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How did academic publishers acquire these feudal powers? (monbiot.com)
321 points by sasvari on Aug 30, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

Yes this is a problem. Occasionally I have to to resort to emailing authors directly and asking for a copy of the paper - in most cases they have been obliging.

As far as I am concerned publicly funded research papers should (must) be freely available. If the public are funding it then the public has a right to the fruits of this investment. And newspapers must be able to link to or reference a source when they quote or review academic literature (in fact I think it should be law that they have to).

A very simple solution would be for authors or institutions to make copies freely available on their websites. I can only assume that they are not allowed to, due to copyright imposed by the journals.

It's ironic that the invention of the www was driven by the need for an easy way to freely distribute and share academic literature.

P.S. There's also a strong case for privately funded research to be made public too. Companies who make product claims based on privately funded research for example absolutely must make this research ("research") available for the public to review. It is notoriously hard to get pharma firms to cough up the papers which support their claims for the latest wonder drug.

As the article mentioned, in the US, much publicly-funded research already is required to be freely available.

Specifically, anything funded by the NIH-- which means pretty much all biomedical research-- has to end up in the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central repository. It's actually the author's responsibility to submit it, but most publishers take care of it for you.

While this model is not without its problems, I think it's a pretty amazing start and has proved itself to be well worth the hassle. The NLM has put into place a great deal of infrastructure to make it easy for authors and publishers to submit their content, and the PubMed Central site itself is a great resource for researchers.

My experience with PubMed is that I almost always only get the abstract and a link to buy the article from the publisher. Sometimes I get a link for the free full text article, but this is a strong minority.

Is this because so many of the listed articles are not funded by the NIH?

I can only assume that they are not allowed to, due to copyright imposed by the journals.

This is probably true. Whenever I have published articles (I am a mathematician), I have been asked to sign some long agreement which I only skimmed. We have some rights to publish and distribute our work... but not unlimited... something complicated...

In practice, I just put copies of all of my papers on my website where anyone can download them. I have many colleagues who do the same, and many colleagues who are more scrupulous about following the journals' rules. In any case, I don't know of any scholars who have gotten into trouble for distributing their own work.

I work for a university computing service and we sometimes have to deal with copyright takedown demands from academic publishers aimed at the websites of the authors of the papers. It's a disgraceful situation.

What's the advantage over just using the arxiv? A bit better typesetting?

Credibility. Reading a mathematical paper takes a huge amount of effort, and people won't go through that unless there is a high chance to believe the paper is good/correct. Usually this is determined by 1) The author is famous 2) The journal is respected.

This is the same basic problem self-published novels face. There are probably some very good self-published novels, but without someone whose opinion I should trust verifying that they're good, I'm unlikely to a) find out about them and b) if I do find out, read them and decide for myself.

A lot of novels that I turn out to like enormously don't have first chapters that immediately speak to their greatness. But most of the novels I read, I read because an interesting review caught my attention, I've read the writer before, or the book has been recommended by someone who I trust. The first two in my preceding list roughly map to author fame and journal respect.

The ArXiv includes a link to the actual (usually gated) journal article. And the text of that link is the journal name and citation.

My question isn't "why do people submit to journals?" it's "why post the actual PDF from the journal on your webpage (thereby taking a slight risk of getting in trouble) rather than just linking to the ArXiv version?".

Ah, sorry I misunderstood your question.

To answer your actual question, I personally do it because I almost wish the journals would do something nasty to me. Then, I would tell everyone I meet at every conference about that for the next few years and would hasten the decline of the current status-quo.

The arxiv is not refereed. I usually read those pre-prints with (extra) extra caution, especially if they are outside my area of competence.

You should read all legal contracts you enter into. Remember that you can edit a contract, strike out parts, etc. You should get the other party to sign off on it aswell. You could edit the contract to allow you to put your paper on your website. Problem solved.

The problem is you won't get the other party to sign it off.

Yes, you need the other person to agree to the changes. So you send it back to them and ask them to sign it.

In a lot of cases, you can find the pre-print of the paper on arXiv.org (at least that's the case for my field of nuclear and particle physics.) Copyright imposed by journals is an odd beast, since I think few people subscribe to them directly. Mostly, their money comes from academic institutions and unlike consumer-focused organisations like the RIAA, the journals won't usually go after the little guy.

