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.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.
…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.
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!
- Jean-Claude Guédon's wonderful long article on the history of scholarly publishing and how we got into this mess.
- CalPIRG report on academic journal prices
- Superb interviews from Australian journal The Conversation
- Journal pricing data from the University of California (a bit out of date but still shocking)