Academic Publishers Are Out of Control

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.

Monbiot’s solution:

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

(via Brainsturbator)

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.


  1. “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.

  2. 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.

    • Charles, FWIW the proposal specifically calls for peer to review to be handled by independent organizations, not governments.

      Posting journal articles on the public Web only solves one part of the problem: giving individuals access to specific journal articles that they already know they want. Theoretically, some of the curation and discovery would be taken on by bloggers, journalists, etc. But that doesn’t solve all the problems or address the root causes identified by Ingram.

      This presentation by Björn Brembs goes into some of the problems and how he arrived at a public database as a solution. I don’t think it’s a particularly “statist” solution. Creating a public database of publicly funded research would be cheap in comparison to shelling out for journal subscriptions, and it wouldn’t preclude the publication of the articles elsewhere. Some amount of curation and discovery by third party bloggers and journalists would still be necessary, and new journals could emerge to also publish the info.

  3. I am really looking forward to Anonymous cracking these entire archives open. It would be a stunning seismic shift for internet topology — these academic paywalls make up a large majority of the infamous “Deep Web” and represent billions of tax dollars and man-hours.

  4. The so called ‘serials crisis’ has been around for a while – this is a seminal paper from 2005 pointing to the corruption at work

    I studied this for a while under the Edupunk banner in 2009: this is a list of the main articles and main players:

    There is an appetite for open source journals, but the trick the devil plays here and it’s highlighted well enough is that academic ego + career advancement are hardwired into the system.

    The only way this will stop is if enough intellectuals band together and create alternative free journals and use social media to get a wider readership (more prestige and money). Some are doing this, but it takes a marketing and IT adeptness that most find hard.

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