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Monday, 16 April 2012

Publishing Science, Profits and the Public Interest

Invited article written by Professor Simone Hochgreb, University of Cambridge, Secretary of the Committee of the Combustion Institute British Section.

News erupted over the past year, starting with an article by George Monbiot on the obscene profits of academic publishers in August 2011. This has been followed by a number of articles, and the announcement by Fields Medal Winner Timothy Gowers not to submit articles to Elsevier journals on 21 January 2012, leading to a movement which collected 9000 signatures of scholars who pledged to refrain from working for publishers which restrict free sharing as authors, reviewers or editors.

Newton's Principia
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (wikipedia)
In parallel, Sir Mark Walport, director of Wellcome Trust, the second largest non-governmental funder of medical research, found out from moving from his prior job as an academic that he could not download publications which he might have published himself at his new organization. As a result, the Wellcome Trust is now launching a high calibre scientific journal free on the web. The momentum behind open source publishing is clearly gaining ground by the day.But first, let's do the numbers that have led to the belated outrage directed in particular at Elsevier:

1) The market: the academic publishing market was around 19 million USD, 43% controlled by Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, whilst the remainder fragmented among over 2000 publishers [1]. These numbers are from 2002, so assuming steady growth of 3%, the absolute numbesr could be over 30% higher.

2) These big three publishers control all top journals (Nature, Science, and the top journals in other scientific realms). Given that most libraries need these subscriptions, and most authors need to be published in the top journals to be considered for academic promotion, this gives the journals stupendous bargaining powers. Interestingly, the numbers on what they charge different universities are not necessarily available, as prices paid by universities are covered by confidentiality clauses with publishers. According to David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, "British universities spend around £200m a year on subscriptions to electronic databases and journals, which is around 10% of the block grants the institutions receive from government", that means, a sizable fraction of the overhead.

3) As a result, profit margins for these publishers are mind-boggling: Elsevier has just boasted results for 2011, with a profits/revenue ratio of (27%) which are similar to 2010 (27%) [2], and Springer not far behind with 18.6% for 2011 [3].

Before we all run out and buy some stock, let us consider for a moment what allows this state of affairs:

1) Research is produced, written up, reviewed, corrected, formatted and uploaded by each one of us, with additional hours devoted by the many editors and assistant editors -- for no pay.

2) We give the publishers the rights to own the labour and the good name of the journals, which are associated with the eminence of the editorial boards, for historical reasons: the various societies outsourced the formerly tedious job of editing to companies. Interestingly, the companies have automated the publishing job, but we still do all the editing, proofreading and fact checking.

3) We pay them through our university overheads or our direct downloads for the privilege of maintaining the servers that automate the process, and for the pleasure of negotiating bulk deals to buy back what we produced for incredibly high prices.

4) We proudly point to our list of publications on these journals during promotion and tenure decisions. The more prestigious and expensive (which correlates with the number of citations, as these are disseminated further) the journal, the more points we get.

In summary, this is a strange state of affairs, which is maintained through our complacent inertia, as this seems too big a problem to attack. It is also not a new issue, but one which has proven resilient to change, which is why the profits and the charges to our libraries continue. Other societies in our field of fluid mechanics in combustion (SAE, AIAA, ASME) can be even worse, providing less service in readying papers for publishing than journals, for higher charges, but creating an audience and the appearance of peer review.
Whereas there continues to be significant movement in open source publishing, the evolving picture of open access may not lend itself to a grand ending, but rather a series of small steps.

1) Insist on maintaining the copyright, and deposit material in archival repository such as dspace: many journals, including Elsevier, allow this, but the fine print is still moving and uncertain.

2) Consider publishing open source journals (PLoSOne), or society journals (AIP, RSC) which charge libraries significantly less.

3) Work with the different societies in the field to understand the costs of breaking the oligopoly of publishing, given that online publishing tools are so widely available: keep the peers and their review, but understand whether the same or better service in delivering on-line archival material can be obtained.
Finally, there remains the issue of the indexing and how we are all subject to the vagaries of Thomson-Reuters and its ownership of the largest abstract indexing engine. But that will be the subject of another article.


1. G. S. McGuigan, R. D. Russell, The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing, Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, v. 9, n. 3 (2008).
2. Reed Elsevier 2011 Results.
3. Springer press release 2011 Results.

1 comment:

  1. Great timing for this blog entry. Havard has just released a document with its views on the matter:

    *Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained*