The Artificially High Price Of Academic Journals And How It Impacts Everyone

from the sad-to-see dept

It's been a few years since we first discussed the ridiculous racket known as academic publishing. Unlike pretty much any other publication, all of the writing for these publications is done for free. Hell, in some subjects and for some journals, you actually have to pay to submit your papers. The "peer review" is all done for free and often any editing is done for free by an academic to build his or her reputation and CV. So, basically, you have just a tiny fraction of the costs of most any other publication, and yet, the mega-publishers behind these journals charge ridiculous amounts for subscriptions and even for single articles. Even worse, a significant percentage of academic research is still heavily funded by the US government (our taxpayer dollars), yet much of it is locked up behind these incredibly high prices. In many cases, the journals forbid the researcher from releasing the paper elsewhere (though many academics, thankfully, ignore this and offer up PDF downloads). NIH now requires research it funded to be publicly published a year after its published in a proprietary journal, and there are efforts to expand that to other government funding as well -- but the publishers have lobbied very hard against this, and even wish to repeal the NIH rule.

An article over at the Atlantic delves into this issue, going through the ridiculous economics showing how much lower the costs are for journals -- especially in this digital age -- and pointing out that this impacts everyone, rather than just doctors and scientists. The rest of the world shouldn't be cut off from research like this -- especially when it's federally funded. As John Bennett points out in response to that article, this is another example of intellectual monopolies making things ridiculously more expensive than the market should allow. As Thomas Macauley famously said a century and a half ago:
"the effect of monopoly generally is to make articles scarce, to make them dear, and to make them bad."


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Douglas Carnall (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 1:37am

    global cost of closed publishing estimated at $5.5 billion

    Over at the Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics Heather Morrison estimates that the global cost of this system is $5.5 billion. She compares the total revenue from scholarly journals ($8 billion) with the $2.5 billion it would cost to publish every one of the world's estimated 1.5 million scholarly articles using open access publisher BioMedCentral.

    Hers is a good blog to follow if you're interested in the issue, along with Peter Suber's encyclopaedic outpourings at the Sparc Open Access Newsletter.

     

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  2.  
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    grumpy (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 1:48am

    Re: global cost of closed publishing estimated at $5.5 billion

    That's a good start. Unfortunately it doesn't cover the lost opportunities caused by locking up the knowledge in a gated system. Has anyone seen an estimate for that? I know it's difficult because it's hard to detect something not happening but it could be many times higher if you include lost development opportunities in the poor countries, lost entrepreneurial opportunities everywhere, duplication of effort, lower-quality education etc. There's a lot to be said for PLoS.

     

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  3.  
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    Derek, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 1:52am

    Interesting juxtaposition

    "the effect of monopoly generally is to make articles scarce, to make them dear, and to make them bad."
    In my RSS feed, immediately after this quote is an ad for Microsoft Windows.

     

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  4.  
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    Josef Anvil (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:01am

    I'm confused...

    I'm a bit unclear. Are academics legally bound from sharing their research with the world? It seems to me that with current distribution methods they could easily just type up a pdf and release it when and how they choose, and even charge for it for their own personal gain if they so choose.

    If the music and movie industries think they have it bad, they should lend a shoulder to cry on to publishers. It seems authors have more power than ever before, since the only thing they really need is a bit of marketing and can do everything else themselves.

     

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  5.  
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    Chris in Utah (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:47am

    Heres a thought

    Rather than the 8.5B or 2.5B cost why not just publish your dam [blank] with a free online software with collaborators that you can invite in to edit?view?private?public?ect ect ect.

    The first that comes to mind is Google Docs.

    I'm betting there is a market brewing for academia journal query service in here as well.

    If you contracted for work or don't choose to release your content for free you can still set up accounts to take payments for views as well.

    I find myself at a not to common comments here... actual solutions.

     

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  6.  
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    Chargone (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:13am

    Re: Interesting juxtaposition

    fitting. their monopoly status is kind of iffy, but still.

     

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  7.  
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    Chargone (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:15am

    Re: I'm confused...

    well, some can. editors would still have work, i suspect.

