Publication and Profit

Just about everyone who reads what I post (both of you) also reads and may occasionally write papers for publication in “learned” journals. Some do it because it’s required for the advancement in their professional careers, others like me do it for κλέος. Either way, there is often something that stands between the writer and the reader. I’m not talking about the necessary peer reviewers and editors. I’m talking about the for-profit academic publishers.
Yesterday, the Guardian published an abnormally interesting article, “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist” by George Monbiot. You can also find Monbioit’s piece, more fully referenced, on his website. Here’s a sample,

The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer’s words) because they “develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years”. But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.” Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.

In many ways this is old news and there are an increasing number of good quality open access journals and even books. Still the discussion remains pertinent. Read the whole piece.
Reflecting on Monbiot’s essay, John Hawks writes,

All of this money has gone into creating a publishing system that isn’t even usable or accessible to the volunteer laborers that create the content. People who have good journal access at research universities (and I’m fortunate to be one of these) still have to burn minutes every time we access an article to go through the ridiculous paywalls. Then there’s the crazy rigmarole of linking online discussion to these paywall-ridden papers.

These problems are only made worse for an independent unaffiliated amateur scholar student like me.
Hawks goes on to suggest that Amazon should be told about this and that they might be well equipped to manage a peer reviewed publication system that, depending on several factors, could be free or at least of much lower cost to the reading public. I’m not so sure that Amazon is the right answer. But something like Amazon sure is. His suggests that authors might pay for “a prestigious editor” could make sense in the hard sciences where grants often include publication costs but it would not work as well in the humanities.
I do think that despite the increasing number of open access journals it is important to keep in mind that with few exceptions the most prestigious journals are for-profit journals whose profit depends on free labor in the form of authors and peer reviewers.

7 thoughts on “Publication and Profit”

  1. Duane,
    You forgot me when you mentioned the other two people who read your blog. So, next time remember that there are three of us.
    But seriously, the issue you mention here is very important for us who read academic articles. There are two issues involved here. First, most people believe that online publications are not as academic as peer reviewed journals, even though many of them are.
    Peer reviewed journals are available in libraries, are indexed, and abstracted. Since these journals are for profit, they are more selective in what they publish. Thus, people believe that they are more reliable.
    The problem is that if you do not have access to these journals, the publishers charge a lot of money for people do read the articles. This discourages students and scholars from buying the rights to read the articles. Scholars write the articles without receiving remuneration, but since the for-profit journals need to make a profit, they charge libraries an exorbitant price for their subscriptions and libraries are becoming more selective in their subscriptions of journals.
    Claude Mariottini

  2. I’m still aghast every time I look up an article from the 60’s and JSTOR wants me to pay $11-15 to read it: not the whole journal issue – just the article! Add to that the number of other journal articles it references (or I am referencing from another article) and it becomes very expensive, very quickly.
    It always makes me think of the old days well-off individuals who have the free time and resources available from an inheritance or their social standing, etc.

  3. Apparently you have at least three readers. I do agree that for-profit academic journals seem to be a problem. They’re going to keep a death grip on those 40% margins until somebody takes it away from them.

  4. This publisher-system is fading. Jeff Kirvin recently reposted an discussion that details a recent deal between e-book author John Locke and Simon and Shuster. The publisher agreed to publish print versions of his books and allowed him to keep all digital rights to his work. There were many comments which saw this as the beginning of the end for publisher monopoly.

  5. Hmm… I’m somewhat tempted to build an open access website in response to this.
    Agree with Matt about JSTOR (too often, though, a number of the articles I’m looking to read are even older than the ’60s, and sometimes well earlier than when the copyright has long expired).
    If I were to lose my mind and decide to build an open access website… What features would people say is currently lacking from current sites? Would some kind of volunteer voting/reviewing system be appealing? Other suggestions?

  6. I’d say there are at least four readers.
    As a student, lack of access to journals makes it nearly impossible to work; we’re expected to use the journals, but we aren’t allowed to take them from the library, aren’t allowed to see the new issues (anything post-2004/5 counts as new)… JSTOR is merely one of the databases that one needs, the Cambridge Journals (also sometimes offering unique articles on issues related to the Ancient Near East) is another… and who knows how many there are I haven’t even found out about yet.
    If there was an initiative for an open access website, I’d definitely volunteer.

  7. Sometimes I find journals for $2 each at the Goodwill Bookstores in my town. They sell only books, and they frequently get in some very good finds. Individual books of the Anchor Bible series: $4 each. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary: $4 each volume. I’ve found many good resources at these stores.
    Occasionally, they will look something up online and then adjust the price accordingly (the Anchor Bible Dictionary was being sold for around $150 – I talked them down to $100 and that was still a heck of a deal), but this is usually reserved for complete sets of books.
    I keep crossing my fingers (perhaps a bit morbidly) that an avid journal reader/scholar will kick the bucket and their ignorant children will donate their library to my local Goodwill Bookstore. Can you imagine how many people have probably tossed their parent’s journals – thinking they were just boring magazines? 🙁

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