George Monbiot has a must-read article in The Guardian on academic publishers. Monbiot points out that academic publishers receive their content for essentially free (the papers are funded by universities, often with public money, and editing is often done on a volunteer basis) and then sold back to the public at exorbitant prices. Individual articles cost at least $30, and subscriptions cost university libraries thousands of dollars per journal per year. The publishers operate at margins of up to 40%. Monbiot writes:
What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.
In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.
The Guardian: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist
Update: Matthew Ingram has a post that expands on the reasons why this system remains in place even as other media industries are being disrupted:
Academics who have tried to open up their research or bypass the journal industry say they often run into resistance from a number of sources. Among other things, appearing in a specific journal or publication is a key criteria for advancement at most universities, which means publishing in open-access formats could be a career-limiting move for an academic. Many publish their papers on their own websites, but most also go through the usual journal process as well, which reinforces the existing system. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.
Ingram also cites this post by sociologist and Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who calls for academics to boycott locked down publishers.
August 30, 2011 at 5:41 pm
“What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it.” State control of the economy is also called socialism, but that’s not the main point here.
Some educational materials (medical, for example) I am not qualified to say how they should be peer-reviewed or taught. But regarding some materials (via common sense and 6 years of working in schools) I think I have something worthwhile to say. It turns out that K-12 mathematics (basic, algebra, geometry, balancing a checkbook, etc.) hasn’t changed in a few thousand years. There is simply nothing new in this area, and centuries of great free material to work with. I don’t have anything of value to say how medical training should go, but there’s no reason in the world for a penny to be spent on ‘new’ K-12 mathematics texts in the face of better alternatives such as a tablet device and wifi and public domain reference material. Start with getting math out of the textbooks, save up a few billion, see what’s next.
I’m also swayed by the works of Kirby Urner, who wants to (a) put mathematics back in the humanities (it’s a subset of logic, which is a subset of philosophy) and (b) make it practical (math education as side effect of computer programing – don’t just talk about angles in the abstract, make the shape appear on the screen with the angles in question).
And then there’s the idea of an earlier set of options for general education and education for a trade. This has costs and benefits, but Germany and other nations seem to be doing okay with these options.
August 30, 2011 at 5:45 pm
We should merely insist that all research conducted using public funds be made publically available for free via the world wide web. It doesn’t need to be a “single global archive” (a typically statist solution from Monbiot). I also don’t want governments overseeing the peer review process. Let many flowers bloom in terms of archives, search engines and ratings systems.