     

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  8.  
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    freak (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:21am

    Re: I'm confused...

    We can do that, but gatekeepers serve a useful function in
    a)Double checking the basics of our work
    b)Assuring that only notable things will be released


    That said, we do have a few 'free' journals around, but they tend to attract less notable papers, and thus are less notable. And every academic wants to be published in a journal with a good rep.

    It's kinda like having a male-only workforce up in a mining city, then changing with the times to allow women. 50 years later, still few women up there because there were no women to begin with.

    We'll fix it, eventually.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:23am

    Patent offices and academic articles

    A patent examiner finding an academic article as prior art that is relevant to a patent application is faced with a strange situation (at least in Israel, where I work). The article will usually cost around 30$. Either the patent office will pay for it (using tax money, something examiners are not allowed/encouraged) or the applicant will pay for it once the examiner cites it (since he doesn't really have an option not to). Many times the citation consists only of the abstract (since it is visible for free). Another common solution for the examiner is to just not cite the article (since the examiner knows that citing only an abstract is a weak citation), and then we all loose: the applicant gets a weak patent, and we all pay more for another monopolised invention that is not new/inventive.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:23am

    Patent offices and academic articles

    A patent examiner finding an academic article as prior art that is relevant to a patent application is faced with a strange situation (at least in Israel, where I work). The article will usually cost around 30$. Either the patent office will pay for it (using tax money, something examiners are not allowed/encouraged) or the applicant will pay for it once the examiner cites it (since he doesn't really have an option not to). Many times the citation consists only of the abstract (since it is visible for free). Another common solution for the examiner is to just not cite the article (since the examiner knows that citing only an abstract is a weak citation), and then we all loose: the applicant gets a weak patent, and we all pay more for another monopolised invention that is not new/inventive.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:33am

    I don't understand why is there not a Wiki for peer review?
    Why are universities not building their own peer review system?

     

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  12.  
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    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:59am

    Re:

    Please. The universities are too busy ramping up tuition fees and fudging their numbers for the yearly US News and World Report Top Colleges articles. They don't have an infinite amount of time to be doing something that might benefit humanity in general, much less their over-extended students.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 5:04am

    Re: I'm confused...

    You can release articles w/o a journal but the one benefit of the journals that is not mentioned is that they do get the papers into various search engines that are used for scholarly research. Additionally, it also adds a degree of credibility if it's journal published. It doesn't mean the conclusions or data are right, but it helps your case.

    If you release the pdf yourself, it is harder to get it noticed but certainly not impossible. This is especially true if you're not well known in the field. Google scholar has been a benefit in this area, as is things like osun.org, but many in the community still rely on engines that just search journals.

     

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  14.  
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    Richard (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 5:13am

    Re: Re: I'm confused...

    But in academic publishing the editors, reviewers etc are mostly just other academics, doing the extra work for free (that reminds me, I've got a review to do for an IEEE journal....)

    Some of the publishers are looking at adding value/making money in other ways - I had an interesting conversation with a guy from Springer about this a while back - but these are mostly the less prestigeous ones - who have to try harder anyway.

    Oddly enough the private companies (Springer, Elsevier etc) seem to be more enlightened than learned societies like the ACM and IEEE.

     

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  15.  
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    Vidiot (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 6:43am

    Re: I'm confused...

    The more "desirable" journals usually have a requirement that prohibits publication elsewhere... ever. Often, the journal will bounce an article (and eventually blacklist its author) for revealing any of its contents prior to (paper) publication, even to an audience at a public meeting or symposium. Plenty of disincentives.

    And publication usually is neither about ego/vanity nor an altruistic desire to change the world; it's a condition of continued employment and a compensation metric for many researchers and academics. Given the current carrot-and-stick arrangement, don't look for the authors to initiate reform.

     

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  16.  
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    quickbrownfox, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:17am

    "And publication usually is neither about ego/vanity nor an altruistic desire to change the world; it's a condition of continued employment and a compensation metric for many researchers and academics. Given the current carrot-and-stick arrangement, don't look for the authors to initiate reform."

