Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

An amazing indictment of the academic publishing industry (in which most of us participate)

Posted 04 Oct 2013 / 0

Dynamic EcologyFollow the money – what really matters when choosing a journal

There are so many great ideas to be found in this post. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There is no “innovation” or “risk” being taken by investors in academic publishing: those with money are simply extracting value from both the producers and users of this value. The term “parasitic” seems an apt description of these investors to me.
  • The actual cost of making a journal article available to at least some people is pretty constant: the question is who pays this cost, and how much additional cost must be paid to produce profits. Wishing that everything could be free is to wish away this cost, and no publishing model has figured out a way to do this.
  • The decision about where to publish is not just about the cost of publishing, but also how the place you choose to publish affects the overall quality of the final published article and the number of people likely to read your article.
  • Knowing where the money for publishing goes cannot tell you who pays for access to the published material, in large part because many private-profit publishers offer open access options.

Brian goes to some length in this piece to make it clear that he is not advocating for any particular response to the information he provides. But with Brian’s nicely-curated information in hand, I can imagine how a lot of scientists will react: if they can, many scientists will “take a stand” on the profiteering/exploitative nature of academic publishing by avoiding all journals published by Elsevier, Springer, and maybe Wiley. My question is whether such “activism” will solve the problem: that obscene profit is being made by simultaneously exploiting academic labor and then over-charging universities for journal access (both of these processes — by the way — also make higher education much more expensive).

My worries about any boycott-based system are ecological in nature: I worry about what happens to the “community” of scientists if more and more scientists decide to protest by where they publish. While the idea of people “voting with their feet” by choosing only to publish in journals that are pouring their profits into public good rather than private gain is in theory appealing, we also need to recognize that not every scientist has the same ability to walk away from the private-profit publishers. As I have noted before, those with good funding for their research are in a much better position to avoid private-profit publishers than those without such funding. And while it is tempting to say that getting grants and other forms of funding is in part a function of one’s value as a scientist (i.e. funding represents the rewards of a meritocracy), this only paints part of the picture. I guess if you totally buy the meritocracy idea, you love the idea of a “boycott of the willing (and able!)” because if every well-funded scientists turns their nose up at the private-profit publishers, only us crappy scientists without funding will publish in Elsevier/Springer/Wiley journals, turning them into undesirable products that will no longer command such an exorbitant price.

But I don’t buy this idea at all: for a variety of reasons, not every good scientist has funding. Some of us are in marginal fields that do not attract funding but still produce valuable scholarship (myth #1: available funding perfectly prioritizes what ought to be scientific priorities). Some of us choose to make teaching a valuable (and valued) part of our careers, which certainly makes getting funding difficult for a variety of reasons (myth #2: those who choose to teach are not good researchers). Some of us have bad luck despite a lot of effort to obtain funding (myth #3: the funding process does not involve a fair amount of luck). Some of us are not well-connected in the scientific community (myth #4: scientific funding is above in-group/nepotistic bias). For all these reasons we cannot have faith in an action plan based solely on a boycott of private-profit publishers.

I worry that a boycott-based approach to dealing with the exploitative nature of academic publishing is simply going to lead to the further ghetto-ization of science. We are already live in small community enclaves called “subfields” or “subdisciplines”, but what is nice about these groupings is they integrate across institutions: landscape ecology may be a pretty narrow subdiscipline, but there are landscape ecologists scattered all across the globe who presumably take residence in every self-respecting major ecology and evolution program. What I see a boycott-based protest against exploitative publishing creating is a different kind of schism, a schism between the well-endowed and less-endowed institutions. Those with funding to pay for the privilege of open access, or to publish in society journals that turn profit into social value, will flock to these journals. This will squeeze everyone else towards the for-profit journals, as competition for the extra credibility and moral value of “not supporting the private-profit academic publishing industry” increases. Even if such a scheme causes the collapse of the profiteers, I am not sure that outcome is worth the really profound expansion scientific inequity it would produce.

So what would work better? How do we get paid for our work properly and avoid getting gouged when we need to consume the work of others? Rather than capitalizing on the “professional lifestyle activism” of individual scientists, we need to collectivize. We really need a union of publishing scientists (UPS?) that could build solidarity into bargaining power. Maybe this cannot be a union in the National Labor Relations Board sense of the word, but it could be a professional association that could work towards standards by which all members of this union could agree to publish. Such solidarity could move the industry away from exploitation. Anyone up for herding cats?

A Major Post, Ecology, Economics, Ethics, Evolution, Grants & Funding, Periodicals, Professional Societies, Public Policy, Publication, Web

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