All that being said, the IoP's previously open-access journal JHEP in which my collaboration typically published our papers was bought by Springer last year. I don't know how their open-access policy has been affected by that.

I recently published in JHEP and when I tried to view my paper outside the university I was greeted with a pay wall :(. They wanted the going rate of about £30.

All of my research to date and the work in that paper has been funded by the UK taxpayer. There is something very wrong with that.

There is indeed something very wrong with that. You pay your taxes which help fund research and then you are charged exorbitant prices for access to the resulting articles. At the time I quit maths there were a smaller uprising among some mathematicians trying to break away from the large old, but unfortunately also still prestigious, journals. "Algebraic and Geometric Topology", an online journal, was formed when the entire group of editors on Elsevier's "Topology and its Applications" resigned as a reaction to Elsevier's increasingly whack pricing policies. Later the same happened for the top journal "Topology", the resignation letter is stil linked at John Baez's site: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/topology-letter.pdf.

Likewise books, lecture notes etc. written by lecturers should be made freely available. You want to make money on a book you likely created most of while supposedly doing your paid job? GFY.

You want to make money on a book you likely created most of while supposedly doing your paid job? GFY.

All the academics I know who have written books have done so on their own time, either by taking a sabbatical, going down to part time or during evenings and vacations. Sure the university let them use their office and the university library and stuff, but they didn't directly pay them to write their book.

ha I'm a particle physicist by training :) I was going to add to my comment that in my (ex-) field I'm pretty sure that papers were/are freely available on the CERN websites, as well as arXiv.org.

In my research group (in the School of Computing at Dublin City University), we publish all our papers to our web site and to the university's own research portal (doras.dcu.ie). They are free for anybody to access.

The version we publish is the "camera ready", which is to say the last version we submit for actual publication. It is not, however, the final published version (so, for example, they don't include an Elsevier logo or conference proceedings page numbers). I believe this is legal in our jurisdiction, or at least nobody has called us on it!

I heard an interesting argument from my advisor (a very famous mathematician). I strongly disagree with it, but it is the only argument I have heard for keeping this system in place.

His argument was the following: In many fields such as laboratory science, research is expensive; one has to apply for grants and then spend the money, and these departments have large budgets, and this all looks good to deans. If a department is going through a lot of money, then it must be prestigious, important, and doing good work.

I heard a joke once that mathematicians are the second-cheapest academics to hire because all we require is a pencil, paper, and a wastebasket. But, in fact, we require online access to all these journals, for which we have to spend a ton of money. Spending all this money makes us look good to our deans, and lends prestige and the look of importance to our department, and allows us to compete with other departments for resources.

I think it's a bunch of BS, frankly, but it's the one time I heard the existing system defended, so perhaps it's worth bringing up.

Sorry, so the argument is: other research costs are expensive in some fields, thereby high spending is prestigious, thereby access to publications ought to be expensive so that fields that lack more direct expenses can seem comparable ? This doesn't seem to make sense, because fields where direct research expenses are high also require access to publications. Maybe I'm missing your point? If so, please clarify.

You're right, it doesn't make sense, but I find it entirely plausible. Welcome to academia; nobody said it was supposed to make sense (especially when it comes to the financial aspects of the gig). Ask me sometime about how my university calculates overhead costs & indirect percentages, let alone how it allocates and charges for floor space- the words "byzantine" and "Machiavellian" come to mind.

Any scientist will tell you that the most important person in their department- by far- is their finance person. They're the ones that know your university's financial system inside and out, and so will be able to help you keep your money from going straight up the university's nose (as it were). A good finance person will also know how, on a per-agency-basis, to structure a grant's budget so that you get to keep as much money as possible as freely-usable as possible (E.g., there are things that the NSF will let you do with certain kinds of grant money that the NIH won't, and vice versa, and a good finance person knows what they are).

So who are the cheapest?

Philosophy - they don't need the wastebasket [JOKE]

I had to restrain myself from saying that about economists.

The economists have an incinerator where everything left-wing goes.

I'm not sure about that. If you pump out a tonne of great research, but use relatively less money, wouldn't that make you look better? Or is the academic world that far removed from the rest of the economy?

Remember that higher education is a bureaucracy, and since the types of conflict that spring up are really minor, they are particularly petty, nasty and status-centered.

