of public) higher education. They are providing fee for view, like running a movie theater. Keeping those not paying out -- and keeping content inside from being available to other venues -- is central to solvency.

    JSTOR, Cambridge & Oxford (who have much higher rates) publishing are just the most outrageous expressions of this.

    As a personal note, I subscribe to several journals at obscenely high cost. The previous defense that "boutique" publishing is inherently expensive disappeared with the disappearance of book retail distribution costs. The actually printing and editing (after going though unpaid writing, peer review and selection) is tiny. I can set up a website in an hour to take book orders, costing no more than $20 a month to run.

    So academics need to be asking others academics, especially those working with journals: where is that money going? Why is this costing so much? Why are we creating barriers to knowledge? Why don't we just do it ourselves?

  4. The ArXiv (http://arxiv.org), and similar sites are the place to start a new way to do things. A peer-review system attached to the ArXiv would end up with then power of academic publishers.

  5. arXiv.org seems to be a fairly successful model for science (I'm in astronomy). New papers are posted there typically on submission to journals such as the Astrophysical Journal. Publishing remains important, mostly due to peer review, and the formality of it (that's how raises are calculated), but the article is available for free on arXiv still. I'm sure there are tradeoffs to be made: for one publishers probably won't like it. I believe PASP doesn't allow posting to arXiv if they are going to accept a paper. In a novel turn, however, PASP is shunned by at least my colleagues as a result. It may not be easy for other fields to emulate, either. I've heard anecdotally that the arXiv isn't as useful for biology, for example.

    Astronomy is a small field, and this model seems to work well there.

  6. "Like with so many other things that used to be public goods, academic knowledge (in the form of journal articles) has effectively been privatized in the last few decades"

    This is wrong historically. For most of the history of education, everything was exclusively private, so much so in fact individual students used to pay their Professors directly. State Universities got going in the U.S. around turn of the 19th century, fledgling at first, and still rather exclusive (Jews send their kids to UW for instance because it was the first State University to allow Jews).

    In fact the whole idea that the world was once rife with "public goods" is wrong empirically (the term is misused and misunderstood commonly -- a public good is one that you can't draw a border around and exclude other people from consuming, also one where my consumption of it doesn't reduce yours -- like a beach. Education is neither of these, though indeed provided by the State in large measure at the lower levels). Most of government for most of history was provided through venal office (buying and selling posts, unabashedly). Wars were paid for mostly by spoils. Roads were privately maintained and paid for for most of history. Militaries -- private, full of profit motive. Fire protection -- private, and still now mostly privately provided anywhere other than the most major urban areas.

    You see, most people's conception of economic history goes back about thirty years, maybe fifty, and before that everyone thinks the only important things that happened economically were the cotton gin, steam engines, and the great depression. It's all wrong. And dangerous considering the stupid conclusions it allows people to come to, that most of the world's services, especially Holy Education were efficiently publicly provided.

    "Peer reviewers and editorial boards also work on the public dime to do quality control."

    Wrong. Most of these people's salaries are paid for by private endowments. The tuition that *is* paid for (only a fraction, and not a majority) by publicly-subsidized loans can't be appropriately called "the public dime" because they are loans. I am an absolute anomoly in America, going to school completely on public money for free. Most people in fact only get a small portion of their loans subsidized, and have to take the rest privately. And anyway "government subsidized loan" usually means you don't pay interest while you're in school. You tell me how a 5% per annum interest rate is dramatically subsidized by the federal government, when that is basically the average return across all tranches of risk in financial markets.

    "The idiocy of judging academic work by its popularity I hope is obvious, but there even more foolish consequences."

    And that statement completely misunderstands scholarship as some kind of flimsy high-school popularity contest. Fashions and trends evolve in any human institution, something this Marxian author is no aware of. One wonders why she expects the academy to operate on a different moral ground. And anyway fashion eventually brought us Newton's Second Law of Motion, Tectonic Plates, and the standard reading of The Communist Manifesto in every introductory sociology course in the world.

    "Like wealth, knowledge is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with more and more institutions cut off if they cannot pay preposterous sums to the new rentiers of academic knowledge"

    This is ridiculous. The internet in fact makes just the citation of about any academic paper ever published available online, as well as the author's email address, any of whom gladly forward pre-press copies of their articles to eager readers.

  7. Amen.

    Next write one on how pathetic peer review is.

  8. Excellent. I'm short of words to describe how right you are and how much this needed to be said, by someone!

  9. Another reason I believe Academia will implode within 20 years. And another reason I'm glad I quit!

  10. "You do need decent copy editors and some computers.

    "And the cost of making a digital copy of a journal article? Zero, or so close to it that it makes no difference."

    I think this substantially underestimates the costs of electronic publication, services that journals provide, and the standards that researchers expect from them.

  11. Thanks to the commenters. I appreciate the amens (of course!). I like the ArXiv model, and I'm curious about its applicability to other fields. I'd also like to address Graham's and Zen's critical comments.

    @Zen: I don't underestimate the value of a good editor (and think they should be paid), but can we at agree that journal prices are far out of proportion to the cost of those services? Why should such work be done for the benefit of the publishing cartel, which does not bear many of the costs (e.g. paying authors, peer review)?

