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Academic publishers reap huge profits as libraries go broke (cbc.ca)
127 points by benbreen on June 16, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

I think as time goes on we'll find that journals are able to do more and more of the work themselves in such a way that disrupts the monopoly as we know it today. Journals and the academic community already perform the review process themselves (with little reward) and are finding that the "typesetting" and "dissemination" value-adds from publishers are things that they can do on their own as well.

On a large scale, initiatives like PLOS One (http://www.plosone.org/) are a great example of this. On a smaller scale, journals like Sociological Science (http://www.sociologicalscience.com/) & (http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/stanford-gsb-experience/news-his...) are also being successful managing the entire toolchain themselves.

While things seem dire now, I'm confident they'll get better. Scholars with status are increasingly throwing their weight behind Open Access initiatives. Tim Gowers, that droque mentioned in this thread, is evidence of this.

Disclaimer: I co-founded a startup in the space (http://www.scholasticahq.com) and Sociological Science uses our platform for managing their peer review process.

PLOS One is a step in the right direction, but it just shifts the cost burden from institutions to individual professors. They do a lot to minimize that cost as much as they can, but at the end of the day PLOS gets revenue from the authors. Grants often don't include provisions for that, but maybe that will change.

I too am confident that things will continue to improve.

OT, but:

> droque

Not in the dictionary, Urban Dictionary, Google just tries to translate it from French. What is a droque?

An user name, see also "Xophmeister"

My bad: I was reading 'that' as a demonstrative, rather than a complementiser. Thanks

The greatest barrier to a change in the way publishing works is the fact that tenure still depends on publication in high-impact journals--and high-impact journals are resolutely not Open Access.

Regardless of how difficult it would be get academics to change how they do things[1], it's also a problem that we can't agree on an acceptable and sustainable Open Access model.

The 'green' option sets an embargo (usually 6 months), during which time universities (etc.) must pay to view the article. After that, however, the journal article becomes freely available.

The 'gold' option asks academics to pay a small fee (£couple of hundred) to have their article published--what's known as Article Processing Charges.

The problem with the 'green' option is that in disciplines like science, medicine and technology, the first six months after publication probably encapsulate 90% of the article's value--after which point it has been replaced by something else--which means people would probably continue to pay for these things anyway.

The problem with 'gold' is that (a) you start publishing stuff based on who has the ability to pay, rather than academic merit, and (b) it would make academic publishing the only industry in the world where the supplier is paying the purchaser/buyer.

[1] A joke about Oxford Uni goes like this: Q. How many Oxford academics does it take to change a lightbulb? A. Change!?

> Traditionally, most journals were published by non-profit scientific societies. But when journals shifted from print to online digital formats, those societies couldn't afford the cost of the equipment needed to make the switch. Instead, they sold their journals to large, for-profit publishers

wait, what

I can't figure out how it would be possible that shifting from physical paper to online hosting could be more expensive

I can't figure out how it would be possible that shifting from physical paper to online hosting could be more expensive

Developing and hosting something like JSTOR in the early to mid 90's was no where near as cheap and easy as it might be today (and let's face it even today it isn't completely trivial). Doubly so if you had no staff with the relevant skills and had to do everything via consultants.

That it was expensive in the mid 90's is no reason for it to be expensive today. Plenty of entities would host that data for free.

No, but it does explain why the traditional publishing societies didn't do it themselves back in the day and instead had to rely on for-profit entities.

Cost is half of it. The other half was very resistant. I am told that when my office started going digital in the late 80's there was a lot of turmoil and it split the organization. That attributed greatly to a period where we had 3 presidents for a year. Digitization won of course.

We sold our journal I think for two reasons. The first was to digitize them. We have a large electronic database that we are still not completely finished converting from microfiche. We've been working on it since the late 80s. The second was time commitment. We are small. 10-15 people on average. Only two real developers. The hosting commitment was daunting at the time.

Honestly, I don't know the whole story. I've only been around here for a few years.

I don't buy this. The real issue is prestige. Many journals use a large publisher for their brand name. As schools themselves manage to establish significant international brand awareness, they no longer need this service. There is currently no online/open access platform with academic prestige--because that can only come with time and a track record of proper review and rejection. When the larger players come together and form or use such a body, the smaller players will be able to migrate to it.

I think the switching costs are there

Especially if you have no domain knowledge in running a paywalled website, you could end up getting charged an insane amount of money by some consultants to set it up for you.

Based on a couple of years working for an academic publishers, I'd guess commonly it's lack of domain knowledge + switching cost + switching of mental models + sunk equipment costs. Most are very small, with very established ways of working; I found it incredibly frustrating at the time that my employer wouldn't even consider even minor shifts away from what seemed an enormously wasteful print model, it seemed utterly ridiculous at the time, but with some objectivity I find it completely understandable (still daft, and I'm glad to be out of the sector, but understandable)

Tim Gowers (and several other mathematicians) called to boycott academic publishers with The Cost of Knowledge (http://thecostofknowledge.com/), giving largely similar reasons. It had some success if I recall correctly.

Along similar lines, mathematicians (including Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao) created two free-access journals, the Forum of Mathematics Sigma [1] and Pi [2] that seek to provide a reputable and free alternative to some of the top-tier journals that are being boycotted. It's a bit akin to the PLoS journals --- free and reputable.

Hopefully some reputable open journals will distinguish themselves from the predatory journals that take advantage of unsuspecting junior researchers (or worse, that take advantage of unsuspecting people who don't know better).

[1]: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=FMs [2]: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=FMP

Seems that a library boycott might be more effective.

Announce a policy: "We will be reducing our purchase of proprietary journals by 10% per year over the next decade. We will be shifting holdings to journals published under free and open terms."