In that sort of environment, your actual contribution to some objective goal has nothing at all to do with your position in the bureaucratic pecking order. That's why the basketball coach makes $2M/year, while the galley slaves teaching the classes make $20k, plus shitty health insurance.

Using less money, less staff, less equipment does not make you an alpha academic. In the 90's, that meant that an assistant professor in math or science had to have Sun workstation with a 21" monitor (~$12-15k). A full professor got a fancy SGI Octane that cost even more. At my college, the full math professors were mostly in their sixties -- my calculus professor used his SGI as a terminal emulator to futz around on the VAX. The screen savers were cool though.

It's really sad that this is the case, but in the lab I worked for at a UC many of our costs were complete BS made up so that we could use up the full amount of our grant. The system encourages this behavior. The logic is completely flawed: If you don't use the money, then you obviously don't need it. Next time you won't receive the full amount from your grant. When your grant is millions of dollars over a few years, you end up having a lot of very nice dinners paid for with money that was meant to be used for research and education.

If you don't use the money, then you obviously don't need it. Next time you won't receive the full amount from your grant.

That's exactly, word-for-word, what professors have told me here. Sad indeed.

Incidentally, that's how the federal government operates. At the end of every fiscal year, if there was money left, it _had_ to be spent.

The Halo Effect is a well-known bias. Important things cost a lot of money, therefore if what you're doing doesn't cost a lot of money, it's not important. This happens in large institutions in the private sector as well, sections of companies building their own fiefdoms.

Sayre's Law

"In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." By way of corollary, it adds: "That is why academic politics are so bitter."


This is not how universities work. Remember, they're not for profit, so reducing costs means nothing unless your budget is slashed.

Universities make money on grants, what is called the "overhead" -- it ranges from 40% to even more of all grant money received. In such an environment, it makes sense to charge as much as possible for the research. That's is exactly what most class A universities do.

And that is why the true stars of any university are the departments that charge more for their research. E.g., if you have professors that can justify building a hugely expensive particle physics' lab, that is a big point for you.

Unfortunately it doesn't. If you hear the words 'efficiency' or 'value for money' being used at a UK university, it usually means they're about to announce a round of redundancies.

Reminds me of the time I wanted to read Chadwick's 1932 paper "Possible Existence of a Neutron" in which he mentioned the discovery of the neutron.


Academic publishing seems to be messed up but I'm not sure this is a good demonstration of that.

Of the three links that you cite to online copies two no longer link to the article. So while your $32 doesn't buy you anything you can't already get elsewhere the availability (at a price) from Nature does at least supply a degree of permanence to the article. That may be more important with less prominent items.

The illegality (or quazi-illegality in the case of the links from the edu sites) of the mirrors is what's keeping them from being hosted permanently on a free site.

If the copyrights were clear, there would be repositories like arxiv.org that would ensure high-availability free access. The paper isn't on arxiv.org currently because Nature uses its copyright to ensure that it's not.

It doesn't have to be this way, and individual fields can break away (to a greater or lesser extent). For instance:

In Natural Language Processing / Computational Linguistics, the professional society (Association for Computational Linguistics, ACL) was its own publisher, with no profit motive, and so authors for its conferences and journal never signed over copyright (merely granted permission to ACL to publish the work). For years, it was quite standard for nearly all of the authors to post PS or PDF versions of their papers on their own websites. Then ACL started accepting PDF instead of camera-ready, and just posted the PDFs themselves; and then they started scanning the back-catalogue.

The result of this is that the vast majority of all NLP/CL papers ever written (excluding only those published elsewhere, e.g. in AAAI, and a very few missing proceedings from fifty years ago) are available online, for free, in PDF, at http://aclweb.org/anthology-new/ .

This is how science should be.

One possible disrupter is the open-access model used by the Social Science Research Network, http://www.ssrn.com, which was founded in 1994 and seems to be extensively used in the legal academic community.

SSRN makes posted PDFs available for free download. The Wikipedia entry says that "In economics, and to some degree in law (especially in the field of law and economics), almost all papers are now first published as preprints on SSRN and/or on other paper distribution networks such as RePEc before being submitted to an academic journal."

Quality and prestige metrics: SSRN ranks posted papers by number of downloads, and it also compiles citation lists---if I successfully find Paper X at SSRN, I can look up which other SSRN-available papers have cited Paper X. (Sounds like a job for Google's PageRank algorithm, no?)

