Paywall: The Business of Scholarship
October 17, 2018 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship provides focus on the need for open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with the top academic publisher Elsevier and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I worked at an academic library, we had to cut journal subscriptions every single year because the publishers jacked up the prices all the time. Thank goodness for Inter-Library Loan, but I wonder how much scholarship is set back every day because of avarice.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:33 PM on October 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


One problem is that there is no good model for funding peer reviewed journals.

Open access boils down to author pays, sponsor pays, or advertiser pays, all of which introduce variations of the adage "if you aren't the customer, you're the product." And reader pays doesn't work because when you subscribe to a journal, the value you get isn't from reading the articles. That stopped being the case back when academics started emailing each other with instructions on how to fetch each other's DVI files over FTP. What you're really paying is for what you don't have to read : the articles that were rejected, and you're paying to read the articles that were edited, refined through peer review, and raised to a standard before publication, so that you don't have to read the slush that came before.

How exactly do we fund the gatekeeping and editing process properly? Right now we don't. It's tenured professors doing it pro bono. Which makes the whole thing even more bizarre. Elsevier charges $35 per PDF (I don't even want to know the subscription costs). So if they weren't monopolists and had to compete, they'd be charging $20. That's still a pretty chunk of change, for services that are largely not rendered.
posted by ocschwar at 8:04 PM on October 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


It'll be screened and discussed at my university on Monday, I've already signed up.
posted by ipsative at 8:11 PM on October 17, 2018


As someone who was a publisher of an academic journal not too long ago: this entire business is hopelessly corrupt and wrong, and the main reason is the political focus on measurable output from academics. (Or: the economization of research).
I'd like to tell more and may return to do so, but to be honest, its triggering since I came down with anxiety after trying to handle the moral and ethical complications for some years.
posted by mumimor at 8:15 PM on October 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Sorry, what do we need academic journals for in the first place?
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:44 PM on October 17, 2018


Sorry, what do we need academic journals for in the first place?

To share and advance knowledge?
posted by k8t at 9:58 PM on October 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


A lot of schools offer Open Courseware and there's a ton of free - or cheap - instruction on the web. I predict that someday colleges will go the way of the newspaper. I saw the print version of the New York Times last weekend - it was $6.
posted by bendy at 10:41 PM on October 17, 2018


Journals are generally online. Paper has nothing to do with this. The universities pay something that looks more like extortion money for online acces.
A lot of institutions and/or governments demand that employees deliver 1 or 2 peer reviewed article in a listed publication pr semester. Those publications that are on the government lists can demand whatever they want in pay for access from universities.
1 or 2 articles don't look like a lot to the outside person (like an economist, a politician or a board-member at a university) but actual meaningful research may take years. As a result, people are publishing all sorts of rubbish. The peer review process has all but crashed due to the demand posed by the institutions. Panel members ignore the material they are sent, or just skim it, and journals pretend the proces is functioning and publish whatever is sent in. If you as a journal delay the proces to actually get in the peer reviews, you are blamed for being legalistic and un-professional. If you as a researcher actually read and rate the articles you are sent, you may well be blacklisted and harassed at your workplace. (Ask me how I know). I'm not googling now -- I should be asleep. But there is a much published scandal right now about stupid articles in social science journals, echoing the Sokal-affair. What is much less published is that there is a much more worrying ongoing scandal about medical journals publishing faulty, unreviewed articles that go on to be held as evidence for treatments or non-treatments. Think anti-vaccers. This is still going on. You won't die because of a joke in a social science journal (I think). You can die because of a fraudulent med article.
Also, citation-circles and other methods of gaming the system often have the institutions' tacit approval. I've heard a Norwegian professor boast of the citation circle she was part of to a government official in my own country, (who did not approve). I take it that the fact that she was bragging openly about her practice meant that other officials support it. Norway is the spiritual home of bibliometrics in Europe.
Did I mention that getting a journal of the list of approved publications is a highly political game that has absolutely nothing to do with quality? I probably forgot a lot of other stuff, too.

We were a group of people who tried to create a journal with a clear independent profile and high standards. No one had bad intentions. I worked a lot with the structure and financing, and I still haven't read all the articles we published. I hope our board did a fair job. But I can't be certain. Today, the journal still exists, but it has succumbed to the realities of academic publishing.
posted by mumimor at 11:58 PM on October 17, 2018 [18 favorites]


One problem is that there is no good model for funding peer reviewed journals.

Sure, there's a good model. Journals should be open-access and produced in-house at universities; universities should pay knowledge workers for their labor; and rich people should be taxed at appropriate rates to fund the universities, since they are a public good.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 6:43 AM on October 18, 2018 [16 favorites]


(ay yo, if you go on the academics personal website, they often have copies of their work there. Google Scholar also throws up pdf versions in weird locations)
posted by Damienmce at 6:54 AM on October 18, 2018


I know lots of non-academics who sometimes want to read scientific articles but run into the paywall.

If this is you: it’s not like news, the authors don’t see a cent of your money, don’t feel bad about pirating.

Search strategies: first, try scholar.google.com (which will pick up stuff on authors websites, usually). Then try PubMed if it’s biological or medical. Finally, you can just copy and paste the URL on the journal page (or the DOI number) into Sci-Hub, which is a shady Russian website run by a Khazakh anarchist that has essentially all scientific articles.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:20 AM on October 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


MeFi's own Jessamyn shared this one a couple of months ago: Leveraging Elsevier’s Creative Commons License Requirement to Undermine Embargo. Apparently prepublication articles are to are to bear a Creative Commons-Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license.
posted by exogenous at 7:49 AM on October 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why preeminent research institutions don't just start their own journals and tell Elsevier et al to pound sand. It seems like that would get around the bootstrapping problem of starting a new journal. If, say, MIT gave its imprimatur to a journal for AI-related CS topics or something (just to pick something where I think MIT has a lot of name recognition), and MIT faculty "primed the pump" for the first few issues by doing peer review... who wouldn't want to submit to that?

