Publishers versus everyone
May 18, 2012
[The title of this post is an allusion to Matt’s older post Authors versus publishers.]
Following on from yesterday’s rant, I’m moved to write this one by Stephen Curry’s report on the latest Finch Committee meeting. (For anyone who’s not been following along, the Finch Committee is a high-powered group that’s been convened by the UK government to come up with recommendations on the way forward for scholarly publishing.)
Publisher members of the Working Group were unhappy about this, and were perplexed about the rationale specifically for a six-month period, which did not appear to be based on any analysis of the half-life of articles. RCUK’s view, however, was that the six-month span had been suggested because it was deemed right and appropriate.
And there you have it in the nutshell. One side you have RCUK, representing researchers, proposing what they believe is right and appropriate, because it’s right and appropriate. And on the other side, as usual, you have the barrier-based publishers whining as usual because … well, because what? There is only one possible reason: because it hurts their bottom line. I can’t see a way to even pretend that longer embargoes are in anyone else’s benefit but that of the publishers themselves.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that the six-month maximum on embargoes is a benefit to researchers, to students, to concerned citizens, to ambitious high-school kids, to doctors, to nurses, to legislators, to amateur palaeontologists, astronomers and ornithologists. In short, to everyone. With one trifling exception: barrier-based publishers.
Now we may as well admit that reducing Green-OA embargo periods will cut into those publishers’ revenues. (It’s often been stated, and as far as I know it’s actually true, that no actual study has ever shown Green OA to harm publisher revenues; but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.) When embargo limits are cut down, it may be that instead of climbing for a sixth consecutive year, Elsevier will not be able to improve on their 2011 profit margin of 37.3%. Their profit margin might fall. Just imagine the hardship if their profit margin was cut by a full third, all the way down to 24.9% — then they be only a little more profitable than Apple were in their record-breaking 2011. Poor Elsevier! You have to feel sorry for their shareholders!
But here’s the point: it’s their problem. Somehow, barrier-based for-profit publishing corporations have suckered us into thinking we have a responsibility to keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed — which has come to mean continuing year-on-year record profits. We are not responsible for their businesses. And it would be wrong and immoral of RCUK, who represent British taxpayers, to take publishers’ private interests into account at all in deciding their policy. (To give credit where it’s due, they haven’t: the full minutes show them repeatedly standing up to the publishers.)
In a nutshell: barrier-based publishers want one thing, everyone else wants the opposite.
Or to be more explicit: the world needs access to research, and barrier-based publishers want to prevent it.
Yes, these seem like harsh statements. But they are the simple truth, and we may as well face it head on. Let’s not delude ourselves. Let’s not be taken in any longer by the rhetoric where barrier-based publishers depict themselves as our partners. The simple truth is that they want the opposite of what we want.
So back in January when I wrote in the Guardian that Academic publishers have become the enemies of science, I now realise I was mistaken. What I should have written is that academic publishers have become the enemies of us all.