According to SSRN's FAQ, it's produced by an independent privately held corporation. I assume that means they're a for-profit company. I don't know how they make their money, other than that they will sell you a printed hard copy of a paper, presumably print-on-demand.

From that same SSRN FAQ page, http://www.ssrn.com/update/general/ssrn_faq.html:

"We have entered into a variety of relationships with the publishers to provide access to their fee-based research through the SSRN eLibrary. These papers are identified by this icon: Incl. Fee Electronic Paper (a red dog-eared page with a "$"). If you are purchasing a fee-based paper, you will click the 'Add to Cart' link and be linked to your Shopping Cart."

So they run as affiliates for paid-for papers.

They also run a job listings service.

You noted already the ability to get a printed and bound copy of a paper on demand.

Edit: without looking in detail it seems those running the service are probably supported by academic institutions [for other work that they do?].

But surely, one might think, that some of the price goes to offset the expensive costs of peer review?

The author neglected to mention that peer reviewers work for free, and that the editorial boards are also made up of scholars who work for next to nothing. (edit: see reply below, this was in the article and I missed it)

It used to be that it fell to the publishers to typeset the articles, but with the advent of TeX they don't have to do that either. (in my field anyway)

Speaking as an academic, these companies do nothing for us. The sooner we agree on an alternative model which doesn't go through them, the better.

"[T]hese companies do nothing for us."

I agree 99%. The one thing they do for us, and the one thing that any alternative system would have to replicate, is provide a signal of quality through their history and prestige. The whole constellation of scientific publications, grant writing, grant reviews, tenure committees, faculty searches, and dissertation committees revolve around publications. But it seems nobody can, or desires, to read all of an individual's publications, synthesize the content of what they've produced, and compare it to the other work in increasingly specialized sub-fields.

Instead, to evaluate the quality of work and the scientists themselves, we rely on the number of articles published multiplied by the journal's impact factor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_factor), roughly speaking. This we've used as a proxy for scientific quality. And besides lazy, it's insidious, too. Before even sitting down to read an article, I've already absorbed which journal this article appeared in. If a prestigious journal, how can I help being predisposed to think favorably of it?

It's a seductive shortcut. This is why the academic journals are so entrenched. And it shows what any alternative system must replicate. It is relatively easy to create a website that unites authors, peer reviewers, editors, and a publishing/editing system. What is not straight-forward is to create a system with that last 1%: the external quality signal.

To maintain the psychological impact it could be possible to have different outlets (websites) where to publish based on a ranking by the editorial committee...

Speaking as an academic, these companies do nothing for us

Start the revolution at home. Put PDFs on your university website. Ask your collegues to do likewise, ask the rest of university to do likewise. Start the ball rolling.

That doesn't really fulfill the "quality signal" aspect of journals, though -- the replacement would be some sort of open journal that still had peer review.

There was an Elsevier math journal where the entire editorial staff got fed up, quit, and then simply founded a new journal on the same subject. That's the sort of thing most likely to bring the big journals down, not self publication by individuals. (Well, that or direct government intervention.)

You're probably right that there's a good value add to come from journals. However the internet works well, and that's a pile of individual pages/web sites, so I think it'll all work out.

I do. But I also publish them in expensive journals, because senior people have told me this is good for my career.

Once I get tenure (knock on wood), I intend to be more selective about which journals I publish in.


> Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free.

The obvious negative this has on folks outside of research-level academia is a significant contribution to tuition prices, which seem to be rising at about 5% per year.

But a less obvious - and personally very painful - consequence of greedy publishers is the inability to do serious academic research outside of academia/industry. I have the ability (math PhD) and the will (have published a few papers post grad school, though it's hard to find time), but I have all but given up due to lacking access to books and articles behind these paywalls. Yes, you can find a decent chunk of articles online -- but very often there are one or two (or more!) key papers you _need_ to read to be at the front of a field, and one of those will be behind a paywall. The worst part is that I never know how truly useful an article will be before reading it, so in the few cases where I've payed I find that only a small percentage of the time was it worthwhile.

In short, this system essentially kills research outside of academia / industry.

I guess you don't live near a decently sized university?

I do, and they require $500/year for library use by non-students/staff.

