Crush the knowledge profiteers

Multi-level cooperation is needed to fix the problems of academic publishing.
April 02, 2012

     “Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world?” asks George Monbiot, a weekly columnist for The Guardian. “[M]y vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but — wait for it — to academic publishers.”

It might seem hard to believe that academic publishers — the for-profit companies that publish many of the scholarly journals that fill university libraries — could possibly be more ruthlessly exploitative than mega-corporations like Bank of America or ExxonMobil. But while the latter may be larger in terms of size, the publishers’ exploitation is qualitatively far more villainous. The University of Minnesota must do everything within its power to rid itself of all connections to these economic parasites.

With most corporations, the public at least receives useful products or services in exchange for tolerating unethical practices. For-profit journal publishers, however, produce almost nothing of added value. Academic researchers give the journals free articles and free labor in the form of peer review and editing services. Aside from the costs of distribution, the publishing companies contribute almost nothing except the brand reputation of the journal titles they own. But those brands turn out to be worth a fortune, because academic publishers frequently make profits of more than 30 percent and sometimes even more than 40 percent per year.

These profits are extracted from university libraries, and the added costs get passed on to students and the public at large. Out of the University Libraries’ $13.8 million collections budget, more than 80 percent is now spent on “serials” (journal and database subscriptions), leaving less than 20 percent to spend on books and other media. Just three publishers — Elsevier, Wiley/Blackwell and Springer — account for more than 37 percent of the University libraries’ serials budget, yet comprise only 2 percent of the titles they subscribe to.

It’s bad enough that publishers are extorting money from libraries, but the damage caused by their business model goes much further than that. By charging exorbitant prices, publishers are severely impeding the transmission and growth of knowledge.

Observers have long predicted that the fortunes of academic publishers would decline with the rise of the Internet. Yet while the Internet has dramatically reduced the costs of distributing academic material, for-profit journal prices have grown at rates between 7 and 10 percent per year. In 1998, The Economist predicted that “The days of 40 percent profit margins may soon be as dead as Robert Maxwell,” a publishing magnate whom the article describes as a “scoundrel.” Yet in 2010, in the midst of recession, the profit margin for Elsevier — the largest of the academic publishers — was 36 percent, which happens to be precisely the same profit margin it received in 1998.

Anger against academic publishers and against Elsevier in particular has been simmering for decades. There have been many calls for boycotts over the years, and the editorial boards of several Elsevier-owned journals have periodically resigned in protest. Unfortunately, those efforts have had little impact because academics are desperate for prestige, and Elsevier owns many of the most prestigious journals.

Recently, however, Elsevier has stepped so far beyond the pale that it may now be possible to achieve the critical mass necessary to bring them down. Elsevier was one of the strongest supporters of SOPA and PIPA, which were defeated in January after massive Internet protests. Elsevier was also one of the strongest proponents of the Research Works Act, which Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced in December 2011. The bill would have explicitly prevented federally funded research from ever being made freely accessible online. This measure was targeted directly against the NIH, which recently implemented a policy that required all NIH-funded research to be made freely accessible online within 12 months of publication.

The RWA has now thankfully been withdrawn, but the anger against Elsevier has not dissipated. In January, Tim Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge, founded the “Cost of Knowledge” boycott, which asks academics to pledge not to submit articles or provide peer review or editing services to Elsevier. Nearly 9000 researchers have signed the petition thus far. University faculty should join them. There are more than 100 University faculty who sit on the editorial boards of Elsevier-owned journals; they should resign.

As an institution, the University should follow the lead of Princeton University. In September, Princeton passed a policy which prevents its faculty from giving away exclusive copyrights when they submit articles to publishers. Faculty may apply for a waiver, but the policy nonetheless reverses the status quo, where the default presumption has been that the author cedes all copyright privileges to the publisher upon submission.

Citizens should call their congressmembers and ask them to support the Federal Research Public Access Act. This act would go in the opposite direction of the RWA, mandating that all articles based on federally funded research must be made publicly available within six months after publication.

Taking on these companies poses a daunting collective action problem. But we must remember that their business model is entirely dependent on their prestige. Right now, academics treat it as a privilege to give these companies free labor. As the boycott gains momentum, listing Elsevier-related activities on one’s CV should transition into a mark of shame.

Chris Meyer welcomes comments at cmeyer@mndaily.com.

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