"Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist": A call for action

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? The banks? Oil companies? No, academic publishers! In an article in the Guardian, George Monbiot explains why academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist.

The need for open access publishing has been one of the most debated topics in the anthropological blogosphere. Monbiot has done a great job in transfering the debate into the general public. He shows that the current models represent a democratic problem:

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. 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.

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Monbiot’s piece has received lots of attention, the reactions have been mostly positive, including over at Savage Minds.

Some researchers call for action.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes calls for civil disobedience:

What, if anything, can we do about the tyranny of academic publishers? Here’s an obvious suggestion: so far I’ve been very ‘obedient’ and have never put final versions of my papers online (It’s always the pre-print version, uncorrected proofs etc.), as required by the copyright transfer agreement. But now I’m thinking that that’s not the way to go; and if we all start putting final versions of our papers online, what are they going to do? Are they going to sue everybody, install a special department just to keep track of who has been posting ‘their’ valuable papers online for free?

Moreover, open access journals should receive all our support. Especially established academics who do not need to ‘score points’ with ‘fancy’ publications would do well to contribute to open access journals so as to increase their reputation. If we all do it consistently, the day will come when publishing in a highly regarded open access journal will give you more ‘points’ than publishing in one of the overpriced journals published commercially.

We need a call to arms", Martin Paul Eve writes on the phd2published blog:

Monbiot’s article has served as an excellent wake-up call to researchers, but an alarm clock is not what is needed. We need a call to arms. Researchers: get yourself a copy of Open Journal Systems installed. Get your journal set up and ask your library for support! This game has gone on too long and only through action can the system ever be changed.

Maybe more easily said than done? On his personal blog he explains why he still publishes in closed journals:

I am not a tenured professor. If I had academic job security, I could afford to publish purely in open access destinations, preferably Gold, Libre. As it is, I am still at the mercy of the metrics and systems that make publishing in closed venues a requisite for obtaining long term employment. Academic freedom is the freedom to hold a view; it does not extend to implementing the view. However, those who can afford to do so, should.

Immanent critique has value. The people who solely value closed-source journals (who I would argue are unaware of the constraints they place upon themselves through such behaviour) undoubtedly perceive OA publications as being of less worth. By publishing critiques of the system they value, within a framework valued by that system, the message can be heard in places it would not otherwise reach, avoiding the “fringe looney” accusation.

By the way, at the UK Scholarly Group conference next year – the biggest gathering of librarians and academic publishers - he will argue for that we don’t need academic publishers!

Open access anthropology needs a civil service, a staff, a personnel, argues Alex Golub at Savage Minds. “Serious institutionalization is a necessary next step for the movement.”

Jon Butterworth points to a different culture of publishing in particle physics:

In particle physics, everything worth reading is posted on the arXiv server, which is why I am able to link original articles from my blogs and you are able to read them free. No one I know would consider publishing in a journal which didn’t allow this.

The Guardian has collected some comments on Monbiot’s pice in a follow up post.

Christoph Stueckelberger and Dr Stephen Brown add an important aspect Monbiot didn’t mention:

If subscriptions to academic journals in Britain consume 65% of library budgets, and three giant commercial publishers from Europe and the US control 42% of scientific journals, imagine what this means for libraries and institutions in developing countries. Not only can it be prohibitively expensive to gain access to the results of research but such practices also accentuate a “knowledge divide” between the global north and south.

Addressing such a divide was one of the reasons for the Geneva-based Globethics.net Foundation setting up a digital library on ethics, which has more than 750,000 full-text articles and books available free of charge. Such initiatives offer a modest but determined attempt to redress the balance in global knowledge transfer. Fair publishing models by commercial publishers and open access efforts are needed to promote benefit sharing in knowledge production between north and south.

Strangely enough, the internet has worsened the situation, Patricia de Wolfe from London comments:

I am a member of the group Sociologists Outside Academia. Our major problem is access to materials. The advent of the internet has worsened the situation because many libraries subscribe to online versions of journals only. So whereas in the past a vacation ticket issued by a sympathetic librarian might enable you to catch up on your reading, it now does not because the relevant journals are not on the shelves, and nobody will give a visitor an electronic log-in. Anyone who is not a member of a university is excluded from academic debate.

While Jason Baird Jackson regards Monbiots piece as “a single article explaining much of what motivates me to work on reform in scholarly communications and academic publishing”, Kent Anderson on the blog by the Society for Scholary Publishing describes Monbiots article as uninformed, unhinged, and unfair.

Important to note: Much what is said here applies to the English speaking world only. In Brazil for example, and Portugal, a large degree of social science articles are available open access online.

As Maximilian Forte pointed out three years ago, innovations in the dissemination of anthropology are coming in large part from the so-called periphery, from the outside of the disciplinary centre of gravity.

See the antropologi.info overview of open access journals and repositories.

And don’t forget, it’s soon time for the global Open Access Week! (24.-30.10.2011)


Danah Boyd on Open Access: "Boycott locked-down journals"

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antropologi.info survey: Six anthropologists on Anthropology and Internet

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