Even if some people are lucky enough to have university library access, the problems caused by a broken publishing system still pose a barrier to many independent people.

> The reason is that the big publishers have rounded up the journals with the highest academic impact factors, in which publication is essential for researchers trying to secure grants and advance their careers(16). You can start reading open-access journals, but you can’t stop reading the closed ones.

This is the only problem standing in the way of open access publishing. While the arXiv doesn't offer peer review and so doesn't negate the need for journals, the ecosystem would quickly adapt to open peer review. Unfortunately the implied reputation of being published in certain journals is still something that's too ingrained in academia. It's getting better slowly but it's going to take at least a generation to go away at the current rate.

Unfortunately the implied reputation of being published in certain journals is still something that's too ingrained in academia.

It's worse than that: this isn't just a matter of old fogies (who will eventually retire) clinging to out-moded ways.

The problem is, academic career progression is dependent on publication. And these days, it's also contingent on citations. Your work is more likely to be cited if it's in a prominent journal. So by gaining a lock on the high academic impact publications, the big publishers have got a stranglehold on the career ladder.

... the ecosystem would quickly adapt to open peer review

A reviewer's comments and critiques of a scientific manuscript often say as much, or more, about the reviewer than they do about the work.

The current system should definitely be made more transparent and papers should be more freely available, especially those funded by public money, but there are currently plenty of avenues to openly comment on a piece of work (letters to the editor, blogs, journal website forums, opinion pieces, review articles, conference talks, positive or negative references in future publications, etc.)

Experiments are easy to propose, which makes finding faults and requesting more work from authors quite easy to do for reviewers. That's why, if a paper passes muster with 2-3 qualified reviewers, it should be allowed to be published, and additional criticisms can go through the existing channels I mentioned above. An open peer-review system, if I am imagining it correctly from the above poster's description, could turn into a three-ring circus, and scientists would waste unimaginable amounts of time defending every comment levied against their work instead of working on new projects.

I don't think that the methods of scientific review or discourse are broken. What needs to be fixed are issues of accessibility and transparency.

I didn't have a specific system in mind for 'open peer review'. I just meant that while peer review only happens through journals at the moment it doesn't depend on them in any fundamental way. The reputation attached to them does.

University libraries are still mostly money grabbers aswell, but are slowly changing.

In the 1830s Ireland was mapped to a great detail (for tax purposes) of 1:6500ish. These maps would still be very helpful for OpenStreetMap, and are obviously outside copyright. A few Irish universities have them (e.g. Trinity Map Library, a copyright deposit library for Ireland & the UK), however they charge €50,000ish for a copy of the digitial scans of the full set. Other libraries are similar.

Universities really are not pro-sharing

Presumably somewhere like the British Library has the scans for the maps on disk. They're a government institution aren't they so would a Freedom of Information Act demand supposedly liberate that data ... just a thought.

When I'm Prime Minister I'll instigate a government run academic library as the repository for all data originating from tax paid research with free access for individuals and paid access for profit yielding institutions; something along those lines anyway.

These maps are usually on microfiche.

Freedom of Information is a good idea, however the orignals are out of copyright (being 150+ years old). Just scanning a page of a book isn't a creative work, and hence you technically can't claim copyright on it again. Some mapping agencies like the Ordnance Survey of Ireland who have copies, scan and then join images up together, and rectify them so they work on google maps. This 'stitching & rectifiying' is a creative act, and hence they can (and do!) claim copyright on the new item. So this map from 1833 is Copyright 2008 OSi. :(

However a lot of libraries claim copyright on just a straight scan, even though they can't really. A FoI would get you the map, but probably something with a copyright symbol on the corner. If you want to use them (for OpenStreetMap tracing) the onus is now on you to prove you can. In short, they don't want to share them out to everyone. :(

>This 'stitching & rectifiying' is a creative act, and hence they can (and do!) claim copyright on the new item. //

I was trying to find the caselaw on a related point the other day. I remember there being something to do with, I think the British Museum or similar, taking high res scans of old paintings and claiming a renewed copyright term on that then ferreting away the original. Do you have caselaw to cite? AFAIR the act is supposed to be transformative to create a new work, stitching doesn't appear to be tranformative to me. However I also seem to recall the the "sweat of the brow" argument was made to support a new copyright in high res scans, that a large amount of work had been done and that this somehow earned them a new right.

