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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Open Academic Publishing

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

George Monbiot offers a caustic critique of the way in which publicly funded research is exploited for profit by large journal publishers. Much academic research is paid for by taxpayers. Journal editing and peer reviewing are labours of love conducted by academics for little financial reward. Yet the research publications that result are often not freely available, but are locked behind paywalls:
Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50.
Of course, if you are lucky enough to work for a good university, you can access these via your institution. But for the university, the costs are huge, and squeeze other library resources such as IT facilities or book funds:
The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I've seen, Elsevier's Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy.
It is not surprising, then, that journal publishers and their shareholders are doing very nicely indeed: 
The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier's operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles.
Clearly, much is morally and economically wrong with this model. Monbiot offers some characteristically liberal solutions:
In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin's Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.
One might justifiably ask why change has not happened already. For good and bad, from Wikileaks to Open Government, from Piratebay to Flickr, the internet has seen data and creative ideas circulating freely. It has similarly enabled the creation of numerous open-access journals, which are published online without any of the overheads of print publications. Whereas paid-for journals need to appeal to a broad audience within a discipline, open-access journals can be narrowly focused for a particular subject group, and thus can achieve high visibility with those peers who are most relevant in an academic's field. On the other hand, rather than being accessible only by those with university subscriptions to the journal, anyone can in principle view open-access articles. And, typically, open-access journals do not tie their authors into long-term copyright agreements, so that they can freely republish their research on their own websites, in edited books, or in public and university databases, again giving it potentially greater scope and influence.

Since academics do not get paid by the publishers for submitting their research in paid-for journals, why then do they not readily submit their research to open-access publications?

One answer within UK universities lies in something called the Research Excellence Framework (formerly known as the Research Assessment Exercise) which allocates research budgets to institutions according to the quality of their academics' work. One key judgement of quality is the citation index - the number of times a researcher's paper has been referenced by his or her peers. The assumption is that the better or more ground-breaking a paper, the more often other researchers will want or need to build upon it (think how many times Einstein's special theory of relativity must have been mentioned by physicists over the years). Established, paid-for journals such as Nature have a high visibility in the academic world. If your article gets into Nature, the chances are that more of your peers will see it, will be influenced by it, and will cite it. Thus academics are encouraged by their institutions to set their sights on publishing in well-known journals with good citation ratings, even though their own libraries will then be extorted to access them.

This market ideology equates prestige with cost. Paradoxically, the more expensive a journal is, the more it is perceived to count when research gets published there: the thinking goes that such journals and their articles must be good if institutions and academics still want or need to access them despite their seemingly prohibitive costs. Further, many subscription journals continue to be published in paper form as well as digitally, whereas online-only, open-access journals can have issues of theoretically limitless length. Paid-for journals thus need to exercise greater editorial exclusivity in order both to sustain paper publication, and to justify the high price of their product - hence why more articles are rejected from paid-for journals than from open-access ones. For an academic to publish in an open-access journal can look suspiciously like an admission that his or her research is only second-rate.

It is not hard to see why, in this circumstance, large publishers have been doing well out of academia. Publishers have indeed fallen over themselves to help the Research Excellence Framework assessments by handing over citation data for their journals, whilst open-access journals can struggle to offer the quantitative indicators of impact (price of the journal, number of citations) that Whitehall number-crunchers like.

However, much as it riles that corporations like Elsevier can make profits from publicly funded research, market determinants do have some role to play in academic publishing. Monbiot imagines a world where we have a single global archive of academic literature and data. But we already have a similar sort of place. It is called the internet - and it is anarchic. Trying to separate out top research from less ground-breaking or flawed research that happens to appear at the top of a Google search is a nightmare for everyone in academia, from students to professors. Unless their editors happen to be outstanding at search engine optimisation, results for open-access journals are similarly jumbled amongst the noise. Although their articles are still rigorously peer-reviewed, they are the same one click away as trivial public commentary. So when in my Google search I spot a result locked behind Modern Fiction Studies, I make the extra effort to follow this result, even though this means going circuitously via my library to logon. Subscription journals, which have a vested financial interest in being selective as to what they publish, do at least ensure a fine-grained filtering of their material, even if what passes through is then locked behind a paywall.

Paid-for journals can also do a better job of publicising research than open-access journals or a single, vast public database could do. The media offices of Elvesier or Springer have a hotline to the science editors of news outlets: just consider the number of stories that appear based on innovative research published in the likes of Nature (a quick search on BBC News turns up 1500 reports). This ensures that high-quality research gets high-quality coverage both with other researchers who can build upon it, but also with the public who have the right to understand how the research they fund is influencing their lives.

Finally, by bundling together lots of different journal titles within their databases, publishing conglomerates have undoubtedly created an efficient, electronic ecosystem in which to conduct research. Articles are often tagged and hyperlinked to give easy access to similar research topics in comparable journals; publishers' archival functions allow researchers easily to call up back issues when once they would have needed to scour dusty library shelves.

But all these positives do not mean the situation as it stands is satisfactory. Monbiot cites a Deutsche Bank study that suggests that publishers do not offer enough of the above forms of added value to justify their 40% profit margins. We certainly need some changes.

We could start by reconsidering the Research Excellence Framework and its too-simplistic linkage between citations, journal value (whether value is assessed as its price or prestige) and research quality. Perhaps especially in the humanities, groundbreaking or thought-provoking research might not be that which is read and cited by a few scholars, but that which influences a more general public. Publications in blogs, websites, public databases and open-access journals ought to count as having an impact by virtue of the large audience they can potentially reach.

Secondly, copyright laws need to be revisited to encourage the portability of research. At present, I am technically breaking the law every time I copy music from one of my CDs onto my MP3 player. This aspect of nineteenth-century copyright law is soon to be changed to allow for the transfer of creative data, and we need to create a similar kind of multimedia environment for publicly-funded research. In its immediate moment, top research might still be best published in a high-visibility journal. If the research is groundbreaking enough, it will have its impact there and then; to protect the value that paid-for publications can bring by making such research highly visible to the academic and wider community, there does need to be some copyright restriction on it. There is, though, a law of diminishing returns, with research being less significant as subsequent research builds on the old. I am sure that few contemporary physicists would now bother citing Newton's Principia. As research diminishes in its immediate influence, so it ought to be liberated back to the sphere of the public which originally funded it, and placed in the sort of central repository Monbiot envisages. The government should ensure that no publicly funded research is locked into an arcane 75 year copyright held by the journal which happens to be the first to publish data or ideas; such research ought to be automatically released after a set period (five years, say) in a rights-free, digital form to be redistributed by national copyright libraries.

Finally, academics should be offered development opportunities to educate them about the diverse publication media now available, from blogging to open-access publishing. Academics themselves should recognise the power of open models, as well as the limitations. Research published freely online can easily get lost amongst the detritus. But flag up that research to one's close academic community through the likes of Twitter or Academia.edu, and suddenly that research can have more of an impact with both selected peers and the general public than it could if locked in a subscription journal. Once academics themselves start to take the initiative, to set up their own open-access journals rather than simply peer reviewing for wealthy publishers, to promote the free circulation of ideas rather than happily editing journals which lock research under prohibitive copyright, then the big publishers themselves will have to revisit their current, exploitative model.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:17 pm


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