    @Graham: you're correct in stressing the longer historical view, where education was an elite privilege (though before the mid-20th century scholarship was much less strongly protected by copyright!). I disagree with you in that I believe that scholarly papers meet the precise definition of public good: there is no cost to copy them and my use does not inhibit yours. Your proposed solution - that we should simply email the author every time we want a paper - is laughably inefficient even if it had a 100% success rate (which it would not). And it doesn't address the underlying problem, which is oligopolistic control of scientific research produced by public institutions (whether funded by tuition, charitable gifts, or public funds) by an unaccountable, self-dealing cartel. The result is the exclusion of most scholars in the world from most research, and the reinforcement of global knowledge inequalities.

  12. Measure the oligopoly. Just because there are a handful firms in an industry does not mean they exercise substantial or even a little bit of monopoly power. My library fee is $200, which has given me access to every article except one that I've tried to find for a 1,000+ page literature review.

    Zen is wrong and you are right that the marginal cost of publishing an additional journal is negligibly different from zero. "Laughably inefficient" hardly describes at least my experience of the rare necessity to email an author looking for a paper. Let's not forget most scholars maintain a website, self-publishing their Vita as well.

    You're correct that papers satisfy the nonrival attribute of a public good(your consumption doesn't reduce mine), but you would have no article if papers satisfied the nonexcludability attribute. You mean to argue that papers *should* be a public good, which is very different than them necessarily being a public good by their very nature (which is how the economic definition works). Many would argue medical care *should* be a public good. It is not, by either measure of the definition.

    You suggest everyone ought to have an equal amount of knowledge, or at least equal access. That view doesn't recognize the limited amount of knowledge any one person can absorb, that there is always a cost (in foregone opportunities) to absorb that knowledge, and that subsets of people, no matter attending hierarchies, will always have one comparative advantage or another in gaining a category of knowledge.

    You claim that "fewer and fewer people can read the rapidly increasing number of scholarly articles" without demonstrating that in fact the readership of journals has declined (whence it has probably increased proportional to the unprecedented expansion of higher education in the United States and abroad). All that's required for the increase in prices you note (which you don't adjust for inflation) is an increase in demand outpacing an increase in supply. Being that you correctly note the supply of scholarly work has increased (even relative to flat population growth), the demand must be increasing in force. We might take an increase in demand for scholarly research as indicated by the rise in the price of its publication as a positive indicator -- society is getting smarter, or at least wants to.

    I sympathize that a large majority of the strengthening of intellectual property rights represents rent-seeking interests rather than the interest of incentives to create innovative research (this goes way beyond the academy). But scholars' and researchers' interests are not served by making inflamed indictments of Jstor and its ilk.

    You're wrestling with a difficult problem in establishing property rights for knowledge: On the one hand knowledge must be reasonably private in order for knowledge-creators to capture some of its gains (which I would argue are exponential and self-reinforcing, outweighing even the rents accruing to the "suicide bombing oligopoly"). On the other hand knowledge must remain collaborative enough to maintain its influx.

    You're thus wrestling with an enormous and new social issue concerning a newly-valuable (it always has been, but to nowhere near the incredible margin it now is) durable good in society, knowledge. Construing the issue as a conspiracy of "privateers" does not address the actual tension, nor help your cause.

  13. And, Mr. Shoup, you fail to address the empirically reality of just how little of higher education is paid for with taxes. You continue to argue about "oligopolistic control of scientific research produced by public institutions," conceding my point that a large majority of even public institutions take funding from private sources. Yet you still curiously call them public institutions. Please do note that outside of these quasi-public institutions, an enormous body of research continues to be produced by exclusively private universities.

    Overall your case that private interests are newly and strongly corrupting the creation and dissemination of a public good -- knowledge -- is weak. Were we to have a broader debate, we would have to acknowledge that indeed *most* knowledge in the world does not fall under copyright or patent law, and is freely disseminated every day. After all, people talk to one another quite a lot; it is arguably the majority of what a human being does with herself.

    1. @Graham Peterson, your statements depend strongly on the country. In the US, a lot (not most) research is privately funded... yet the results are intended to be public. In the rest of the world, research is mostly public. You have a pretty ethnocentric view of the world. Come to Europe sometime, you'll enjoy the visit ;)

  14. Given that the university administrators mostly care about how much money a person generates in external funding, I really don't see how universities are so different from the publishers.

  15. A suggestion viz the first point (about article rental) and in support of the last (Free Aaron Swartz!) I would recommend the following simple hack. Rent an article and immediately take screen shots of every page (on an apple this is command-shift-3 for the entire screen and command-shift-4 for a particular application, with Windows its a free plug-in). Then, having taken screenshots of the entire document (a process that should take about 2 minutes) you have your very own PDF! Spread widely.

    Screw the publishers, grab that knowledge.

  16. I'm a little late to the party, and no doubt you are long gone Grahm, but let me add a few words.

    This petty arguing about public goods and definitions is not really central. Neither is a lot of the discussion in these long points.

    The argument is a simple one.

    We produce knowledge from public and private universities. MUCH of the funding comes from the government. Other parts come from private funding. Regardless, it is neither the university, the investors, or the author that profits. It is a third party, one that put no money forth at the beginning or did none of the actual research. This is wrong, EVEN if you believe that there should be some compensation for the research done with private money.

    It doesn't make sense for there to be profits for research done with public money. The government invests so that the knowledge is created. Why should a third party have the right to hide it?

    And with private money, perhaps it is sensible that the investors/researchers should profit. But that is not what happens.

    While all the rest of the arguments (poor people (ME!) cannot access knowledge, destruction of academica, etc..) are all good points, they are not central. What is central is that the current system makes no sense. And you generally dance around these points without replying directly.