It seems this sort of manoeuvring is within the letter of the law but not at all within the spirit of it. Very underhand for those who are supposed to be managing works owned by the country for the country itself using public money.

If one can get a copy of the original then it could be leaked to wikileaks ... the onus is not on the copier to prove they have a right but on those suing to show that tortuous infringement has occurred. The demands of OpenStreetMap may be different however.

> Do you have caselaw to cite?

Try Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), summarized in the Wikipedia article [1].

The court's opinion [2] surveys the relevant case law beginning at paragraph 19.

The court states its conclusion and summarizes its reasoning in paragraph 25: "In this case, plaintiff by its own admission has labored to create 'slavish copies' of public domain works of art. While it may be assumed that this required both skill and effort, there was no spark of originality -- indeed, the point of the exercise was to reproduce the underlying works with absolute fidelity. Copyright is not available in these circumstances."

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeman_Art_Library_v._Corel_....

[2] http://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/36_FSupp2d_191.ht....

Thanks for that, the Wikipedia page has some useful links and info on the relevance to UK copyright law. The case I was remembering is almost certainly this one - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Portrait_Gallery_copyr... concerning use of photos of images in the National Portrait Gallery on Wikimedia pages, the case dating from 2009.

We forget the value of curation.

Why can a boutique shop sell a $50 dress for $200? Taste. One could simply walk into that boutique, confident that 20 minutes later a cute, fashionable and well-fitting dress would be acquired.

Why can top universities charge so much for tuition? Every year, %s University generates a curated list of individuals, and many hiring processes (not to mention ad-hoc interpersonal filtering processes) emphasize individuals in that list. Like boutique shopping, this is an expensive strategy that often excludes superior talent, but is fast.

Is it worth $200,000 to have one's name on that list? Apparently.

Is it worth application fees and an iron publishing agreement to have one's paper published in Nature. Apparently.

A professor emeritus recently sent me an article to publish on my web magazine. The turnaround time was around 18 hours and he replied to express his surprise at how quickly his piece was published. In contrast, he has had an article pending at an academic journal for three years now.

Usually this kind of long turn-around time is because it is held up by the referees, not the actual publishing process. That process is too slow (sometimes as much as a few months, but usually more like a few weeks), but it's not 3-years slow.

This varies greatly by field. In theoretical computer science, most conferences have turnaround times on the order of 3 months or so.

I'm buying into his thesis, but heck, I really expected to see some causality explained. The title began, after all, with "how did...."

It would be great if somebody could provided an insider's account of why the academic publishing industry maintained those margins from 2000 to 2010. Did nobody propose legislation to stop them? Were there no criminal investigations? Who are these people connected with politically? What sorts of causes to they contribute to? Just how is the status quo maintained? The guy made a point I was already predisposed to agree with, then kind of went on a rant about how bad it all was. Hey, I'm with you. I'm just not sure my useful knowledge of the issue has increased any.

I agree with All the points about hiw government sponsored research (including all public school research) Should be free or near free.

The unanswered question is "Why is the market failing?"

A couple unmentioned ideas:

- Until recently, tuition hikes went unchallenged.

- Faculty have a vested interest in maintaining the system. (If my publishing in Journal X marks my competence, what happens if it goes away?)

- An alternate system for rating a very hard to measure topic would be needed. Counting scarce publishing, and references in scarce journals is imperfect but nothing else has beaten it.

I don't have an answer but perhaps a couple bright entrepreneurs could figure out a better equilibrium, and find a way to cross the chasm to get there. Geoffrey Moore would say pick one vertical or academic discipline.

> "Why is the market failing?"

There's an easier answer to this question: because it's not a "market". There is no part of this whose pieces are fungible. Not the researchers, not the ideas, not the papers, not the journals. For "the market" to do its thing (to the extent that we can even say that), it requires the goods for sale or the people providing the services to be substitutable and commodified. That isn't (and pretty much can't) be true of academic publishing.

Thank you for the comments. I appreciate your insights as an academic living through this. Even still, I have to respectfully disagree.

I'll grant that the economics in most textbooks starts with the assumption of homogenous buyers and sellers. Economists have found ways of breaking down this assumption without giving up the concept of a market. Granted you lose "Perfect competition" but that's ok.

