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Stone the crows! When it comes to research, you don’t get what you pay for.

Open Access week is just over and I’m guessing the big journal publishers hoped you missed it.[i]  Understandably so, because they are on a bloody great big earner and the fewer people asking questions about the way research publishing works the happier they are.

And there is one question taxpayers would undoubtedly ask if they knew the way the system worked – is this as an extraordinary exercise in ticket clipping as it looks?

Here’s how it works. An academic writes up research undertaken in the course of their university employment, or funded by a grant, generally from the two major agencies, the National Health and Medical Resource Council and the Australian Research Council. The former is handing out $770m this financial year.[ii] The ARC is distributing $884m. [iii]

The academic sends the article off to the best journal in the field they hope will run it where, if it looks good the editor, (generally an academic) sends it on to a panel of the author’s peers to review. These are, almost universally, other academics. If they think the piece has merit, it is published and everybody is happy. The author’s career advances (publishing is what produces prestige and promotion); the research agency sees its money being well spent; and the editor and peer reviewers advance knowledge in their field.

And they do a huge amount of work. In 2012, over a million articles were submitted to the biggest publisher Elsevier’s 2000 journals, which published 330,000 pieces of research.[iv]

But the publisher is paid a bundle – well, actually, a bloody big bundle. In 2012, Elsevier made a 38 per cent margin on US$3.2bn in sales.[v]  They make their money in two ways.

First, they do not pay for any of the intellectual raw material they package. Publishers contribute nothing to the cost of research, they pay the authors no fee, the editorial committee no stipend, they send no fee to peer reviewers. Second, they charge hefty subscription fees for their journals, ranging from a few hundred dollars to quite a few thousand. And, they often bundle journals so libraries have to purchase a bunch nobody much reads to get the few in a discipline or area where people do. And the publishers charge casual readers, who want to read an article online, around $30-$40.[vi]

Which is a bit rich given the casual reader is generally a taxpayer and, as such, has paid all the people involved in producing the article.

It’s all too rich for academics who have grumbled for years about the cost of journals and the (often slow) speed with which they publish research. But grumbling turned to boycotts last year when Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers posted a blog urging academics to eschew Elsevier.[vii]

Of course, it is not this simple. There are tens of thousands of journals produced by for-profit publishers and they provide the comms network on which knowledge advances. Databases of participating publishers make it possible for scientists to check for relevant research in disciplines they know nothing about.[viii] Journal reputation and citation rates of articles that appear in them are also used as a (contentious) quality measure.[ix]

Senior scholars whose work appears in long-established prestige journals are served by the status quo and argue that open access will mean open slather, without quality control. In short the existing commercial publishers are fundamental to the existing system and as such have supporters.

But the barrel the journals have academics over is a great deal smaller than it used to be. The days when journal publishers needed the capital to fund print and distribution of paper products are over. By 2011, there were around 5000 open access academic journals.[x] Following the lead of the UK based Wellcome Trust, the big research funders in the US, UK and Australia, for a start, now require publicly funded research papers to be universally available without charge – generally in a public repository, (known as green publishing). [xi]

Which is why the corporates have come up with compromises. They now offer a range of so-called gold products that are, sort of, open access. In essence they are open to all, but authors, or much more commonly their universities or research funders, pay publishers for articles to appear. There are now some 8000 such journals, with their number growing 12 per cent last year.[xii]

As a way of expanding access, this is an alternative which does not destroy the existing publishing system. As the UK Finch report argued, in calling for public funding to pay for journal publication:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers. Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes. Concern about these risks may restrain the development of wider access if it is not managed in a measured way.[xiii]

But this system still privatises publishing profits while leaving taxpayers to fund the entire research creation and dissemination process from idea to article.

Will it last? Not in the long term. Just as the old monopolies in news and music collapsed, the way scholars report will become a network rather than a straight line from author to audience, with gatekeepers clipping tickets along the way.

As Angus Phillips puts it:

We are moving away from a world in which a few producers generate content to transmit to a set of users. Instead, the world of knowledge creation has a variety of routes through which research can be disseminated and feedback mechanisms facilitated by a range of collaborative tools.[xiv]

The process will occur with a good deal less disruption than in news and entertainment, where producers are seeing their incomes erode as people expect content for free. In the research publishing cycle just about everybody is already on the public payroll.

I am sure Phillips has much to add to this point but, sorry, the Crows can’t help. A subscription to the journal is $45.



[i] Open Access: Redefining Impact, @ recovered on October 26

[ii] NHMRC, “Outcomes of the 2013-14 budget,” NHMRC, May 14 @ recovered on October 26

[iii] Australian Research Council, “About the ARC,” July 9 @ recovered on October 26

[iv] Dan Tonkerey, “Elsevier: are they still the big E?”, Charleston Report 18 (2) (September-October 2013). Thanks to Colin Steele for this reference

[v] “Academic publishing: free for all,” The Economist, May 4

[vi] Elsevier, “Journal Pricing 2013”  @ recovered on October 26, “Pay per View 2013” @, recovered on October 26

[vii] Tim Gower, “Elsevier – my part in its downfall,” Gower’s Weblog @ Jan 21 2012 recovered on October 26

[viii] For example, Thomson Reuters, Web of Knowledge covers 12,000 journals, @ recovered on October 26

[ix] Australian Research Council, “Excellence for Research in Australia,” May 24 @ recovered on October 26

[x] Patrik Welling et al, “The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009,” PloS ONE 6 (6) June 2011 @ recovered on October 26

[xi] Wellcome Trust, “Open access at the Wellcome Trust,” @ recovered on October 26

[xii] David Wojik, “The new wave of gold OA journals” The Scholarly Kitchen, October 3 2012 @ recovered on October 26

[xiii] Janet Finch, “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications,” June 2012 @ recovered on October 26

[xiv] Angus Phillips, “Blog to the future: publishing in the twenty-first century,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 42 (1) October 2010 16-30