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Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road.
June 7, 2014 3:58 AM   Subscribe

In the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, the proposition paper 'Publisher, be damned! from price gouging to the open road' (replicated) criticises the large profits made by commercial publishers on the back of academics’ labours, and the failure of the Finch report on open access to address them. After a lengthy delay, the paper was eventually published, but only with a large disclaimer from the publishers (Taylor and Francis) and after a stand-off with the editorial board.

...The journal’s general editor, Stuart Macdonald, a visiting professor of economics at Aalto University in Finland, said the non-appearance of the journal in September was followed, two months later, by a letter from a senior manager at Taylor and Francis demanding that more than half of the proposition article be cut....

...He said matters came to a head at a "very unpleasant" meeting in January, when the journal’s editorial board threatened to resign en masse unless Taylor and Francis backed down.

The publisher eventually did so, but insisted on removing all publishers’ names from both the proposition article and the four responses. Professor Macdonald reluctantly agreed, but Taylor and Francis still did not publish the debate, prompting him to withhold subsequent editions of the journal for fear they would be published in preference. The result was a "huge backlog" of papers waiting to be published.

He was also upset that, when the edition was finally published, Taylor and Francis unilaterally added a long disclaimer to each article warning that "the accuracy of the content should not be relied upon"....


Previously on MetaFilter: the UK Government response to the Finch report.
posted by Wordshore (36 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a side-point, even though the paper is (finally) free and openly available, it was interesting to still see the tricks of the publishing industry around it. The link to the paper automatically resolves to a shorter URL which, when used elsewhere, throws up an error message. And those who flail around searching for it without the aid of a skilled librarian may come across it elsewhere - at a cost of $54.28 plus tax.

The other articles in the same journal are also IMHO worth a read.
posted by Wordshore at 4:06 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


And those who flail around searching for it without the aid of a skilled librarian may come across it elsewhere

It's the fourth hit for the title (in quotes) on Google. (Admittedly, this post is the second hit.) It turns up in Google Scholar. I'm not sure how you're going to fail to find it if you've ever looked for an article before.
posted by hoyland at 4:34 AM on June 7


It's the fourth hit for the title (in quotes) on Google. (Admittedly, this post is the second hit.) It turns up in Google Scholar. I'm not sure how you're going to fail to find it if you've ever looked for an article before.

You over-estimate the online skills of two professors I've assisted in the last month (one of whom was almost frozen in fear when confronted with the stark Google search box). Trust me, some people - in academia especially - will somehow find their way to a site such as the one in comment #1, reluctantly get out their credit card, and buy the article.
posted by Wordshore at 4:43 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


some people - in academia especially - will somehow find their way to a site such as the one in comment #1, reluctantly get out their credit card, and buy the article.

the idea of buying an academic article seems as preposterous as wiring money to the ex-president of Nigeria. sounds like the business model is about the same either way.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:09 AM on June 7 [9 favorites]


No university academic I know has ever bought an article. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I've never seen it happen.
posted by cromagnon at 5:42 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


Academics trigger purchases without knowing it. Not everything you find at the library is actually owned by the library. In fact, some things you find at the library are actually only being rented by the library. And DeepDyve and JSTOR actually do sell quite a few articles. I believe that an academic might not be aware of the purchase of articles, but it does happen, and it's actually becoming a rather popular model among librarians. It's called the Patron Driven Acquisitions model, also referred to as Demand Driven Acquisitions, and it's often augmented to a Short Term Loan safety brake, maybe by discipline, maybe by publisher.

The way the model works is publishers put their entire digital catalog into a library's catalog and databases, and to the patron it this content appears to be part of their holdings, but the patron is then allowed to browse maybe a few pages in either direction from where the search results brought them. If they go a page farther, it triggers either a rental or a purchase, it's up to the librarian. It's an interesting way to develop collections, but it may not prove sustainable to publishers. It seems to be fueling price increases and kind of throws the 80-20 model of publishing into jeopardy.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:08 AM on June 7 [10 favorites]


Nitpicking how people use google and whether or not they pay for individual articles seems beside the point.

A publisher (not an academic editor) trying to control the content of an academic article is beyond the pale. I suspect this will not go well for Taylor and Francis when they are perceived to be interfering with academic freedom. Academics who work with commercial publishers (that is, most academics) still tend to really care about academic freedom.
posted by medusa at 6:16 AM on June 7 [8 favorites]


I agree, and Wordshore did a great job of laying out the troubling facts of this incident.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:20 AM on June 7


It reminds me a bit of another recent journal debacle. Frontiers in Psychology pulled an article about conspiracy theories among climate deniers after threats of libel suits. Again, it felt a bit like a publisher imposing business decisions onto editorial decisions.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:26 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


But Steffen Böhm, director of the Essex Sustainability Institute at the University of Essex and co-author of one of the response articles, said the episode lent further strength to his call for academics to take publishing back in-house.