Let's look at an analogy...

Rather than academics, let's talk about programmers. There is as much variety in programmer performance as senior faculty performance. The firms that hire these programmers have not been able to create a monopoly. Yes - Google, Microsoft and Facebook have some high margins, but all of them are looking over their shoulders for the next competitor. The technology firm graveyard is filled with former near monopolists. (Excite? Altavista? Compuserve?)

I'm sure that there are reasons for the market failing, but I think it's more than a lack of homogenous products and vendors.

Interesting article. In 2011 there is no practical hurdle to web-based publishing portals. Given that papers are already peer reviewed on a volunteer basis, the middle man and its administrative staff has a high cost and a low benefit.

The system could keep volunteer-based peer review, and establish a (perhaps private) forum-like interaction for the authors to improve their article.

Google Scholar has solved many of my article search problems and often gives me directly a link to the PDF of (sometimes just a preprint of) the article. However the problem remains for the libraries, which might well be the largest contributors to publishers, and which may find it hard to cut a subscription and suggest its users to use Google scholar.

A lot of it is that academics are the most atomized and individualistic group of people that you'll find. If there's any part of society where "Aproi Moi Le Deluge" is the slogan, it's academia.

Cornell has about 18 libraries and is slowly implementing a "Fahrenheit 451" plan to eliminate them. First they eliminated the Physical Sciences Library, next the Engineering Library, and they'll eliminate most of the others, one at a time, until there's nothing left but a remote storage unit, lots of computers, and a few pretty library buildings for show. Since it's happening slowly and only affecting one community at a time, they'll avoid a general uproar.

If I blame anything, I blame the institution of tenure, which can be seen more clearly as a cause of moral decay than ever.

Workers and capitalists alike will fight to the death to protect the interests of groups they are a part of because shifts in the rules can cause their personal destruction. A man with tenure knows he can't be ruined, so he's got no reason to ever take a stand.

This is simply a consequence of the fiscalization of academic values, and doesn't just apply to libraries. Professors need "high-impact" papers to justify their grants so they can get more grants. The fiscal imperative to acquire grants is very strong, because grant overhead is a major revenue stream for the host institution (probably THE major stream.) It's much easier to have a high-impact paper if you publish in a famous journal, so everyone shoots for Science, then Nature, and on down the hierarchy as their field sees it. And they will eat just about any kind of shit to get published there, including having their papers locked behind a paywall. Because they are plugged into a system where getting grant money takes priority over advancing knowledge. Don't get me started on how this skews research priorities and experimental designs...

Given that PLoS is only 8 years old, I think it's too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions from the fact that the open access movement "has failed to displace the monopolists". I think more important is that the trends are moving in the right direction: some high profile journals (like PNAS) have an open access publishing option, and it's unusual for new journals (at least in biology) not to be open access [1][2]. We aren't where we could be 20 years into the World Wide Web, but we're getting there.

[1] http://www.hhmi.org/news/20110627.html [2] http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-06/gsoa-gln06211...

Articles like this make me sympathize with Aaron Swartz a little more. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2813870

Academic journals are gatekeepers of academic promotion, the prestigious old journals are the only ones that count today, and they are owned by Wiley and friends.

To make matters worse, academics are among the most tradition bound creatures in the universe, especially when there is no clear criteria for truth (which is like all of the social sciences and humanities). The only thing they have to calibrate against is consensus, and consensus favors institutions already in place.

This is not quite right. The NIH does, in fact, maintain a Public Access Policy:


which states that all NIH-funded research must be placed in this database ("PubMed Central") within 12 months of publication. I do not know how widely it is obeyed, but I know that the several labs I've been in regularly deposited their papers there.

Since the article mentions this, in what way is it not quite right?

"The National Institutes of Health in the US oblige anyone taking their grants to put their papers in an open-access archive(17)."

You're right, I mis-read this line. Still, it deserves more than a sentence. The NIH does require all NIH-funded research to be made publicly available. What more should/could they do?

This is in line with the True Cost Economics Manifesto: http://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/truecosteconomics/sign

I cannot see how a critique of mainstream economics is relevant to the fact that most scientific journals is very expensive.

The military-industrial complex! Done, next question?

Why would a government want to remove the middle-man when the middle-man is making enough money to lobby the government to protect them? -_-'

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