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Publish Rubbish Or Perish — and Pay Through The Nose

The academic publishing racket is a mess: much of what is published in it is worthless and although publishers don’t pay academics for either contributing articles or peer reviewing the work of their colleagues, publishers charge grotesque subscription fees to university libraries. They have no choice but to pay up because if university faculty can’t access the current journals in their field, they cannot survive professionally. Few people even read many of these articles, but still the system survives because universities everywhere encourage professors to feed the publishing monsters in order to boost the school’s reputation. “Publish or perish,” the saying goes, though in many cases it ought to read “Publish rubbish or perish,” as rubbish will serve very well for most career purposes as long as it is peer-reviewed.

This is very expensive rubbish to read. Library subscription fees for some journals are more than $20,000 a year, and subscription costs of $3,000 or more are common. Fees to access a single article can be more than $35, and you have to pay the fee again every time you want to reread it.

With their characteristic moral blindness and ignorance of markets, many academics reflexively blame the “greed” of publishers, and of course publishers are no more likely to turn up their noses at the occasional obscene profit than any other corporations. But in fairness to the publishers, it is worth noting that most academic research is a vanity publishing project: nobody reads what is published except for the authors and a small circle of friends. (That is not necessarily an indication that the article is worthless; it is merely an observation that for all but a tiny handful of academic journal articles the audience is miniscule.) The editorial process at these journals is extremely cumbersome and expensive, and publishing articles with lots of footnotes and fancy format issues takes a lot of time and money to do. In the vanity press world, the authors pay directly; in the quasi-vanity world of academic publishing, the faculty pay indirectly through sky high university subscription and access fees. Without very large subsidies, however they are packaged, the whole enormous edifice would crash to the ground because, with the exception of a tiny sliver of work that is truly significant to large numbers of readers and researchers, the whole enterprise of academic publishing is, economically speaking, unsound.

A recent Guardian article outlines how a number of British professors, led by the eminent math professor Tim Gowers, are refusing to publish with or peer review for Elsevier, a Dutch publisher of numerous math journals that is known for high subscription prices.

Moralistic posturing aside (after all, it isn’t Elsevier’s fault than nobody on earth wants to ready the undoubtedly worthy materials our distinguished professoriat is ready to publish in an almost unlimited supply), Gowers and his colleagues are onto something important. Academic publishing can never be a normal commercial enterprise, so the answer must be to attack the cost structure and reform the delivery system. Since nobody pays academics for their articles and nobody pays for the peer reviewing, it perhaps makes sense to edit the journals and publish them online on some kind of a cooperative basis. The academic community needs these journals for both good and bad reasons; perhaps editors should be unpaid as well, and university departments could assign release time to people willing to undertake this laborious task or otherwise credit journal-editing and publication against a professor’s workload.

One way or another, the premier journals will mostly survive. But a great many journals specialize in mediocre work of questionable interest or quality, even to those working within a particular academic specialty. Their fate is less clear.

The academic journal racket is only one of a large number of anomalies and inefficiencies in the university world. Moving online and going coop can reduce publishing costs and on the whole the professoriat is prepared to live with and even welcome these changes. Other changes, that touch more directly on professorial prerogatives will not be as welcome in the ivory tower.

But the thought does occur to one: while it is relatively easy to see how public universities might want to support academic research in the natural sciences and economics, just how much do the taxpayers want to contribute toward the production of research of questionable utility in softer fields? And if the answer is, as I suspect it will increasingly be, that the taxpayers don’t want to shell out for these costs, how many fewer professors will our university systems employ?

It is much more fun to complain about the pirates of Elsevier than it is to think about the future of the mass professoriat, but I suspect that university faculties might soon find it necessary to adjust to a new set of public priorities. Fifteen years ago journalists thought that the internet wasn’t a serious issue for their field; today many of the journalists who once scoffed at the net are now unemployed.


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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The whole publish or perish paradigm is about to go out the window, as the internet makes most of these drones just perish, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of useless leftists. The entire edifice of bogus prestige and pomposity, in the sociology and humanities departments will finally receive the shining light of truth. It’s Karma for decades of students that have suffered from their propaganda.

