George Monbiot: “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”

August 30, 2011

A quick note to let you all know that George Monbiot’s piece Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist has been published in The Guardian, one of the four respected “broadsheet” national daily newspapers of the UK.  (It was online yesterday, and is in today’s print edition.)

A few key quotes:

“Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.”

“Academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.”

“Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country – Robert Maxwell – made much of his money through academic publishing.”

“What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism.”

I encourage you to read the whole thing.

None of this will be news to long-time SV-POW! readers: we’ve talked more than once about the scandalous prices of academic publications and what can be done about it (and many relevant articles are linked from the Shiny Digital Future page).  What’s new is that this is being discussed in the pages of major mainstream media.

As Scott Aaronson wrote in an article that we’ve cited many times, “What’s missing at this point is mostly anger — a justified response to being asked to donate our time, not to Amnesty International or the Sierra Club, but to the likes of Kluwer and Elsevier.”

So I think I ought to actually do something.  It’s not as though I have a lot of influence, but there is one area where I stop rolling over.  Like all publishing academics, I spend a not insignificant proportion of my time peer-reviewing articles for journals.  From now on, I plan to stop freely volunteering expertise and labour to non-open journals.  When I’m asked to review a manuscript, I’ll reply saying that I’ll be happy to do it for free if the final published version is going to open-access (as it will be at, say, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, PLoS ONE or Palaeontologia Electronica); but that if it’s going to be paywalled, I am available at a reasonable consultancy rate of say £100 per hour.

That seems wholly reasonable to me: if they’re going to be selling the results of my work for profit — which they are perfectly entitled to do — then they can invest in the work that is going to bring them the profit.

I urge you to do the same.  If you do, please mention it in the comments.

(If a fair few of us do this, then we will also be in a position to send an open letter to the for-profit publishers, and to publicise it.  We might just help contribute to the momentum.)

Update (two days later)

There are some excellent letters in today’s Guardian, in response to the Monbiot piece.  Five letters, not one of them attempting a defence of the current broken system.

10 Responses to “George Monbiot: “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist””

  1. At the risk of belaboring the same point again and again and again: there is a free, open-access fully electronic palaeo journal out there, has been, and will be!

    [Mike says: Sorry, Heinrich, bad oversight. I have amended the article accordingly.]

  2. How do you (or other folks) feel about non-profit society journals that are published by for-profit publishers? The big example that springs to mind is Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology – a decent venue, but now published by Taylor & Francis. I’m told the society gets an (undisclosed) cut of the profits, but this also comes at the cost of higher per-article prices, inaccessible supplementary data (I plan to blog this soon), and presumably a little loss in editorial control (given some of the unusual spellings I’ve seen on the T&F website). And then you have Journal of Paleontology, which is paywalled but sponsored and published by a non-profit (Paleontological Society and BioOne, respectively). IMO, these two cases falls into successively more gray zones, relative to purely for-profit journals like Cretaceous Research or PPP.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    I agree, Andy, that these journals fall into a less obvious categories than the Good (PLoS, APP, etc.) and the Bad (Cret. Res. and suchlike).

    Perhaps one way to judge these cases is to imagine what we’d do in a world everyone charges a professional fee when reviewing for Elsevier and the like, if the journal in question were new. Imagine that, in such a world, the Paleontological Society decided to launch a journal, making it non-open so that subscriptions could help contribute to the society’s costs and so keep down subscription fees. Would I see such a journal as good thing, and want to contribute to its success by donating my time and expertise? Cautiously, yes.

    In the case of JVP, where the journal is published by a for-profit, and the Society has given up important parts of its autonomy, probably no. If you are saying that supplementary information is now paywalled as a matter of policy rather than by oversight, that would probably be the final nail in that coffin for me. (But then there are other issues with JVP anyway.)

    Still, I think it’s better to have a very simple rule to follow rather than having to judge on a journal-by-journal basis. So here’s my rule: is the journal published by a for-profit? Then I want to profit when I contribute to their profits. That means that JVP doesn’t get a free leg-up from me now (though it would have in the past when it was published in-house).

  4. Nick Gardner Says:

    Very relevant in the age in which those who strive to make information free are jailed

  5. Jennie Dusheck Says:

    Nice blog. I am here for the first time thanks to a post at FB. But I’m a bit incensed by this comment: “If they’re going to be selling the results of my work for profit — which they are perfectly entitled to do — then they can invest in the work that is going to bring them the profit.”