If that message comes from enough premier libraries, the market will shift.

I find the situation quite frustrating since it's difficult to near impossible for a lot of the public to have access to research. Public libraries don't generally have subscriptions to the journals, nor do many community colleges. One has to go to a state university, and that can be a long drive. In my case it's a 2 hr drive each way, then the only parking available is by putting quarters into one of a small number of parking meters, which are usually taken. The university library doesn't allow the public to check out or get cards or have online access.

Yes, I could get an alumni card at my own alma mater, for a substantial fee, and check things out there. But then I'd have to take a plane across the country to have access since like many people I did not stay in the town where I went to school. Also, they also don't have parking. Oh there's free parking on Sunday. When the library is closed, so that doesn't help much.

It's also frustrating because most times that I bring this situation up, people will appear in comments and say I am wrong or lying and claim that public libraries all have full journal access. It's not true. I've asked. My public libraries, in the county I live in, and all adjacent counties, do not have journal access. I've also called all of the colleges and know that the state university is the nearest location where I can get access. Despite this there's usually people that will show up and claim that's all wrong and everyone has access. No, we don't.

Also a lot of the research tucked away was directly or indirectly supported with public funds. In some cases there is a requirement it be openly published, but not always. It seems unreasonable to have to support research and then not have open access to it.

It isn't a perfect solution, but the arXiv[0] has preprints of papers from a vareity of disciplines. A similar website exists for cryptography research, though I can't recall the name right now. Authors in many fields propagate the copyediting from the journal versions back to their preprints and so the preprints contain the same information as the "official" published paper.

Granted, not all fields utilize such a preprint server, but in some fields, the public's access to research results is not as dire as your comment states. There is, of course, still significant room for improvement, even in fields that use preprint servers.

[0] http://arxiv.org

A state university that doesn't allow taxpaying residents of that state to access university libraries? I've never experienced that.

Curious if a vpn service to libraries would solve this problem somewhat. At least for the alumni card, you should get access to vpn account.

The researchers themselves should take more action, plainly refuse to cooperate with publishing companies and establish an independent publication system on universities' or grant agencies' websites. Sadly, most researchers, with exceptions, seem to not care that they contribute perpetuating this absurd money redirection scheme that hurts the society and its benefit from public-funded research. This is probably also because similarly to the publishers, they are benefiting from the scheme as well - a publication with the right journal is "the way" to make researchers' career, get higher social status and earn more money. The most successful then end up in the editorial boards of those journals :(

I think there are two challenges here. First, opting out of major publication venues is essentially sacrificing your career (no funding/tenure). Second, researchers simply don't have free time to start up an alternative publication system. I think the funding agencies can do a lot more here though...

OTOH, if everyone who had tenure already cooperated then they would wield considerable power at low risk.

Tenure isn't the last step of promotion for faculty. There's still full professorships, salary increases, named professorships, the chance to advance to administration (if so inclined). So, while tenured faculty have more job security, there are still substantial incentives to publish in prestigious journals.

You know that tenure depends on publications, don't you? At Cornell or Dartmouth "publications" means JACS, Angewandte or suchlike, but at Tumbleweed State College they don't care. The problem is now reduced to reforming the tenure system at non-top-25 colleges.

I'm not surprised that researchers aren't eager to commit career suicide for the admittedly noble cause of open access publishing. They should unionise, because if they don't, it'll always seem like it's each individual researcher taking the stand on their own, risking their career. Academia is a cut-throat environment, there are hundreds of people vying for that one tenure position, so it's not so simple to just "decide to boycott evil publishers".

Preston McAfee (head economist at Microsoft) and Ted Bergstrom (an economist at UCSB) have been studying this for years:


In our class, we have discussed repeatedly that the best way to make money would be to start a new journal with the word "International" in it. The problem with some open access journals is that they accept anything. Apart from Computer Science(and physics as mentioned in the article), where most papers can be found as open access, there isn't an alternative for universities to buying content, even if open access were to be the new norm from now due to large amount of historical content.

Is this really a problem that universities or governments could not solve on their own. Ideally an educational institution, or a syndicate of them should run academic journals on a non-profit basis, period. They are the users of this, they are best qualified to know how to actually keep a certain level of quality.

That being said academia these days is full of shit anyhow. So quality of the publications reflects the quality of the institution.

There are actually tons of scam journals. I get emails semi-regularly asking me to submit something to these scam journals that usually don't even have anything to do with my research let alone any credibility.

The market is rapidly changing even though the household names in the publishing business have changed their profit-making strategies too. They now ask authors to pay an author's fee in order to make their articles available to the public - Open Access. I am seeing a research platform like the researchgate.net also impacting their profit-making mechanisms as time goes by.

You are right Dre!

Most 'solutions' to this problem involve an open access revolution where researchers put their publications online on the arXiv or similar.

This is entirely possible but it doesn't address the need for journal subscriptions to access pre-existing articles. As I understand it, unless copyright law changes, if a researcher wants to read online a 1970s paper from Nature, their library has to subscribe to Nature forever (approximately), even if everything they produce from today onwards will be uploaded to github.

It seems the only time I'm ever on Springer or Wiley is to read some conference proceedings from 1992.

Is there some fields where this is way more of a problem (I'm guessing medicine)? As someone in computer vision you are often dealing with IEEE for conferences and journals, which has never struck me as that bad, although for a non-profit and as a member I would prefer they were a little more open. It is nice that CVPR has been open access for a couple of years.

They forget to mention entire buildings worth 10s of millions are now free of journals for other uses.

There's far less staff needed to curate the journals.

And the millions saved in time with researchers getting them on line.

Libraries are much better off. They just could be even more so.

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