02 December 2009

The academic publishing scam

The Australian published an article called, Let the Internet replace journals, in which Oliver Marc Hartwich attempts to expose a scam in academic journal publishing.
Funding for all the academics involved in the research, review and editing comes from you and me, the taxpayer. However, most of the research is published by a small circle of corporate publishers, most of whom are based in Britain and the US. These companies then charge the same Australian taxpayer-funded institutions ridiculous amounts of money for subscriptions to academic journals to which the publishers' contribution hardly exceeds the provision of the paper on which they are printed.
Looking abroad, Adam Habib published an article in Business Day called Huge journal profits hit universities in which he covers the issue from a in South African perspective.
The situation reminds one of feudal relations established in the colonies at the height of imperialism. Yet such an industry thrives in the 21st century: this is the world of the international academic journals publication industry.

There are huge profits that are made. Reed Elsevier, a UK- based international academic publication company, made £1,379bn net profit last year, while its competitors, Informa and Springer, made smaller, but similarly obscene profits of £305,8m and €285m, respectively.

But there are huge social costs to these profits. Most academic libraries cannot afford to get all of these journals, so hard choices get made. The most well-endowed universities do manage to get the best of the journals, but the poorest do not. This effectively means that the least well-endowed universities, those that service the poorest of our citizens, do not have access to a quality academic journal base, which is an absolute necessity for quality higher education to be delivered.

In addition to this, the Wall Street Journal reported in their article Lawmakers probe climate emails, evidence of leading climate scientists corrupting their own peer review processes, drawing into question the integrity some of what many claim to be the most important scientific research being considered by humanity!...
The documents, hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University in the U.K., show that some climate researchers declined to share their data with fellow scientists, and sought to keep researchers with dissenting views from publishing in leading scientific journals.
The Wikipedia article Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident, although locked, perhaps has the best coverage to date on this issue...

The issue of academic journal publishers profiteering from public (and private) investment in research, is compounded further by the fact that university academics are given financial and job security incentives to participate in this cycle. Success in their performance review is partly based on how many articles they have published in "peer reviewed journals" with noted "impact level". This in turn is driven by funding rewards that are offered to universities based on how many of their staff have been published in such journals. I don't know anyone up in the chain of command who is seriously questioning the academic publishing avenues, or the incentives and rewards that help sustain them. I would like to know their response to the growing evidence that these outlets are extremely inaccessible, increasingly irrelevant to those who can't be bothered even trying to access them, and perhaps even corrupt in their peer review and profit taking!

What I do know however is that the incentives to academics to publish in official journals are perhaps the biggest barrier to inspiring a serious consideration of alternative publishing outlets.
Instead this viscous cycle of academic publishing culture is perpetuated by those who are sold on the validity of their narrow, possibly corrupt publishing channels, and the incentives that go with it. Some believe in it so hard that they insist their students echo the respect and reference, cite and aspire to the journals as well. Many (though fewer and fewer it seems) ignore calls to consider more contemporary academic cultures like open journals, wikis or even networked self publishing. And I know of no university human resource incentive that encourages or rewards such publishing. As a result, I'd argue we have a die hard academic culture vastly out of touch with the needs of the society it seeks to inform, and ultimately running out of the information channels it relies on to function.

Combined with the return on investment evaluation and ethnographic report being prepared on the Otago Polytechnic case, I hope to find an opening at the University of Canberra to explore alternative peer review and publishing routes and perhaps a way can be found to reward and incentivise new publishing in such a way so as to satisfy the criteria of the government rewards that universities seem motivated by.

But just to end on a lighter note, Ben Rattray - frustrated by the seemingly non-sensible reviews he keeps getting back that are blocking publishing, sends us this video:


stevenparker said...

Excellent post Leigh.

sparkered said...

In relation to the climate scientists who aren't toeing the line intimidation is another tactic in the academic publishing world (Just like the character in the Scientific Review Video).

Climate expert Clive Spash 'heavied' by CSIRO management
"A CSIRO economist whose research criticising emissions trading schemes was banned from publication said last night he had been subjected to harassment by the senior agency management.

Clive Spash also accused the agency of hindering public debate and trampling on his civil liberties by preventing the research being published in British journal New Political Economy."

The disgusting and tragic side of academic publishing.

"This month, he was informed he could not publish it even in his private capacity, because it was "politically sensitive". Within 24 hours, he also received a letter outlining a list of trivial instances in which he was accused of breaching CSIRO policy, for example not completing a leave form properly."

Minhaaj said...

Back on track. A typical Leigh blackall post :) impressive.

Fat Rat said...

Cheers Leigh,

Having just had a journal submission rejected (again) in the last couple of days, you've hit a nerve, and I'm not sure what to do about it. So I blogged about it.

Anton said...

Thanks, interesting article.

A minor point, but one that is perhaps indicative of the rather poor research and analysis that frequently accompanies commentary on academic journals publishing: Reed Elsevier's profits quite obviously have never been £1,379bn net. The single largest net profit recorded by a publicly-listed company is, I believe, Exxon Mobil's 2008 result of £32bn (thirty-two billions).

In 2008 Reed Elsevier made pre-tax profits of "only" £617m (six hundred and seventeen millions). Moreover, Reed Elsevier comprises four separate divisions, only one of which is in the academic journals business. That division brought in around 40% of profits, which would work out as approximately £247m.

It's still a big number, of course.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Anton, your correction comes as no surprise. I think the numbers were obviously wrong, so its great to have it righted. might we call this peer review? Is there a site you could give a link for for others to check?

simonfj said...


To this you might add the millions given to librarians in different countries so they can "research" (never develop) how to aggregate a bunch of data which, by its (national) self, is a great way to piss money away. http://www.arrow.edu.au/about/

So don't be to hard on the publishers, someone has to compensate for unimginative and lazy academics (oops, I mean bureaucrats)

Minhaaj said...

Wonderful simon. And that someone has to be poor third world students or people in general who can't pay for that and if they do, they are put in jail or fined horrendous amounts of fines. We have a solution now. Thanks.

Anton said...

Hi Leigh, I suppose it is a form of peer review :)

simonfj posted the link to the Reed Elsevier 2008 Annual Report, which is where I got their figures from.

The NYT reported on Exxon Mobil's 2008 record profits.

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Jeffrey Keefer said...

Leigh, I struggle with this as well, more from the perspective of being able to cite materials in open access journals rather than publishing there (my next step!).

You did get me to start thinking more about the issue of linking research to practice, when you said, "I would like to know their response to the growing evidence that these outlets are extremely inaccessible, increasingly irrelevant to those who can't be bothered even trying to access them, and perhaps even corrupt in their peer review and profit taking!" I can't help but wonder to what extent those people who need access to this evidence / research already have it, and the rest of the mass of humanity just does not care about it (especially given that so much peer-reviewed research is somewhat unrelated to problems, issues, or concerns in practice).