I'm not even sure the costs of actually running the journal would be that high; the content itself could reside on the ArXive or a similar "preprint" archive; the output of the 'journal' is really metadata—a curated list of papers that have been peer reviewed, and the records of the review, plus a way to reference them later (really, just stable DOIs these days).

PNAS is, I suppose, close to this, and they still charge both subscription and publication fees (and receive no government funding), but I don't really understand where that money goes. Once upon a time, the typesetting and printing costs for journals were significant, but I don't really believe that they cost much anymore. (I've heard most typesetting is done overseas for pennies, and I've seen some third-tier journals with such strict submission requirements that I'm suspicious they may just have a computer program doing it mindlessly.)

An honest accounting of what it costs to operate a journal, given the way the academic community allows costs to be externalized for the hardest parts (actual research, peer review, etc.), seems like a good starting point.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 AM on October 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


I would be perfectly fine with a model of academic publishing wherein most significant decisions about journal reputabity were made by Kazakh anarchists.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


That 9 year old who found a sword in a lake in Sweden could be offered a side hustle too.
posted by ocschwar at 8:59 AM on October 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


I never imagined that my cyberpunk future would involve grabbing unlicensed scientific articles poached by Khazakh anarchists through a TOR window, but here we are.
posted by haileris23 at 12:14 PM on October 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


Just had a project meeting yesterday with a diverse group from a variety of universities, some with pretty terrible library budgets. We decided access to publications was one of the top two or three things holding the project back from achieving the aims we promised (and have been funded to do. Ironically, our open access subsidies for our own publications were the first thing we had to cut when the budget we were funded with was lower than requested).

On the plus side, we decided to pool our personal libraries of papers, including large pirated collections from the members of the group with the worst-funded libraries. (And which in turn came from very generous members of our wider academic community who shared access to their slightly smaller but still extensive collections of scanned and downloaded papers). I am currently carrying around a hard drive with around 90GB of papers related to our project that I didn't have yesterday and I feel like I won the fucking lottery.
posted by lollusc at 2:31 PM on October 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


Khazakh anarchists

Incidentally, for those who haven't watched it yet: the Sci-Hub founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, is featured prominently towards the end of the film. Her demeanour is quite arresting: she's almost always either laughing or on the verge of laughing.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2018 [3 favorites]



I'm not sure why preeminent research institutions don't just start their own journals and tell Elsevier et al to pound sand. It seems like that would get around the bootstrapping problem of starting a new journal. If, say, MIT gave its imprimatur to a journal for AI-related CS topics or something (just to pick something where I think MIT has a lot of name recognition), and MIT faculty "primed the pump" for the first few issues by doing peer review... who wouldn't want to submit to that?


MIT has Technology Review, and the MIT Press does manage some journals.

The problem once again would be what's already between the lines at TR: it would be MIT talking up its own book. That's okay when it's up front, but there's a reason I go to IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, and it's to learn the state of the art in the topic in the title. If it were MIT Progress in the Smart Grid, its interests would not be aligned wiht mine.
posted by ocschwar at 5:36 PM on October 18, 2018


Sorry, what do we need academic journals for in the first place?

To share and advance knowledge?


I read that as a statement/question about pre-prints — articles written and immediately shared by academics in open repositories without peer review, in repos like ArXiv, ASAPbio, or SocArXiv. It's a good idea to consider, since there's lots to suggest peer review doesn't add or change much anyway, and the time lag can be huge getting into a journal when we want knowledge out faster.

[disclosure: I was interviewed for the film, and I work at Creative Commons]
posted by mrmcsurly at 7:04 PM on October 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Elsevier still publishes the math journal Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals which was implicated in a pretty serious scandal a few years back involving its editor and founder who used the journal to publish over 300 of his own articles, most of them nonsensical. There's no love lost in the mathematical community for Elsevier.

On the other hand, while arXiv (as mentioned above) is a great way for mathematicians and scientists to share their work for free, it has almost no filter. A quick search shows several "proofs" of the Goldbach conjecture (there is no proof of the Goldbach conjecture) and the Riemann hypothesis (there is no proof of the Riemann hypothesis). Peer review serves a real purpose in separating the wheat from the chaff, and in the best case, journals (including those published by Elsevier) provide that editing and review through the work of volunteer referees.

What can be done? Some scientists and mathematicians have formed their own journals for just a fraction of the price of the predatory publishers (see, for example, this page about breakaway journals). But as long as academics are trying to climb the career ladder by racking up publications and citations, there will be companies seeking to profit from that need. See also: predatory textbook publishers. I'm not sure what the answer is.
posted by math at 7:59 PM on October 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Peer review serves a real purpose in separating the wheat from the chaff, and in the best case, journals (including those published by Elsevier) provide that editing and review through the work of volunteer referees.

What can be done?


I feel like lowering profit margins would be the way to go. Given that the actual content of Elsevier's journals is contributed by people they don't pay, their high profit margins are indefensible. Paying for what service they do provide is fair enough - and it's fair enough for them to turn a profit - but within reason.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:17 PM on October 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


A change to trademark law so that if a journal's board of editors choses to break away, they can take the journal's name with them.
posted by ocschwar at 8:17 PM on October 18, 2018


https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/the-brilliant-life-and-tragic-death-of-aaron-swartz-177191/

Aaron Swartz was hounded to death for trying to break the monopoly.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:51 AM on October 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


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