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.