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Putting the "Public" Back into "Publication"

Let’s talk about the academic publishing industry. Or, as I like to refer to it, knowledge hoarders!

I’m an academic. It is my job to publish research in reputable journals to contribute to knowledge, knowledge that tells us important things like causes of cancer, whether climate change is real and human driven, whether particular foods are more or less associated with diabetes and obesity, and, this is true, that Pacific herring farts, unlike human farts, are essential in helping to build social bonds

Now there are different types of publishing. We’re most familiar with the publishing of books and textbooks. But I want to talk today about the publication of academic articles. They key difference between an academic article and say a book is that the article is vetted by expert anonymous reviewers (unknown to the author) so that the reader has some assurance that what the article is saying is in fact reflective of sound science. Academic publications filter out hearsay, myth, and fear-mongering bullshit that tends to come from a simple google search and sometimes books. Could you imagine if we devised regulatory policy based on the seemingly airtight consensus on the internet that eating gluten is unhealthy?

Yet, here’s the rub…although the word “public” is in the word “publication”, public access to the knowledge inside these publications couldn’t be more private.

There are three main publishers of academic knowledge – Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley-Blackwell. Together they own the access rights to 42% of all academic journals. To put that differently, they own the access rights and are thus the gatekeepers to 42% of knowledge in the academic community. Things haven’t been that bad since Immortan Joe from Mad Max Fury Road controlled the flow of water to desperate citizens of a parched world or when Donald Trump controlled what was considered real news.

But unlike Immortan Joe who likely paid the high costs associated with drilling and accessing that water, publishing companies don’t pay the salaries of the scholars nor do they cover any expenses associated with the research they conduct. Instead, the cost of research falls on the backs of you, the taxpayer, through the salaries and expenses public colleges and universities pay its professors. This means that even though taxpayers are paying to produce knowledge, they can’t access that knowledge unless they fork over an average $30 for a single article and $4,000 to $20,000 for a single journal subscription paid for by universities and colleges that students access through tuition fees. It is no coincidence that there is a strikingly strong correlation between student tuition fee increases over the last two decades and journal subscription fee increases that universities and colleges have little choice but to pass on to students.

Think about that for a minute. That’s like paying $45,000 for a car and then being prohibited to use the car until you pay the car dealer a monthly fee to use it. Or that’s like buying a house from Rose and John and not taking ownership until you pay them a monthly fee to use it. That’s fucked up!

Publishing companies claim that there are enormous costs associated with distributing knowledge that justify the fees. Printing costs have become incredibly expensive…all that paper, and the cost of binding the journals, not to mention shipping journals to the many colleges and universities around the world...that’s crazy expensive.

Except, the Internet happened!

So what costs do these companies sustain to justify these prices? What value are they adding to knowledge creation? According to a 2012 article in Nature , they provide a wide range of services. They edit the draft of the article, they select scholars to review the work to determine whether it is suitable for publication, they work with the author to enhance the article, they translate the author’s illustrations to journal level formatting, and they provide the platform for access along with “other enhancements”. That sounds helpful.

But there's one problem, it’s bullshit. By the time the article is accepted to the journal, the draft is typically well written by the authors, requiring very little editing by the publisher. But get this, Elsevier recommends that authors hire an editor to proof edit the work. In fact, Elsevier offers editing services at, get this, $115 a pop for a proof read.

Wait, what?

Taxpayers are paying the scholar to prepare their draft and then are also paying publishing companies for the editing of the manuscript, something these companies say is part of what justifies their high fees. Back to my house purchase analogy with John and Rose. Not only are you paying these former owners a monthly fee to use the house that you bought, you’re also paying John and Rose’s expenses to live in their new house.

Now what about the cost of finding experts to review submitted articles, another of the many services publishing companies allegedly provide? Every journal has an editor, typically with a team of senior editors who manage this process. These people ultimately decide whether an article is to be published based on reviews from anonymous or blind experts. Both the editors and the blind reviewers are not employed by the publishing company but are instead scholars, employed by you, the taxpayer. This means that the publishing company is completely separate from the process by which an article is determined suitable for publication and therefore incurs no cost associated with this. Let me rephrase that, they do not in any way add value to the determination of whether something should or should not be published.

Any remaining services they provide add virtually negligible value to the knowledge creation and dissemination process. In fact, I would argue that in their pursuit to restrict access to knowledge, their net contribution to the public good is negative.

But the real kicker that puts to shame any argument that publishers have costs that justify their exorbitant fees is that the average profit of these companies is around 40% of their revenue. That means that for every dollar they make from universities, only 60 cents is used to cover their costs. Apple, one of the most successful companies in the world uses an average of 77 cents to cover one dollar of revenue, over the last 10 years, while Google uses 78 cents in the last couple of years. Exxon, one of the most hated companies in the world, peaks at around 88 cents in costs for every dollar.

Things have gotten so ridiculous that Harvard University, one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, has cut some subscriptions as a way to control costs, demonstrating that even such a giant of an institution with billions of dollars in endowments, is vulnerable to predatory publishing. That’s like Vladimir Putin pulling out of Ukraine because, well, the price of oppressive politics has become much too crazy these days.

But more sinister is what differentiates high quality journals from low quality journals i.e. the $20,000 subscription versus the $4,000 subscription that universities and colleges pay. Fascinatingly there is virtually no difference in cost of the publishing company between these two sets of journals. The reason why there is such a price difference is that the quality of the research is so much higher in the $20,000 journal. That is, there is much more demand for these journals, which drives up the price. But as I said, publishing companies have nothing to do with that variation in quality. Normally, when consumers pay more for product A than B, it’s because the producer of Product A is providing the consumer more value due to some additional capital investment over time. But, in this case, the publishing company’s costs are unchanged because the taxpayer is footing the bill by paying more for scholars who publish high quality work. In actual fact, the taxpayer (i.e. the public) is getting kicked in the ass not only with high research costs but with footing the bill for the $20,000 subscription fee. That’s nuts! Think about that for a minute! That would be like paying for the materials in a smartphone, the labour to put it together, the shipping to get it to your hands, the labour at the retail outlet and then on top of that paying the ridiculously high retail price of $600 to purchase it. On the one hand, you’re saving Apple from incurring these costs and on the other, you’re giving Apple an extra $600. But unlike Apple or its competitors, publishing companies incur no marketing costs to convince you to pay the $600 because you don't have a choice!

As a business professor, the sad thing is that this is what we teach business students to do. To business education, this is an impeccable business model, but to society this is a disaster. How impressive is it to have your customer not only pay you a high price but to also have your customer pay for the costs to produce what you’re selling. Let me be honest…business students who think of these sorts of business models will get an A+ in the typical strategy or entrepreneurship class even though at the end of the day the public gets a boot in the ass and society is worst off because important knowledge is restricted.

As an academic, how my compensation is determined and how I’m promoted is based on whether I write stuff that gets locked into this private club of knowledge privilege. I therefore contribute to an infernal machine that does nothing but screw the public and income-poor students. What an asshole!

So what can we do? Tweet your support to #puttingpublicbackintopublication and as a taxpaying citizen who pays professor salaries and expenses to do research, pressure professors around the world to publish in open access locations. Otherwise, as a society, we should collectively fire them…including me!

And don’t fall victim to those seemingly independent people who opine that open source would be a disaster in that it would erode knowledge quality because scholars would simply purchase journal space to cover shoddy research. There is no solid empirical evidence to prove this. In fact, a study by Stuart Shiever (professor of computer science and faculty director of the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Harvard Library) noted an extremely high positive correlation between the quality of the journal and its APC.

Put that in your journal and smoke it!

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