It should. There should be more independent journals rather than have a couple of titans have a stranglehold on a large number of titles. It stifles what gets published and who is getting published and this merely brings to the forefront what has been going on in the industry for a long time...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:37 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]


i would expect any meeting where you're trying to back down a greedy, powerful rentier to be "very unpleasant", but i love meetings like that.
posted by bruce at 7:19 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]


It boggles my mind that the journal editors are merely thinking about resigning. What clearer signal could there be that their academic freedom has been fatally compromised?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:31 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]


You only talk about resigning because if you actually resign you lose most of your voice in the debate. Much better to keep your position and continue to fight with the publisher.
posted by ryanrs at 8:45 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]


Now that we've discussed the post, maybe we can move on to the article itself.

I really like it. And I see why it was disliked by the publisher. In the past, we've generally just bemoaned the state of academic publishing, made protests, resigned en masse from editorial boards, etc. These gestures have political meaning, but they don't have a lot of practical merit; speaking up loudly in academia is dangerous, and resigning (as people have said above) takes away your voice. At some point, we need to get back to the actual academic work we're supposed to be doing.

So this article makes a subversive suggestion that I think ought to be the way to the future. It suggests that, like Grateful Dead tapers trading copies of shows in the 1970s, we should strive to share our work and make it available to our colleagues inside and outside universities by trading and sharing - by any means necessary. When you publish an article in a journal that demands that you only publish with them and not make it freely available, post it online anonymously on Scribd or another service, and circulate the PDF to anyone and everyone who expresses even the faintest hint of interest. Tell your students and colleagues that you aren't just all right with them distributing copies to anyone they wish to - you'd love it, because you believe in academic freedom. We need to create a culture akin to the taper culture in which sharing of knowledge is valued above rote following of mindless restrictions.

The subversiveness of that suggestion, and the perceived danger to publishers' bottom line, is why I imagine there was so much trouble here. They generally don't mind if you threaten to quit, or moan loudly about the state of things, or whatever; they know it's just a gesture, just a show. But when you tell people 'hey, it's okay to break the rules and copy our article and share it around, and you should do the same with your papers!' it's actually affecting the way things are published and the ridiculous restrictions placed on academic publishing. And it seems to me that that's the only real way forward.
posted by koeselitz at 9:17 AM on June 7 [17 favorites]


Information wants to be free. Too bad it has to sidestep an ocean of greedy middlemen to get there.

Honestly, though, any system can be broken with enough opposition.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:47 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]


I'm a bit flat footed, but I don't see why the good professor et al don't just redirect their annoyance and start up their own damn journals. It's not as if this is a new complaint- get off the pot! If the publishers are not providing good value, if the price of publishing is going down in the e-age, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Perhaps this is related to their inability to navigate Google....

Information wants to be free.

Seriously? Still? Sorry, but that's just sloganeering rubbish and always has been and I really wish people would stop saying it. Information is volition free. Not so content creators. Some content creators are indifferent to material reward*, many more are not, most businesses are dependent on it, many businesses exploit it to the max. Concentrate on the individual players, not on will'o'the wisps, and recognize that someone is always picking up the tab even if you aren't.

Honestly, though, any system can be broken with enough opposition.

True, that. Creating a new one to fill it's place is a bit harder. Hence my initial comment that they should man up or shut up, preferably the former.

(This should not be taken as a blanket defense of academic publishing, which clearly pushes the financial limits in much the same way that academia itself does. Astonishingly materially minded, these men of higher thinking.)

*helps to have a real job.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:07 AM on June 7


Journals are not valued for the publishing and editing, they are valued for the prestige.

That is the fundamental problem, and why it is so difficult to eliminate these obsolete academic publishing models.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:44 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


Information wants to be free.

Seriously? Still? Sorry, but that's just sloganeering rubbish and always has been and I really wish people would stop saying it.