    You are correct. "Publish or perish" is still alive and well in higher education.

     

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  17.  
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    Rose M. Welch (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:37am

    Re: Re: I'm confused...

    We can do that, but gatekeepers serve a useful function in
    a)Double checking the basics of our work
    b)Assuring that only notable things will be released


    Really? Are you serious? More junk science is being released now than ever, so please explain how these gatekeepers are stopping that.

     

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  18.  
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    Donny (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 8:37am

    Re: global cost of closed publishing estimated at $5.5 billion

    Fair enough. But when did scientific progress need to sustain itself as a profitable business?

    Some things matter more than the fact that they cause *financial* loss, and their loss in other ways (religious, or artistic, or scientific in this case) can't be reconciled by pointing to accounting books.

     

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  19.  
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    Dave, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 9:13am

    Ownership

    This system gets even more screwy. Simply sending an article to a journal for consideration I am passing ownership to the journal. If they refuse to publish then I get the rights back. But if they publish all the contents of the article are now owned by the journal. If I then do a similar study and want to use a graph or a table from the original work, I have to get permission to use it from the publisher even though I am the own that created it.

     

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  20.  
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    douglascarnall (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 9:22am

    why not just stick up a PDF somewhere?

    Grumpy is quite right to point out the vast lost opportunity in not having the scholarly literature freely available, but the price of this is much harder to quantify.

    In response to Josef Anvil and Chris in Utah, it's worth pointing out that in many cases academics are doing this in institutional repositories--so-called "Green Open Access" in Peter Suber's jargon.

    So the 5.5 billion inefficiency is the price currently paid for orienting a paper in relation to its peers, and in ordering the academic rat race: papers in journals with high impact factors being more valuable for career advancement than merely adding to the so-called "grey literature." It's changing--20% of papers are now published in Open Access form, but it's a behemoth, and frustratingly slow to turn around, considering that the web has now been around for 20 years, and was in fact invented for this very purpose.

     

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  21.  
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    freak (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: I'm confused...

    If more junk science than ever is being released, then I wouldn't know, because I only have subscriptions to journals which take care to verify the facts and ideas before publication.

    Where is the junk science, that you claim is rising, coming from? The media? Journals I've never heard of before? Something with 'post-modern' in its name somewhere? The internet?

    It certainly hasn't been rising in any journals I've been reading. Which is kinda the point.

     

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  22.  
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    Just Me, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 10:26pm

    The majority of it is certainly a fraud

    There are actually thousands of academic journals. Most of us has never heard of the overwhelming majority of them.

    Many years ago, most academic associations (based on an academic area of study) published their own journals. An editor who was often a university faculty member would receive either a release from teaching a course each semester or at least receive “credit” as making an academic contribution.

    In the last twenty years or so, the publishing of a large number of journals has been given to academic publishing companies. Perhaps the three biggest are: Springer (aka Springer Verlag) in Germany, Elsevier (part of the Dutch company, Reed Elsevier, and the US-based Lawrence Erlbaum (bought by the UK’s Taylor & Francis in 2006).

    I believe that this is for a couple of reasons. One is that it costs the association (and often the academic dept. where the editor teaches) money; most have a very limited distribution. The other reason is laziness; it’s something that the associations/journal editors don’t want to mess with when they can just give it to someone else.

    Academic publishers love the set up. Their authors contribute manuscripts for free with the hopes of getting published. And although some have complained because the publishers charge thousands of dollars (e.g., $12,000 for an annual subscription with just four quarterly issues), publishers keep charging because they know that certain university libraries will pay it anyway.

    Many have complained though, mainly because our tax dollars pay for much of it. The reasoning is this: If the public pays for these studies, then why are not the results made available to the public? The National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Naval Research, DARPA, and many more Uncle Sugar agencies fund studies.

    Why not put it out digitally out on the web? A few places do now, but it is a very small percentage. The publishing companies certainly do not want to give up such a great cash cow.

    And academics absolutely do not want this “research” in the public. If the public knew the so-called research that academics get paid to produce, there would be a revolt against academia.

