For the introduction and background on this series of posts, see this post.
A great article by Bob Yirka on Phys.org summarizes a recent PNAS paper describing how universities and academic institutions are being scammed (more or less) by publishers when purchasing bundled subscriptions to academic journals (during the writing of this post, Science published a similar review article by John Bohannon).
In looking at the contracts, the researchers found widely different charges to universities for the same bundles. They found for example, that the University of Michigan paid $2.16 million in 2009 for a bundle from Elsevier, while the University of Wisconsin, paid just $1.22 million the same year for the same bundle from the same company. They note that the two universities are similar in the size of their staffs and the number of PhD students, yet one school paid considerably more than the other.
That is crazy right? The publishing companies make the universities sign confidentiality agreements, so they can’t discuss how much they pay with other universities, hence the huge discrepencies. But that only scratches the surface of craziness in academic publishing. As a taxpayer, you fund much of the research that is published in academic journals. Scientists, whose salaries and research likely include funding from tax dollars, usually have to pay academic journals to publish papers (using taxpayer money again). In the editing process, journals utilize a peer-review system. In almost all cases, scientists, most of who are again at least partly funded with tax dollars, do this peer-review FOR FREE. The academic journals then publish the accepted articles that were paid for by taxpayers all along the way. However, many (most?) academic journals require subscriptions to view the published articles. Meaning that scientists and the public have to pay, or be part of an institution that pays, in order to see science that they essentially funded each step of the way. This process, with profit numbers, was described in the Economist:
In 2011 Elsevier, the biggest academic-journal publisher, made a profit of £768m ($1.2 billion) on revenues of £2.1 billion. Such margins (37%, up from 36% in 2010) are possible because the journals’ content is largely provided free by researchers, and the academics who peer-review their papers are usually unpaid volunteers. The journals are then sold to the very universities that provide the free content and labour. For publicly funded research, the result is that the academics and taxpayers who were responsible for its creation have to pay to read it. This is not merely absurd and unjust; it also hampers education and research.
And even though it IS absurd and unjust, there is some noise from the opposing side!! Publishing companies and academic journals disagree that the system is as bad as I have described, and granted, I may have described a worst case scenario (but not uncommon). But, then again, who wouldn’t disagree when you’re company is making those kinds of profits (see above: $1.2 billion!). A recent Nature article does include some arguments in support of publishers and journals. For example, prestigous journals have a higher workload due to higher rates of submission, and that requires more time and workers. Not too mention the claim that these journals have a ‘higher’ caliber of science (a topic of a later post in this series).
However, there is some hope on the horizon of fixing this broken system. In the US, the White House has mandated that taxpayer funded research must be open access… after one year. This means that taxpayer funded research that is published in any journal must be freely available after one year, which is a good start, but a lot of science happens in a year. There is also the problem of whether journals are actually following these rules and making these articles available. Furthermore, this is in the US. Turns out that other countries also do science, and many American scientists want to collaborate with international scientists. Access to scientific articles in other countries can be much more difficult and expensive, which definitely holds back science in these countries and hampers international collaboration.
There is also a trend of increasing numbers of publications in open access journals (journals like PLOS, public library of science, and eLife). These types of journals are becoming more and more popular, and new ones are sprouting up everyday (Society for Neuroscience announced its new open access journal this week, eNeuro). They are freely available to the public, and the costs of publishing in these journals is considerably cheaper.
More work needs to be done to address the crazy economics of academic publishing. Right now it seems like taxpayers are on the losing side for supporting science, with a lot of money going toward publication and not actual science. Not to mention that the public has limited access to this science (See one of the many posts where I can’t link to the full article, only the abstract. Or have to apologize that not everyone will have access to the article). Lastly, it is mind-boggling that universities and research institutions are allowing themselves to be taken for a ride. To me it seems that research centers are the majority of both the supply and demand for academic journals (supporting the scientists, science, publication, peer-reviewers, and also use these publications as a metric for scientific success). Doesn’t that mean they have a lot of negotiating power. Hopefully with the report in PNAS, universities will take a closer look at how they deal with academic publishing, which in turn will hopefully benefit the economics of publicly funded science and in turn the science itself.