Except it was never intended for the sloganeering purpose it get used for. It isn't supposed to be a slogan, just an observation about entropy. It just means that secrets are inherently leaky. "Information wants to be free" isn't really much different from "water wants to leak out of the faucet" or "water evaporates." If you don't take positive steps to control it, data gets spread around. Not that it's good or bad, and not that it should or shouldn't be. Just that over time, things get spread around. I prefer the older and more dramatic formulations: "two can keep a secret if one's dead," or "dead men tell no tales."
posted by tyllwin at 11:47 AM on June 7 [6 favorites]


The academic "business model" consists of being stupid enough to conceive of a project, get it funded, do the work, write papers, edit them, typeset them into publication-ready form, shepherd them through the peer review process, which includes more rewriting, re-editing, re-typesetting, and then sign over the copyright to a corporation--after paying additional "publication fees", of course.

It's actually just another example of why "late-stage" capitalism is so frightfully resilient--it's a big stochastic adaptive system that can and will hack just about any spontaneously emergent commons (including, as we are seeing, the internet itself). It makes it very difficult to outflank. In this case, it's the "publish or perish" nature of academia. We academics need to get our shit out there. The publishers know this, and are only too willing to "help", and they know academics are mostly too busy to put up effective resistance. Maybe that's starting to change, but I'm not optimistic.

Open access journals are a start--but that meme, too, has already been hacked. We keep confusing the logistics of "who pays when" with social organization: open access is only good if it's worker owned, or at least worker managed. The PLOS journals are decent (well, at least some of them), but it's not magic: I still have to pony up $2250 to get each paper in print. Why? Just to have someone act as a air-traffic controller, to receive my papers and send them out to editors (all of whom are unpayed academics, BTW)? It makes little sense.

The open access trend doesn't go anywhere near far enough. I don't know how to do such a thing, but looking at existing technology it seems to my perhaps naive mind that academics could go peer-to-peer with the entire process (keeping it entirely digital, of course). Using templates, a reasonably consistent look and feel could be maintained with articles. For example, attractive, readable, coherently organized papers can be made within the LaTeX ecosystem, which can output PDFs and web-publishable HTML. Or, documents could be built primarily as web pages, as parts of research group blogs or wikis. Documents with integrated multimedia and computation are possible, either way.

Would software that is some sort of enhanced synthesis of arXiv, wikipedia, and github (if that makes any sense to anyone) be feasible, to allow academics to create a peer-reviewed publication stream as a type of rigorously curated social medium? I'd love to hear from anyone with the technical chops to answer such a question. This is the sort of thing that scholars and culture workers (both in and out of formal academia) need. Instead, we get click-harvesting popularity contests like ResearchGate.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:25 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


I don't see why the good professor et al don't just redirect their annoyance and start up their own damn journals.

Some content creators are indifferent to material reward*, many more are not, most businesses are dependent on it, many businesses exploit it to the max.

Astonishingly materially minded, these men of higher thinking.

"Hi there! As evidenced by my statements, I know absolutely nothing about the nature and the current problems of academic publishing, but let me tell you my solution to what I think is the problem in an arrogant and rude way!"
posted by Behemoth at 12:33 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]



So this article makes a subversive suggestion that I think ought to be the way to the future. It suggests that, like Grateful Dead tapers trading copies of shows in the 1970s, we should strive to share our work and make it available to our colleagues inside and outside universities by trading and sharing - by any means necessary.


I agree that this is a good approach, and in some academic fields it already works this way. Between preprint servers and academics' individual web sites, basically every paper is freely available in these fields. I don't understand why not all fields do this.
posted by medusa at 1:41 PM on June 7


Many big journals' agreements with their authors make it against their rules to post a paper on their personal website or otherwise make it available, on penalty of not publishing them again.
posted by koeselitz at 2:16 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


Toekneesan - that's really interesting, and no, I didn't know that happened out of sight of the user. I shall find out more about that, not least because it really throws into question one of the main motivations that universities are currently citing as a reason to support publishers' "gold" OA schemes.

But to be honest, I don't see that as a reason why this:

"Trust me, some people - in academia especially - will somehow find their way to a site such as the one in comment #1, reluctantly get out their credit card, and buy the article."

isn't completely wrong.
posted by cromagnon at 6:40 PM on June 7


I know a lot of academics who have. I was a university librarian once, and though it was very long ago, I knew people who were doing it then, too.
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 PM on June 7


I mean: you know that most professional academics have a book budget, right? This is what it is spent on: academic material.
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 PM on June 7


I'm a bit flat footed, but I don't see why the good professor et al don't just redirect their annoyance and start up their own damn journals. It's not as if this is a new complaint- get off the pot!

Because when you're already spending 70-100 hours per week doing your job, taking on another task that won't generate results and therefore grant money isn't smart or often even physically possible. Academic staff aren't sitting around twiddling their thumbs looking for things to do.

