The Publishers Association is hallucinating

May 25, 2012

Today’s Guardian has a piece by Graham Taylor, director of academic, educational and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, entitled Attacking publishers will not make open access any more sustainable.

It’s such a crock that I felt compelled to respond point-by-point in the comments.  I did, but because my response was too long for the Guardian‘s comment field, I had to break it into three parts [part 1, part 2, part 3].

Here is the whole thing — Together At Last!

As we discuss the access crisis and Academic Spring, it’s great that the Guardian is allowing a platform to representatives of the academic publishing industry. It gives them a chance to demonstrate how utterly bankrupt their position is, and it’s kind of Graham Taylor to oblige. His article is a catalogue of distortions and mispresentations from start to finish.

I don’t really have time for this, but I suppose I ought to respond to some of the grosser distortions.

Much has been written about journal publishers over the past few months but unfortunately this has focused almost exclusively on one side of the debate: the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs …

There is a very obvious reason for this. Everyone, with one trifling exception, is on one side of the debate. Funding bodies want the work they pay for to be universally available. Researchers want their work to be free to anyone who wants it. Other researchers want to be able to freely access what their colleagues have produced. Businesses want to use the research that their taxes have funded. So do private citizens. We want our doctors and nurses to have access to medical research. We want our teachers and lecturers to be up to speed on current science. We want our legislators to have up-to-date information. We want the £200 billion of new insights that text-mining can give us. We want the huge economic growth that free access to the research we funded will give us, to get out of this recession.

Against all those interests stands just one on the other side of the debate. Publishers. They and only they stand against greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, and for a depressingly obvious reason: because it will cut into their profits.

And yes, it will. But that is a problem for publishers to solve, not one that need concern funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. We all stand on one side; publishers on the other.

And that, of course, is why academic publishers have become the enemies of science.

Kind of ironic when you think what the word “publish” actually means. So-called publishers are the only people out to hinder publication.

… the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, which publishers are painted as somehow resisting and restricting.

What can Graham Taylor mean by “painted as”? What can he mean by “somehow”? This is not open to discussion. Try to access an article: BAM, paywall. Read publishers’ statements in support of the RWA and against the FRPAA. It’s as clear as day. Publishers Resist Access To Research. That’s their business model.

(Note: to be clear, this is not true of all publishers. There are those, like BioMed Central and PLoS, that make their money by actually publishing research — making it available — rather than locking it up. They are the good guys: with them, I have no quarrel.)

Publishers are exploring fee-waived walk-in access via the public library network.

SERIOUSLY? That’s their answer? A 20th century solution to 21st century problem? Publishers expect people to get in a car and physically drive to a public library — if they can even find one after the most recent cuts — to electronically read material that they could easily read with devices they have in their own homes?

I could complain about the environmental impact, the appalling waste of time, the reliance on an ever-shrinking resource … But all of these fade into insignficance compared with the overwhelming disconnection from reality that this “solution” represents. If publishers really believe that physically going to a special magic building is a rational way for us to get access to the research we paid for, then they are more incompetent than I realised.

Much of the focus of this debate has been on the value of peer review and the role that scholars and researchers play in this process. By implication publishers are perceived as contributing very little, other than simply assembling articles into journals and pushing them onto cash-strapped libraries to make a gargantuan profit.

Very nicely put — I couldn’t have said it better myself.

That is a gross distortion of reality.

Please, Graham — don’t sell yourself short. It’s an excellent summary.

The publishing process involves [long list of things]:

Let’s take this list apart and see what’s actually involved.

* soliciting submissions;

Nope — completely irrelevant. I have never once in my life made a submission to a journal on the basis of a solicitation, and I doubt anyone I know has, either. Researchers know what the relevant journals are in their field, without needing to be spammed by publishers.

* managing submissions;

This is done by software, and has basically zero marginal cost. The setup costs of buying the software in the first place may have been significant, depending on how inefficient the publisher is, but there’s no reason it need be: free software such as SFU’s Open Journal Systems and the Annotum platform allow journals to be set up at no financial cost.

* managing peer review;

This is done by handling editors who are of course volunteer academics in 90% of cases.

* editing and preparing manuscripts;

Editing is done by the editors (clue’s in the question) who we remember are volunteer academics. Preparation of manuscripts is of course what the author does — that’s why we call them authors. All at no cost to the publisher, indeed often the authors pays the publisher for the privilege.

* producing the articles;

I have no idea what, if anything, “producing” means here. Perhaps typesetting? I’ll give publishers that: in some fields (not maths or physics), publishers typeset papers. This is hardly onerous. When I had to do the same with one of my own papers recently, it took about an hour — that’s for a paper of 39 manuscript pages, so it came out to something on the order of two minutes per page.

