Saturday, August 2, 2014

Quick Take on Academic Publishing Racket

This has been going around this week on twitter:

The basic idea is that academic publishing is far more profitable than most industries because it gets free input (scholars are not paid for publishing articles) and expensive output (high prices for access to these publications).  They now generously let you, as an author, pay to grant open access.  It only costs $3k.  A great business model.

To be clear, I am only bitter about the second part.  I don't expect to be paid for journal articles, and I don't expect to be paid much for my books (unless suddenly they fly off the shelves).  Why not?  Because my job as a professor is to disseminate that which I learn.  It is not just part of the job description but inherent in the entire enterprise.  Indeed, I get money from the government (Canadian, that is) to do the research with an expectation to share it.  The grants these days require knowledge mobilization plans, which includes not just journal articles but blogging, media outreach and more.  But the basic foundation of the academic research enterprise is publishing in peer-reviewed outlets.  So, I am not expecting to get $ for journal articles.

What I would like to see is better access to the outputs.  The fees for access to an article are more than what it costs to buy an average book, and having regular access to an entire line of journals costs more than a transcontinental trip.  The prices are outrageous.  Why?  Because these companies have little competition.  But the more rapacious they become, the more likely it is for alternatives to gain legitimacy.  The alternatives already exist--web-based outlets--but they just need to get more cred from professors, deans and the rest of academia.  I am pretty sure that the academic publishers are maxing out now because they sense the end is near.  The journal publishers cannot complain too much about loss leaders and all the rest as long as their operating profits are through the roof. 

While I prefer for all the gates to go away, I don't expect ungated research to be widely read.  As I have written before, our prof-to-prof communications can use shorthand (jargon) and do strange, boring stuff that is necessary to communicate why we should be believed--explaining methods and such.  But I do strongly prefer for access to be reasonably affordable so that undergrads, grad students, university libraries and other interested parties can engage their curiosity without bankrupting themselves.

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