In biology at least, the threat of not being published in the very top journals is one with real teeth. Much as people like to roll their eyes at impact factor and the like, high level publications are still a basic requirement for a successful academic career in most places. The publishers still have a lot of power. I'm not sure how to do anything about that as a postdoc who wants to keep being employed in some category, even though I'm already out of contention for any kind of academia after this job because I didn't publish in Cell or the like during my PhD.
posted by shelleycat at 1:30 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


The open access trend doesn't go anywhere near far enough. I don't know how to do such a thing, but looking at existing technology it seems to my perhaps naive mind that academics could go peer-to-peer with the entire process (keeping it entirely digital, of course).

Arxiv.org. This is the place-of-record for mathematics and physics: once a new result goes on the arxiv (usually concurrent with submission to a journal of some sort), it establishes priority for the author(s).

There's been talk of establishing a system of blog-based journals as 'overlays' ont he Arxiv, but I don't know that it's really gone anywhere. Tim Gowers was talking about such a thing back during the big Elsevier protest a couple years ago, anyway, and it sounded like Terry Tao was on board. Of course, this takes a bit of work to get rolling, as well as some big names buying in, but so does being an academic editor for any journal.

The thing to do is to get some kind of arxiv overlay system in place, get it started taking off, and then get it funded through the NSF, as the Arxiv is. Really, you just need some kind of co-operatively run organization that coordinates the journals, and get some key university libraries (Harvard has a stupidly large endowment) to foot the bills as the bad old system phases out.

Incidentally, my favorite journal is an independent online journal with some awesome editors that started in the early nineties. It's totally workable.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:41 AM on June 8


I'm a bit flat footed, but I don't see why the good professor et al don't just redirect their annoyance and start up their own damn journals.

They frequently do.

This is something that seems to vary by discipline. In my own discipline, political science, the majority of major journals are owned and run by professional societies. They still usually contract with a publisher for marketing and printing though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 AM on June 8


you know that most professional academics have a book budget, right? This is what it is spent on: academic material.

Yes, I have one. I use it to purchase text books for my students' use mostly, and occasionally for reference copies of books that it would be annoying to have to keep renewing. Journal articles? Never. If the library doesn't subscribe, none of my colleagues' universities subscribe, filetype:pdf or #icanhazpdf don't come up with anything, and an email to every author goes unanswered then either I stop looking or go to a library that does subscribe.
posted by cromagnon at 8:07 AM on June 8


Arxiv.org. This is the place-of-record for mathematics and physics...

kaibutsu, I mentioned arXiv--however, it does not have a peer-review mechanism built into it. It's merely a repository for papers in progress.

Thanks for mentioning your favorite journal. I wasn't aware of it (I don't work in the field), but it definitely seems more like what I'm thinking of, so it's pretty exciting to see. Definitely seems like a turn-key model for others to follow. OTOH, it's impact factor is around 0.5. That's another gimmick that the publishers are using to keep academics entrained in their systems.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:29 AM on June 8


cromagnon:"Yes, I have one. I use it to purchase text books for my students' use mostly, and occasionally for reference copies of books that it would be annoying to have to keep renewing. Journal articles? Never. If the library doesn't subscribe, none of my colleagues' universities subscribe, filetype:pdf or #icanhazpdf don't come up with anything, and an email to every author goes unanswered then either I stop looking or go to a library that does subscribe."

Texts for students to use? There's something I've never heard of a professor paying money for out of her or his own research budget. Granted that's just my experience, at mostly research universities, in political science, philosophy, and art history departments I have known in the United States. It may be different elsewhere, in different types of universities, in different disciplines, or maybe just at universities I have not been to.

I do talk to a number of research librarians at universities, though. One of them is at my dog park every day. The stories she tells me about helping academics find things (in her field, granted, which is plant biology) - well, let's just say I can imagine a lot of academics pulling out that research budget and blowing it on things like this. We are smart - we are paid to be smart - but we are smart about particular things. I've just kind of come to expect that a lot of my colleagues won't realize that this stuff is scammy. I'm perpetually surprised even still at how many of my fellow academics don't seem perturbed by the journal article industrial complex.

Again, that's just my experience. I am only mentioning it because it seems odd for someone to express disbelief that anyone anywhere would click on a thing asking them to pay to look at something they need for their job. Academics are not magic wizards; we go on the Internet and click the things just like everybody else.

What is the root of your disbelief? Do you genuinely not believe that any solitary human being anywhere in academia is not tech-savvy? You really think it implausible that any single one of them would ever pay for an article online? Seriously?