* publishing and disseminating journals;

What does “publishing” mean? This whole process is publishing, remember? And in the breakdown of all the things that entails, Taylor includes “publishing”? Right — and when I do research, one of the things that entails is research.

I assume “disseminating” is code for “spamming”.

* and of course archiving.

Something that institutional repositories, subject repositories, LOCKSS, Portico, PubMed Central and many other services all do as well as, or better than, publishers.

* And the end result acts as a calling card and mark of quality, helping readers find content that is relevant to them and is trusted.

Now we’re getting somewhere: this is the true “value” that publishers provide: brand. When I say “value” I don’t mean that it has any actual value, of course, any more than the label on pair of Levi jeans does. But just as the right brand of clothes makes a kid appear cool to his classmates, so the right journal brand makes a researcher look cool to the kind of idiot adminstrators that too often have control over jobs and promotions.

That’s why people publish with barrier-based journals: brand-name. That’s all.

At a time when we are looking for an export-led recovery, UK-based scholarly publishers account for over £1bn in export sales.

And costs us two hundred times as much in lost opportunties, due to text-mining barriers alone.

Perhaps most important of all, from an access point of view, is the amount publishers have invested in platforms that support researchers in numerous ways. These include investments in article enhancement, visualisation, social networking, and mobile technology; valuable tools such as searchable image databases, navigation, alerts and citation notifications, and reference analysis. Publishers are also working on text-mining tools; linking to the datasets behind journal articles; and research performance measurement tools such as SciVal.

No, no, no. No-one cares about any of that stuff. Everything publishers are clumsily trying to do with visualisation, social networks and the rest, other people — specialists — are doing much better. People who are actually doing text-mining don’t want publishers’ “tools”, they just want publishers to get out of the way and let them get on with their work without harrassment.

The profit margins of some of the larger publishers are portrayed as a moral affront, given the budgetary challenges that libraries face.

Why, yes. Yes, they are. Because the profit margins of the Big Four academic publishers are all in the range of 32%-42% of revenue — much more than, say, Apple’s best-ever 24% margin in 2011. And that’s without actually creating anything.

Not only that, those margins are constantly increasing: for example, Elsevier’s profit margins have increased every year from 2005 to 2011: 30.57%, 31.65%, 33.41%, 34.91%, 35.74%, 37.3%. And no wonder when they don’t pay for their content or peer-review or most of their editing.

Unfortunately, publishers seem to be part of a broader backlash against perceived corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility.

What’s unfortunate about that? Turns out that corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility are bad things. Who knew?

Mandated deposit in repositories is not a publishing model, has no associated revenue stream and, worse, threatens to erode the revenues deriving from the subscriptions on which the model depends.


And we do not care.

Mandated deposit in repositories is good news for funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. If it’s bad news for publishers, then those publishers need to find a different business model or die.

OK, I’m done. Congratulations to anyone who made it to the end.

24 Responses to “The Publishers Association is hallucinating”

  1. bill Says:

    *applauds* This is great Mike, thanks for taking the time.

  2. ... Says:


    Presumably the author of the original piece is bright enough to understand that making comments implying it’s not about the money is incompatible with then complaining that it cuts into their profits? I mean, he gave the impression of understanding the word ‘abrogation’…

    There was a good point to be made about mandated deposition, but the one he went for wasn’t it. Some institutions don’t really make their open repositories, or rules relating to them, known widely enough to have the effect that was apparently intended.

  3. Craig Dylke Says:

    Epic and awesome.

    I’d love to see you in a room with one of these guys as they try to tell you this crap! In the written format they have a hit and run feel “We’re not wrong, BYE!” *runs out the door before you can even look up*

  4. vHF Says:

    Have you seen Graham Taylor’s bizarre comment below that?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    I hadn’t seen that, no — thanks for pointing it out. I’ll go and reply.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Here’s the official version of Mike Taylor’s excellent point-by-point rebuttal of the Guardian article I posted about yesterday

  7. Mark Robinson Says:

    Stellar response, Mike. I was going to say that you make Graham Taylor look a little stupid but he actually does that all by himself. He (and some of the others in his corner) certainly leave a lasting impression that he/they is/are completely out of touch with reality and have little idea of what this is all about.

    Reading his article and Mike’s response, I was left with the distinct impression that I was reading a Douglas Adams’ novel or, for those who came along a little earlier, perhaps one by Michael Frayn (I thoroughly recommend The Tin Men – it’s hilarious).