  • Anthony

    University systems are certainly feeling the stresses and strains of a reordering; yet economic underpinnings have not been forethought of many in professioriat – how things are changing. Academic publishing has had gatekeeping functions and added to sterility and mediocrity of some academic publishing alluded to. However, brilliant minds and superior academics will always have publishing opportunities in changing economic world of academic publishing in whatever form it takes (though anomalies and inefficiencies are no longer sustainable even in academia).

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    This has a lot to do with the explosion in so called “Research Universities”. The need to publish has also exploded, with every student encouraged as well. It is easy to forget however that publishing your results is important as how would others know what you’ve discovered. Some vetting is required to make this meaningful without choking free flow of information. Perhaps if acting as a reviewer would be as important to academic stature as being an author (with “apprentice” reviewer being a prerequisite to promotion to full reviewer, one would get better papers and allow true on-line, low cost publication

  • C. Phillips

    In mathematics and some parts of physics, many preprints are available on the “arXiv” ( for free. (It is supported by the US National Science Foundation.)

    If there is no paper copy of a journal in your library, you can order an article through interlibrary loan. What happens is that somebody at a library with a paper copy scans it (usually not very nicely), and you get it electronically.

    I have never bought an article from a publisher, but, at least in mathematics, if you do you apparently get a pdf file of the article, which you can keep. There is no reason to buy the same article twice. If your university subscribes to the electronic version of the journal, you get a pdf file (occasionally also other kinds of files), which you can keep.

    Serious mathematicians write their papers using some form of TeX. (See for the website of one common version. See for the Wikipedia article. Free versions exist for most platforms) Used correctly, it produces book quality output. (In fact, TeX from the 1980’s produces higher quality output than Microsoft Word does today.)

    Most math journals use TeX for their typesetting. Thus, in effect, most of the fancy typesetting has already been done by the author.

    (I also use TeX for anything else for which plain text isn’t good enough, even many letters. Thus, I do not even read Microsoft Word documents.)

  • C. Phillips

    Elsevier is not the first publisher to be targeted. Many academic libraries cancelled all subscriptions to journals published by Gordon and Breach (more recently acquired by Taylor & Francis), because of predatory pricing practices and egregious legal stunts. For example, Gordon and Breach sued the American Mathematical Society in Germany(!) under a German law prohibiting comparative advertising, because the American Mathematical Society published information on journal subscription costs, costs per page, etc.

  • C. Phillips

    Even in math, much worthless stuff is published, for example by the large number of junk journals, often published in India or China, which use spam as a main part of their business model.

  • Corlyss

    “This is very expensive rubbish to read. Library subscription fees for some journals are more than $20,000 a year, and subscription costs of $3,000 or more are common. Fees to access a single article can be more than $35, and you have to pay the fee again every time you want to reread it.”

    JSTOR tees me off with its fees per article. All I have to do is ask my local librarian to fetch me a copy of the issue thru interlibrary loan, and it don’t cost me anything. I wonder sometimes who actually pays those charges.

  • Corlyss

    Additionally, peer review took quite a pounding vis climate change. In genuine market circles, it would be called collusion and restraint of trade.

  • vanderleun

    The three most lethal words to readers today: “Modern Language Association.”

  • vanderleun

    “But a great many journals specialize in mediocre work of questionable interest or quality, even to those working within a particular academic specialty. Their fate is less clear.”

    Their fate is to be consigned to the pit and the editors and contributors roasted on the spit therein.

  • Kris

    Physics Today [“flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics”] is not an academic journal, but I was reminded of the following anecdote from James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman:

    Feynman, Nobel laureate, found that even canceling a magazine subscription took an entire correspondence. “Dear Professor Feynman,” began a long letter from the editor of Physics Today [“flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics”], the magazine whose second issue had carried his article about the Pocono conference in 1948:

    The comment you sent back with our questionnaire on our May issue (“I never read your magazine. I don’t know why it is published. Please take me off your mailing list. I don’t want it.”) poses some interesting questions for us. …

    Four hundred words later, the editor had not given up:

    I apologize for asking any more of your time, but all of us at Physics Today will appreciate it very much if we can have amplification of your earlier comments.

