I did my research. Yes, I think academic publishers are greedy. (With notes on publishers’ rhetoric and creationism)

May 21, 2016

Another day, another puff-piece from academic publishers about how awesome they are. This time, the Publisher’s Association somehow suckered the Guardian into giving them a credible-looking platform for their party political broadcast, Think academic publishers are greedy? Do your research. I have to give the PA credit for coming up with about the most patronising title possible.

Yes, I did my research. Guess what? Academic publishers are greedy.


(The article doesn’t say it’s by the Publishers Association, by the way. It’s credited to Stephen Lotinga, who LinkedIn tells us is Chief Executive of The Publishers Assocation, but the article doesn’t declare that.)

Oh boy do I get tired of constantly rebutting the same old bs. from publishers. And it really is the same bs. They’re not even taking the trouble to invent new bs., just churning out the same nonsense each time — for example, equating their massive profits with investment in improvements.

Of course, what they actually can do with those massive profits is hire full-timers whose actual job is to churn out such propaganda. Whereas I have to rebut in my spare time — in between day-job and academic work. As though I didn’t have real work to do.

Here are responses to just some of the nonsense in the Guardian‘s piece.

The academic publishing market is worth £4.4bn to the UK economy.

No it’s not: it has revenue of £4.4bn, which is not at all the same thing. Meanwhile, it’s exerting an enormous drag on academic and commercial research, retarding medical progress, reducing access to the arts and humanities, and overall doing the equivalent of far more than £4.4bn damage to the economy.

Publishers invest heavily in scholarly communication, for example, including the technology-intensive digital platforms upon which authors, reviewers, editors and readers conduct their work.

In other words, they invest in their own assets. Whoop-de-doo. Name me any organisation that doesn’t do this. And remember, those massive 32%-42% profits are what’s left after this investment.

Publishers offer value to research institutions by providing data-driven metrics and analytics that inform their research management activities. This investment allows for rigorous peer review

What? What? This seems to be saying that publishers’ selling their own usage stats back to them somehow makes peer-review possible. But that can’t be what it’s saying, can it? Because that would not merely be wrong, it would be completely incoherent. It’s like claiming that publishers’ ability to format headings in Helvetica is what makes it possible for researchers to sequence DNA.

It also pays for the development of technology of that ensures articles are discoverable, shareable and able to be accessed in underserved regions.

One interpretation of this statement is that it’s simply a lie. I will adopt the other, more charitable interpretation: that it’s a typo for “Publishers pay for the development of technology that prevents articles from being shareable and able to be accessed”.

Oh, and that technology that makes articles discoverable? It’s called Google, and publishers had and have absolutely nothing to do with it. (Except, of course when they use the robots.txt standard to prevent search engines from indexing articles.)

Many small publishers partner with larger groups in order to take advantage of their scale and reach, thereby reducing costs for members and authors. Such diversity leads to competition.

No, no. Follow carefully. Consolidation of small publishers into larger groups leads to less competition. Which of course is exactly what the big publishers want.

The fact that [the individual researcher] wants to submit … is the result of the good work of publishers to maintain the system in which that can take place.

No it isn’t, it’s the result of the monopoly that the publishers hold on the brands that researchers think (rightly or wrongly) they need on their CV.

Nobody submits to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology because it’s published by Taylor and Francis; people submit to it because it’s the journal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

And so it goes on …


The Gish Gallop

Reading and responding to all this inanity had a strangely familiar feel to it. After a while, I realised what I was seeing was the technique known as the Gish Gallop, after the prominent creationist Duane Gish. The technique involves “spewing so much bs. in such a short span on that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it”.

It’s a very effective tactic. It’s very easy to do, and very difficult to counter. The Publishers’ Association can stand there all day and reel off idiot claims (“publishers’ metrics enable peer review”). They take a single sentence to say, but it’s terribly easy to get suckered into writing multiple paragraphs rebutting them. They waste our time and energy in exchange for very little of their own.

In short, the Gish Gallop is a great way to conduct an argument — provided that you care only about “winning” the argument and have no regard at all for what is actually true.



11 Responses to “I did my research. Yes, I think academic publishers are greedy. (With notes on publishers’ rhetoric and creationism)”

  1. waltcrawford Says:

    Dear Mike,

    It’s Helvetica, not Hevetica. Your entire commentary is thus invalidated…or maybe not. Nice discussion.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for spotting that, Walt; now fixed.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    It is credited to “Chief executive, Publishers Association”, right below Stephen Lotinga’s name. You should be more careful about making unsubstantiated statements, since it impugns the credibility of your otherwise, mostly reasonable criticisms.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Not on my browser it doesn’t, Anonymous. See this screenshot:

  5. […] find out what academics really think. Moreover, there’s an excellent rebuttal by Mike Taylor here, which I shall […]

  6. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    As promised…

  7. Steven Lotinga’s conflict of interest is worthy of mention only if your viewport is wider than 1140px, apparently

  8. Andy Mabbett Says:

    In my browser (up-to-date Firefox under Windows 7) the string “Publishers Association” (or “Publishers’ Association”) does not appear on the page.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    casey a ydenberg is right! When I resize my browser window, it reaches a certain width and Lotinga’s affiliation appears! Bizarrely, the Guardian’s stylesheets genuinely do seem to think that he CoI just doesn’t matter unless you have your browser window filling the whole screen. I hardly know what to make of this. Who decided that just information was in the “disposable” category?

  10. Andrew Stuck Says:

    A pictorial representation of the Gish Gallop, or more accurately, the mindset of those who use it.

  11. […] what it seems, the Leavers have everyone chanting “Take Back Control!” It’s the Gish Gallop all over […]

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