    [I wrote this comment by turning off my computer, driving the 3km to my local library, booking some time on one of the library’s terminals (with a pen, in a book), searching for SV-POW! (not in favourites), and typing the comment, because that is obviously the most efficient and effective way for me to use this internet thing. It’s reassuring to see that Isaac Asimov’s Multivac from half a century ago is alive and well in the mind of a visionary such as Mr Graham Taylor.]

    Lastly, I wish to apologise to Mr Taylor (and, indeed, anyone else who feels that it would give my comment a greater impact factor) for not using a photo of me for my avatar, but I am actually a dog and I’m not wearing any pants.

  8. chris y Says:

    Sorry guys, there’s no room for hand loom weavers any more. History says, Luddites lose.

  9. Tim Says:

    Thanks for this post – a really well thought out demolition of the Guardian article. I am really interested in what you think is the best response for individual academics, and individual university faculties? Most of my own work is published in mainstream journals, and I’d be happy to move to open access. However, most of my funding is either charity based or institutionally funded – so no pot to dip into for open access fees. As a full time UK academic, the open access fee waivers don’t apply to me. Should my faculty pay (unlikely while they still have to find finds to pay for traditional journals), do I stay with the Evil Empire, or do I stop publishing?
    I hate the established publishing cartel as much as anyone, but in my circumstances, a pay-to-publish model is really problematic.
    Very interested in your thoughts

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Tim, thanks for your kind comments. Actually, my response to Graham Taylor’s Guardian article wasn’t thought out at all — it was written as a sequence of direct responses to the statements in the original. Really, there was just so much in there was misleading, outright incorrect or just wrong-headed that the response almost wrote itself.

    As to what response to make in your own work: my advice would be to avoid publishing in non-open venues, and to stop reviewing and editing for them immediately. As for finding other venues for your work: in many fields there are journals that are free to authors and readers: for example, in palaeontology, options include Palaeontologia Electronica, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology. There are others. But whatever science you’re in, PLoS ONE is an option: they offer a no-questions-asked fee waiver, which you will be eligible for.

  11. Paddy Says:

    Pretty much all true. But there is one service that commercial publishers really do provide, namely professional copy-editing. I’m an astronomer and pretty much every paper I’ve published was returned at the proof stage with dozens of mark-up issues; mostly minor, but cumulatively these do improve the paper. And compared to some of my colleagues I’m a stickler for such detail. Many scientists never bother to learn the standard conventions such as the appropriate forms of SI units. Without copy editing our work is just going to look sloppier, at least until old fogeys who remember how it used to be die out.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Paddy. You’re right of course that for some authors — particularly those writing in a language other than their own — copy-editing is a valuable service. The thing it, that service is actually provided by copy-editors, not publishers. So donating a paper to a publisher, relinquishing copyright, and allowing it to be paywalled seems an inappropriate and disproportionate price to pay for having publishers subcontract that service.

  13. In fact, copy editing has in about 1/3 of cases I encountered it added more work for me (e.g., by introducing errors) than it has improved my work. gah!
    And that was by BigPublishing, whereas the volunteers or editors moonlighting for OA journals were always a help.

  14. Thanks Mike;

    It certainly is not my job to provide publishers with a job.

  15. […] interrupted to state how ridiculous that was. I’ll leave it to Mike Taylor’s post here to explain just how ludicrous that proposal is in light of 21st century technology. I will however […]

  16. Tim Says:

    Just a quick reply to say thanks for responding – helpful! Am taking the matter to our faculty board later this week, so will be interesting to hear what the “official” line is.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    That’s fantastic news, Tim — however much we whine out here in blog-space, the opinions that really matter are going to be those of faculty boards, grant reviewers, funding bodies and so on. Do push your case, and let us know how it comes out.

  18. David Marjanović Says:

    Copyediting: many journals already don’t do any. Nature Itself has been publishing errors like tuberocity since at least 2001. Yes, in principle, copyediting is a good thing; but don’t assume it correlates with for-profit publishers.

    * publishing and disseminating journals;

    What does “publishing” mean? This whole process is publishing, remember? And in the breakdown of all the things that entails, Taylor includes “publishing”? Right — and when I do research, one of the things that entails is research.

    Here, “publishing and disseminating” probably means “carrying the dead-tree versions to the post office”.

    Similarly, “producing” means “printing on dead trees”.

  19. […] of Gold Leaf for the Association of Learned, Professional and Society Publishers [ALPSP] and our old friends The Publishers […]

  20. […] quickly interrupted to state how ridiculous that was. I’ll leave it to Mike Taylor’s post here to explain just how ludicrous that proposal is in light of 21st century technology. I will however […]

  21. […] The Publishers Association is hallucinating ( […]

  22. […] wouldn’t follow that we need the publishers we have now. (By the way, despite my history of eviscerating Taylor in print, he was very pleasant in person, and evidently didn’t bear a […]

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