July 1, 2013

Want to get rich? Heck, yes! So which business should you be in?

According to Forbes, the most profitable U.S. Industries, based on private-company annual statements filed for 2012/13 are:

Business Profit margin
Oil and gas extraction 24.1%
Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping 21.2%
Legal services 19.6%
Commercial and industrial machine leasing 18.5%
Outpatient care centres 17.8%
Letting real-estate 16.5%
Offices of dentists 16.5%

Those are some healthy profit margins! It must be impossible to beat them — right?

Well, unless you’re a barrier-based legacy publisher, of course. Recall that the 2010/11 profit margins for the Big Four academic publishers came in at 32.4% for Informa, 33.9% for Springer, 36% for Elsevier and 42% for Wiley. And they’re still rising.

The average profit margin of the Big Four academic publishers — 36% — is half as good again as the highest profit margin Forbes could find for any industry.

Why do I keep banging on about this? Because, as Scott Aaronson wrote:

In my view, 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. One would think such a request would anger everyone: conservatives and libertarians because of the unpaid labor, liberals because of the beneficiaries of that labor.

It’s genuinely great that the open-access movement has level heads like Peter Suber, Cameron Neylon and Stephen Curry. We’d get nowhere without advocates like them — people who can  keep their cool in the face of the lies and propaganda of entrenched interests, and who can speak clearly and level-headedly to administrators and as-yet unconvinced researchers.

But dammit, these publishers are parasites, and we really do need to face it. Pretending they’re our partners is simply self-delusion, an academic Stockholm syndrome. What they want (to continue to walk away with 32.4-42% of all the money spent on academic publishing) is directly opposed to what we, our institutions, our funders, our governments and our taxpayers want. And every attempt we make to increase the availability and utility of the work we do, they oppose.

Time for us to walk away.