    I had a colleague a few years back walk down the hall from his office to tell me that he had his paper accepted to a “peer-reviewed” conference. Problem was though that he’d submitted electronically only twenty minutes before. He said, “How ‘peer-reviewed’ could it be?” Another colleague said that we “create fake conferences to present our fake research.”

    A small percentage of journals are actually top-notch. But most are, well….not so much. Especially in areas such as Education, Business, Humanities, Social Studies. I hesitate to say “Social Sciences,” because as I read a long time ago, “Anything with the word ‘Science’ in its name (Military Science, Police Science, etc.) probably isn’t.”

     

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  23.  
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    velox (profile), Mar 6th, 2011 @ 2:55pm

    Re:

    There are a number of factors at work here:

    1) Universities and research institutions are paying the bulk of the journal fees, so the individuals who need them often don't feel the costs personally. Certainly in public institutions, the cost of these journals is borne by the taxpayers.

    2)With few exceptions, academic journals are not associated with or published by an individual university or institution. As an alternative to the current peer review systems operated by the publishing houses, the most likely entities to conduct peer review would be the many professional and specialty societies. Unfortunately, most specialty societies are already "on-the-take" through joint agreements with the publishing houses. The society lends its name and prestige to a journal, and in return the publishers funnel cash to the society. In other words, making logical changes in the way academic research is disseminated and published would require a major reorganization of funding for most professional societies. As it stands now, journals are often the most important source of funds for some societies.

    3)The concept of a wiki is strongly associated in the public eye with Wikipedia. Many academics remains suspicious, if not downright hostile to Wikipedia, and by extension are uncomfortable with wikis

    4)Never underestimate the power of inertia. Often people don't bother to change until they have to change. Right now, as long as the money issues continue to be dealt with as per Items #1 and #2, then there is no impetus to create a new system.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2011 @ 4:51pm

    Re: Re: Interesting juxtaposition

    Microsoft software is not scarce!

     

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  25.  
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    Tim Keitt, Mar 14th, 2011 @ 2:30pm

    Academic editing is generally paid work

    Nearly all academic appointments include a component of "service" of which editing for a journal is included. You are allowed to list this activity in your annual report, so it is considered part of your job. Generally a small part to be sure, but technically speaking the work is not over and above normal academic duties.

     

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  26.  
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    Heather Morrison, Mar 14th, 2011 @ 8:41pm

    Re: global cost of closed publishing estimated at $5.5 billion

    $8 billion US annually is the revenue for scholarly journals; scholarly monographs is about another $8 billion.

    $5.5 billion is the portion of the $8 billion paid for by academic libraries alone, ie not even counting research institute and ggovernment libraries.

     

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  27.  
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    Seb Schmoller, Apr 13th, 2011 @ 10:38pm

    Doing something about the problem of closed publishing

    My organisation, The Association for Learning Technology (ALT), has published a brief guide - about how to tender for a new publishing contract for a scholarly journal, in such a way as to ensure that proper consideration is given to the Open Access alternative. Here is the abstract:

    "Hundreds of societies publish journals in collaboration with publishers. Some may be considering how and whether to renegotiate or go out to tender. Some may be considering whether they can/should/wish to change the business model of the journal (e.g. by a move to Open Access). Other societies may be considering using an external publisher for the first time. This guide, based on our experience, is written for all of these. In mid October 2010 we issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a new publisher. We had interest from six publishers who asked questions about our intentions. We then received four proposals: one which offered an Open Access model only, one which offered both Open Access and conventional publishing as discrete alternatives, and two which offered approaches that included an Open Access component. Three of the proposals were from big publishers. After evaluating the proposals, ALT's Trustees decided in December 2010 to make the journal, which has been renamed Research in Learning Technology, a fully Open Access journal with effect from 1st January 2012."

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2013 @ 9:21pm

    Re: I'm confused...

    Yes, a researcher could self publish, but the journal lends academic weight to the article. No one wants to sift through all the self published quacks and witch doctors, so they start with the prestigious journals. Self publishing is a good way to be ostracized from the research community.

     

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