    Boy, I couldn’t disagree more. Their whole business plan is to not invest any money and not take any risk either. Why would they change anything if they didn’t have to? They can report a 16% return to investors If they are “entitled” to sell the results of taxpayer-funded research, it’s only because academics agree to the arrangement. Why does this continue decade after decade?

    Most academic research is payed for by ordinary taxpayers, either from federal grants or state support for universities. Of course, there are other sources of funding, but the bulk of useful research comes from taxes (I’m suggesting that private research that mainly helps market products isn’t necessarily scientifically useful. And yes there are exceptions.)

    The analysis and writing of the articles is also supported heavily by taxpayers, whether in the form of salaries for academics or overhead taken by universities from federal research grants and used to pay for office space, computers, and office equipment. The idea that a private third party can come in and Charge academics huge sums to print this material (or merely upload it) and then Charge everybody else even huger sums to read it is outrageous.

    Instead of writing open letters to for-profit academic publishers (they’ll just snigger), stop sending them your work and sending them money and otherwise working for them for free (or virtually so). PLOS and similar open source publishers are the way to go.

    Jennie Dusheck
    Science Writing & Editing
    Santa Cruz, CA

  6. heteromeles Says:

    When one gets away from academia, that sort of publishing model is known as vanity publishing. In academia, it’s fairly similar, because one of the points of publishing an article is to increase one’s reputation. If someone else (a grant or an institution) is paying for this exercise, what’s the problem?

    I’d propose that we really need two things from academic publishing: peer review and long-term storage of the results. What I’d love to see is a turnkey journal application, so that any reasonably sized academic society could quickly turn out its own quality journal, at little or no cost, and the results would remain accessible for decades.

    This is a win for everyone except the academic publishers. It saves on grant money and it saves on institutional publishing costs. It might even save some academic libraries.

    Speaking as someone who’s currently outside academia, I don’t particularly enjoy paying US$30 to get a copy of an article, especially when I’m doing conservation work for a non-profit. Seeing that cost go up because reviewers want to be paid? That’s not useful to me.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    I think Mike’s point is not that reviewers should get paid, but that the fact that commercial publishers charge insane prices to distribute publicly-funded science is even less defensible since they get the reviewing done for free.

    Scott Aaronson nailed it: essentially the entire academic world has gotten so comfortable in its for-profit publications shackles that it’s hard for some people to even perceive that these are, in fact, chains. We need a whole lot more people to wake up to the deep, long-running unfairness of the situation.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Indeed. As I said, I will happily continue to provide free expertise and effort when the resulting article is going to be freely available. It’s only when the publisher wants to make money by hiding the results of my work from the public that funded it that I’ll be charging.

    Also: Jennie, you’re right that I was mistaken when I wrote “If they’re going to be selling the results of my work for profit — which they are perfectly entitled to do — then they can invest in the work that is going to bring them the profit”. What they do would still be indefensible, because they would still not be paying the authors, who do far more work than the reviewers. Still, as an author I have the choice of not submitting to journals published by for-profits, and that is indeed the policy I am now pursuing.

  9. heteromeles Says:

    Oh, I agree that reviewers should do their work for free, especially when the result is freely available. However, PLoS charges quite a lot to publish, so I’m not particularly enamoured of free access either. There’s still too much money going somewhere

    I even more agree that most researchers are blind to the money flow in academic publishing. I’ve been excoriated at other websites such as Scalzi’s Whatever for pointing this out. Apparently, when someone else pays for it, it’s free. Until academic funding got tight, not many people were interested in looking at where the money went in academic publishing.

    As for the scale of the problem, a year or two ago, I compared Elsevier to Harlequin, to compare two companies I could get annual revenues from. Elsevier was on order ten times bigger than Harlequin, and romances are one of the biggest sectors of the fiction market.

    Pulling back to view all of academia, it’s obvious in the US (and probably elsewhere) that there are a lot of financial parasites in the system. Undergraduate tuition is skyrocketing, professors are having to pull in more money, and all that money is going… somewhere. Academic publishing is one such leech, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Yes, I know states universities are dealing with funding cutbacks from government, but still. These costs make it difficult to maintain sciences like paleontology, and I think it’s quite reasonable to start following the money.

  10. […] up a lot of debate, and has garnered 365 comments so far, most of them strongly supportive.  When we wrote about his article here at SV-POW!,I concluded with this declaration: From now on, I plan to stop freely volunteering expertise and […]

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