Ruckus in the world of academic journals • 1 February 2012 • The SnowBlog
Ruckus in the world of academic journals
I've always assumed that academic journals are a force for good because they're the keepers of science's most important documents: the basic research papers themselves. Moreover, journals are part of the mechanism of peer-review which keeps science headed in the right (=truth-seeking) direction. I had noticed that many journals were kind of expensive - scarily so for multi-user licences - but without knowing the business model, I just assumed there was a good reason for that. But increasingly I'm learning disquieting things which suggest that some journals have effectively become toll-gates through which vital information is forced to pass. I've also been struck by the argument that virtually all of the research that appears in scientific journals is wholly or partly funded with public money, and yet if you want to see what your taxes paid for, you have to enrich a private company first. And worse still, scientists themselves have to pay to see each others' publicly funded work.
I imagine that there are significant costs involved in producing academic journals but I would have expected in the e-book age we might have seen prices beginning to fall for digital versions of articles. After all, if scientists write the papers at no charge to the journal, then other academics peer review those papers at no charge to the journal, can a digital download of that paper really cost that much to produce? Well, perhaps it can, but I do feel these journals have some questions to answer given the important and highly privileged position that many of them occupy. And it appears that enough academics have become unhappy enough with the state of affairs that they have organised a boycott of the worst offender, as they see it: Elsevier. The Bookseller have an article about it here. And the ever-inflammatory George Monbiot has a pretty damning breakdown of what's wrong in the world of academic publishing here.
It seems strange as other sectors in publishing get used to a year-on-year squeeze that one sector is getting accused of profiteering. But then again, there is intense competition in every area of mainstream book retailing, whereas the big names in academic publishing seem to have found something akin to a monopoly.
I think increasingly in the twenty-first century we have to accept that a lot of 'middle man' jobs will go away. Music fans and their favourite bands don't necessarily need a record company in the middle trying to make a profit. Likewise, the science community may find its members can communicate among themselves better without certain publishers being involved. I think the key difference in all these situations will be whether those in the middle work hard to be facilitators, or whether they seem themselves as toll collectors (c.f. the SOPA/PIPA debacle where Hollywood was so fixated on acquiring powers to protect their business model that they managed to provoke millions of ordinary citizens into opposing them.)
P.S. The last time I had occasion to consider the Elsevier name was grumping that their parent, Reed Elsevier, organised UK trade shows for the world's arms manufacturers (link). I believe they have now withdrawn from that line of work.