It sounds a lot like you're taking your own personal experience and assuming that everyone everywhere is just like you. It is not hard to prove that "some" academics do this. All it takes is a few cases. But to prove that zero people do this - as you appear to be arguing - we'd have to have a whole lot more data than I think we have.
posted by koeselitz at 8:52 AM on June 8


OTOH, it's impact factor is around 0.5.

The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics---referenced above---is a very well-respected journal in discrete mathematics, though. Which points to 'impact factors' maybe being not so useful, at least in mathematics.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:13 AM on June 8


Which points to 'impact factors' maybe being not so useful...

Oh, I'm not saying they're useful. Certainly not the way they're used now. They favor high-velocity fields--particularly in the biomedical arena--and downplay more mathematical disciplines. It's absolutely nonsensical that a difficult paper presenting a theorem or physical model that took years to develop, and that can be understood by very few at first, is put on the same playing field as multi-author p-value hunting expeditions that consist of a one or two hypothesis tests with no modeling or theory whatsoever, and that can be largely understood by looking at couple of histograms.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:22 AM on June 8


Sorry - I was in a hurry earlier and it looked like I was being antagonistic. Hell, maybe I was being. I get grumpy when academics get lumped together in stereotypical statements like the one at the top.

There's obviously a lot of variation in what different academics do, and yes it depends on field, nation, institution and personal habit. And yes, some things I do are unusual: I have a discretionary book budget of around about $2000 a year and because books are dead to me, professionally, I have no reason to spend it except to save me a walk to the library. If I don't spend it it goes away somewhere at the end of September, and my colleagues in the humanities get angry because if enough people don't spend it then it'll go away for everyone. So I buy copies of textbooks, how-to books, programming books, and in one case a cookery book, so my graduate students can have reference copies for the duration of their studies. And I get grumpy when they don't give them back.

This explicitly isn't my research budget. I have to work to get every penny of that and spend it accordingly. It goes on salaries, computing costs, conference travel and increasingly on OA fees. The idea I might spend any of it on journal access is crazy (almost as crazy as spending it on OA fees).

OK - so far, so subjective, and point taken about proving a negative. But I'm in very nearly the same field as your friend in the dog park, have been for 18 years, in two continents and five world class research institutions and I have never heard of anyone spend personal research money on journal access. Dead tree books, once - and that was to gut it and send it off for OCR. It has nothing to do with tech-savvy ness - why would you want to pay money for something you've not read yet? I've written too many abstracts to trust them.

On the other hand, I do have a friend who works for Medium-Sized Pharma in lead generation. His group spends a fortune (upper six figures, yearly, for I think 10 people) on per-paper access fees. Another friend in environmental consulting spends a fortune too, because it provides a nice paper trail for demonstrating due diligence and all gets billed to the client. I'd honestly assumed this was the market for the $40 fee.
posted by cromagnon at 5:25 PM on June 8


Yup, impact factor is some bullshit. Looking around, it looks like the maximum impact factor for a math journal in 2013 was 3.5 (jounral of the AMS), and tenth place was 1.8 (Fixed Point Theory A). Interestingly, it looks like 7th place is the first instance of a domain-specific journal.

There's a note on the wikipedia page about how impact factor shouldn't be compared across disciplines, and it would be interesting to look at how it varies across sub-domains. My guess would be quite a bit, depending on variations in the editorial culture in these various areas. (I honestly rarely even talk to analysts, while my writing style is influenced heavily by other people in my area.)

The interesting thing about the EJC is that it really was an early shot at taking the whole journal enterprise out of the publishing houses, and it's lived on as a respectable journal. The past editors include Erdos, Knuth, Lovasz, Sloane, Stanley, and a bunch of other people I consider superstars who might not be as recognizable outside of algebraic combinatorics. It's lived on and worked out, but was apparently never quite groundbreaking enough to completely upend the publishing establishment.

By the way, there was a fascinating Tim Gowers post on journal pricing up last month.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:06 PM on June 8


cromagnon: “I get grumpy when academics get lumped together in stereotypical statements like the one at the top.”

Yeah, that's kind of what I was reacting to, ironically enough – I really don't think we can say all academics do this or that. I guess you were reacting to the term "flail around" – I can see that being an annoying characterization.

I guess the best we can do is say this: if even one person pays a fee for an e-book like that, then it's too many. And chances are it's happened at least once or twice. Who knows, but even one is too many. And limiting access through that fee is egregious, whether it's paid by the library through larger journal access fees or by an individual.

In any case, I think we probably agree – or we don't, but this is a side issue either way. Sorry for dragging it out a bit.
posted by koeselitz at 11:26 PM on June 8


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