Academic Publisher Fights Publication Of Paper Criticizing Publishers' Price Increases And Profits
from the the-first-rule-of-price-gouging... dept
The world of academic publishing is highly profitable — and, apparently, highly sustainable. There’s no shortage of content seeking publication as researchers, professors, etc. seek to have their work published and cited. Handing even more power over to publishers by linking publication with tenure, universities have sabotaged their own interests by giving academic publishers every reason to increase subscription rates.
It’s not as though this has gone unnoticed. Backlash against exorbitant access fees withholding publicly-funded research from the public led to a boycott of Elsevier unless it withdrew its support of the Research Works Act, which sought to lock up even more academic works. Though more than 30,000 scientists joined the boycott (and Elsevier withdrew its support of the Act), little has changed in the academic publishing world.
A group of UK academics tried to bring this debate to the publishers last year via a proposition paper that criticized the steadily increasing prices of publications, only to have it stonewalled and censored by academic publisher Taylor & Francis.
A journal’s editorial board has been left on the brink of resignation after an eight-month standoff with its publisher Taylor & Francis over the publication of a debate on academic publishing and the profits made by major firms.
The debate, in the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, was due to appear last September, but was delayed by Taylor & Francis and published only at the end of last month.
Its “proposition” paper, “Publisher, be damned! from price gouging to the open road”, by four academics from the University of Leicester’s School of Management, criticises the large profits made by commercial publishers on the back of academics’ labours, and the failure of the Finch report on open access to address them.
The full paper is embedded below and, as you can see, Taylor & Francis have helpfully time-stamped it with my IP address.
The paper compares publishers with the music industry, noting that the latter saw surging sales once it began pricing its offerings more realistically. It also posits that less strenuous infringement countermeasures could help push prices down. But most damningly, it examines the rates charged by publishers, comparing those of for-profit entities with those of non-profits.
What has been characterised as rampant price inflation is one characteristic of the market in academic journals – or at least those journals published by commercial publishers – with several studies since 2000 indicating rapidly increasing prices charged by for-profit publishers (Bergstrom, 2001; Bergstrom and Bergstrom, 2004; Dewatripont et al., 2007; Harvie et al., 2012). Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2004) suggest that a journal page published by a for-profit publisher is between three and five times more expensive than one published by a not-for-profit publisher. One factor driving increasing prices is journal reputation (Bergstrom, 2001) – but this leads to increasing profit margins (McCabe, 2004). In short, widely-cited journals are perceived to be higher quality, which allows for-profit publishers to charge higher prices for such journals; if widely-cited and more highly-priced journals also enjoy higher circulation (because they are widely-cited), then publishers also benefit through lower average production costs (McCabe, 2004; Dewatripont et al., 2007).
The more widely-cited a journal is, the more likely it is to be published on a larger-scale (reducing costs) and the more desirable it is as a destination for submissions (lowering costs yet again). With this desirability comes the privilege of increasing prices, something for-profit publishers aren’t exactly shy about doing.
But this generates expenses for other entities who aren’t part of this self-sustaining feedback loop, often causing them to cannibalize related services to the detriment of the schools themselves.
Since 1999, spending on books has fallen by almost a ﬁfth in real terms, and from almost 12 per cent of libraries’ total spending to just over 8 per cent. Expenditure on serials, on the other hand, has increased sharply: from just under £70 million to over £130 million. In real terms this represents an increase of 63 per cent; journals’ share of total library spending rose from 16 per cent to almost 20 per cent. (Harvie et al., 2012, p.910)
Needless to say, Taylor & Francis wasn’t interested in publishing a critique of its business model. So, it stalled the publication of this article for several months. (It was originally due to be published September 2013.)
The journal’s general editor, Stuart Macdonald, a visiting professor of economics at Aalto University in Finland, said the non-appearance of the journal in September was followed, two months later, by a letter from a senior manager at Taylor & Francis demanding that more than half of the proposition article be cut.
“They never said why. They just said they didn’t want this debate to take place,” Professor Macdonald said. “They also said I should have got their approval before inviting debate papers, but I have never done that before and it seems quite improper.”
He said matters came to a head at a “very unpleasant” meeting in January, when the journal’s editorial board threatened to resign en masse unless Taylor & Francis backed down.
This threat forced a half-assed capitulation from Taylor & Francis. It agreed to publish the paper but imposed several limitations. First, it stripped publishers’ names from the paper and the four responses. Then, when it finally cleared it to run, it appended this footnote to the first page.
Disclaimer: Opinions and views expressed in this article (the Proposition) are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the content of this article. Any opinions and views expressed in this article are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the article should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information.
An editorial published alongside the paper further highlights the questionable activity surrounding the (eventual) publication of the piece.
The academic publishing industry, as in the Prometheus debate on open access, has previously been happy to throw itself into the fray. Not so on this occasion. Many, many individuals working in the industry were invited to respond to the Proposition paper; not a one felt able to accept. It was made all too clear that the industry was in no mood for this debate. Indeed, at one time the editors were asked to excise the major part of the Proposition paper. Our refusal and ensuing negotiations explain why this debate was not published as intended in September 2013, and why no issue of Prometheus has appeared since.
The editorial, written by Professor Stuart Macdonald, also calls into question the publisher’s decision to act as an editor.
But are academic publishers intruding in the editorial role? For example, without reference to any editor, the names of all academic publishers have been expunged from the Response papers in this issue. Institutional anonymity is already a custom in management studies, one that has done little for the standing of the subject. It would be unfortunate were it to spread throughout the social sciences, driving academic research from the empirical to the theoretical and abstract.
This isn’t the first time an academic publisher has blocked publication because of subject matter, but this is usually due to outside forces, like the demands of corporations. In this case, however, it was an inside job. Not only did Taylor & Francis do all it could to prevent a discussion about its practices, but it also had a detrimental affect on other submissions. As MacDonald notes, he withheld other issues of the journal that were awaiting publication because he believed Taylor & Francis would give those preference over the problematic proposition paper. This has resulted in a backlog of papers awaiting publication, one that doesn’t look to be eased any time soon.
With the trust between the publisher and the editors effectively destroyed by Taylor & Francis’ actions, other options are being explored, including branching off into self-publishing. Unfortunately, any other routes taken will do very little to impact the publisher, or make it reconsider further transparently self-interested moves in the future.