    So Feynman amplified:

    Dear Sir,
    I’m not “physicists,” I’m just me. I don’t read your magazine so I don’t know what’s in it. Maybe it’s good, I don’t know. Just don’t send it to me. Please remove my name from the mailing list as requested. What other physicists need or don’t need, want or don’t want, has nothing to do with it. …It was not my intention to shake your confidence in your magazine – nor to suggest that you stop publication – only that you stop sending it here. Can you do that please?

  • Luke Lea

    Why can’t the universities or some philanthropic organization just buy these publishers out? Those journals can’t be worth that much can they?

  • Lorenz Gude

    Ah, God Bless Richard Feynman! In 1987 I was walking on the university campus that then employed me vaguely thinking about what was wrong with my job. Unbidden, the word corrupt came to the surface to which I immediately thought. “I (we) are not corrupt like a policeman who takes bribes to not do his job! ” Then the penny dropped, and I said to myself – “Oh yes I am”. We pretend to teach and they actually pay us real money. Dang!

    Of course publishing on the Net in understandable English doesn’t count Professor Mead. It is probably something that will shortly come to be seen as in regrettably bad taste. I say take the high road. Allow academics to only publish in Latin and require that all journal articles be published on parchment in hand set, bespoke renaissance fonts.

  • Richard Tasgal

    I’m not sure that the best research will still be created if it is not accompanied by a lot of mediocre work. Even the best work — I’ll vouch for this in my own field, physics, and I’d guess that it applies more widely — is produced by people who also write unexciting papers. I don’t think that this is just for the sake of resumes. When you start on a project, you don’t always know if it will lead to a major or a minor result.

    And for an analogy, do you think you could produce record-breaking athletes without a base or pool of non-elite athletes?

  • Cunctator

    I agree entirely with the arguments presented in this article. There are too many journals on too many subjects, and increasing the number is also a way for publishers to generate more income.

    Perhaps the solution is to go back to what existed in the 18th century when authors published their own writings and sold them individually to printers (in this case the internet).

  • stan

    Let’s try to imagine a university where the professors are hired and promoted on their ability to teach (not whether they published a bunch of meaningless crap). A place where the notion of increasing productivity, economic efficiency, and customer satisfaction is actually considered.

    Nope. I can’t either.

  • Douglas Levene

    For many years, the arts and sciences academics have scorned the law schools for relying on student-edited journals. In the new economic world, however, it may be that the law school model is the one that will survive. Wouldn’t that be ironic!

  • Corlyss

    @ Richard

    “I’m not sure that the best research will still be created if it is not accompanied by a lot of mediocre work.”

    Are the two related?

  • pst314

    “I’m not sure that the best research will still be created if it is not accompanied by a lot of mediocre work.”

    Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is mediocre at best.

  • pst314

    “I’m not sure that the best research will still be created if it is not accompanied by a lot of mediocre work.”

    But the problem in academia is not mediocrity–it’s corruption. The humanities are largely dominated by liars and poseurs, cranking out [worthless trash] masquerading as scholarship.

  • lubos

    The whole idea of having to pay for papers without being able to preview them is absolutely ridiculous. Most journals charge in the vicinity of $25 per paper, which given the quality of many publications (including some of my own, I’ll admit it) is not worth the price of the paper as they say.

    And @Cunctator, I agree. There is no reason why academic publishing should remain in the 1990s while the rest of the world has moved to the online collaborative media. Besides the price, my biggest issue with the traditional publishing is that it doesn’t allow for an effective discussion. Commenting on journal publications is a tedious process and the comments and rebuttals do not tend to stay with the original manuscript. This is much different in the online world where the comments stay with the article and are often more insightful than the original piece…

  • fiona

    Not only because of all what has been said above, but also because I decided to do publish my results anonymously due to the fact that credit is overestimated and therefore I wanted to try another way of publication where content ruled. That’s why I gave it a try at – and I must say it never has been easier and results in terms of getting into contact with interesting research projects and persons wasn’t less than when having published in the well known journals before.

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