Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is for-profit publishing dead?

I'm talking about academic journals, of course. People have been grumbling for ages about what a scam it is: academics not only provide the material for free but even pay the journal handsomely for the privilege of appearing in their hallowed pages, then other academics review and edit the material for free, and finally yet more academics pay to be allowed to read it. In these days of electronic transmission and powerful searching and indexing facilities, the added value provided by the publisher appears limited at best, and indeed strongly negative when you consider the sums of money involved. So I am following this initiative with some interest. I haven't signed up yet because I haven't checked how many relevant journals are run by Elsevier, nor whether they are a particularly egregious offender.

As an example of what it actually costs to run a professional outfit, the EGU journals generally charge a publication fee of €24 per "page". The "page" size for this calculation is unusually small (1900 characters), but a typical paper is still only around €600 in my experience, and a previous short comment was the princely sum of €170. This is the total price, after which the resulting paper is open access. Compare to AGU journals, where the basic fee is already often larger (GRL is $500 for 4 pages, and longer JGR papers $1000) even when the final article is paywalled, and the open access option is another $2500-$3500 on top - an obvious indication of the value of our work that we have simply been giving away. I suppose at least with the academic societies the profit might be going to reasonably good causes (such as funding the sterling work of their Ethics Task Force, I presume), but even with their low fees the EGU publication empire runs at a modest profit level, sufficient to fund gradual expansion.

Previously I have grumbled about the EGU stable of journals having a gaping hole in that papers on climate change and prediction - surely one of the largest constituencies of their community - do not have a suitable home (CP and ACP have taken a few climate change papers, but the fit seems tenuous). However, a couple of years ago, they started up "Earth System Dynamics". This looked initially according to its blurb like it might be a bit too Earth-systemy for my tastes, but it's also had a steady stream of more conventional (primarily physical) climate change research. One paper that looks like it could kick off a bit of a bunfight is this one here about diagnosing climate feedbacks from satellite measurements, (which refs previous Spencer+Braswell vs Dessler spats) for which Andrew Dessler was quick to get in a somewhat critical review. I haven't looked at the manuscript carefully enough to judge for myself. Anyway, I'll certainly bear the journal in mind for future manuscripts, and hopefully it will take some business away from the leeches.

Incidentally I think a commenter previously pointed to this paper some time ago, but I can't find where. It seems that enough reviewers noted the somewhat woolly logic behind the climate sensitivity calculations that it did not progress to the final peer-reviewed publication stage. There is also this manuscript which got somewhat similar comments.


Paul S said...

I let my Nature subscription expire in early December last year. I've received every copy since then.

Fight the power!

ICE said...

Not that Elsevier is necessarily the worst, but there has been a number of issues with them...
- arms trade:
- fake journals:
- and of course lately, the Research Works Act thing...e.g.:

Apparently Springer and Wiley are distancing themselves from the RWA.

I recently published and reviewed for Agriculture & Forest Meterorology, but will refrain from doing so from now on.
I guess its easier for us in the climate science community given the stronger weight of AGU, AMS, EGU etc journals.

Carl C said...

Is there a breakdown where all the cash goes in academic publishing, or is that the big secret? I mean does it provide jobs for the publishing staff, or is some Rupert Murdoch raking in all the profits, and a few executives going on junkets etc?

The situation reminds me of another life when I was going to be a professional musician back in the 80's -- in Los Angeles all the bands would actually pay to play in a bunch of clubs where record company agents were known to frequent and sign up the next "Motley Crue" or "Poison" or "Night Ranger" etc. But that was an odd "market" that only lasted a few years -- academic publishing has been doing this scam for decades (I guess due to it's monopolistic...errr...nature)....

James Annan said...

Carl, I think Elsevier just makes a fat profit for its owners.

I see that one of my colleagues here has signed up to the boycott. I do, however, have a soft spot for Ocean Modelling where my most cited paper was published, also it was started by Peter Killworth who seemed to be a great guy (not that I knew him well).

David B. Benson said...



Alex Springer originally stated the company named after him in order to assist mathematicians in disseminating their work. The prices for books and journals used to be quite reasonable.

n-g said...

Holding a boycott without actually specifying a list of demands sounds like just the sort of thing a bunch of college professors would do. I sent a letter to the costofknowledge webmaster suggesting that the boycott needs to tell Elsevier what we want them to do. No response yet...

I just became aware of your excellent site facilitating the boycotting of Elsevier journals.
It seems silly to have a boycott without specifying a set of demands; otherwise the target of the boycott has no clear guidance on what it would take to end the boycott and the boycott is thus ineffective or at minimum inefficient.
On the other hand, getting a group of academics to agree on a set of concrete demands may be even more challenging than organizing a successful boycott.
I suggest including on your boycott registration list a set of demands that boycotters may choose from, just as they choose what they will refrain from doing. This set must be brief and must be entirely quantifiable. Something like:

* Pricing for Elsevier journals should be lowered to reflect a long-term goal of a profit margin of (choose up to one):
- 20%
- 10%
- 5%
* All Elsevier journals must be available for subscription individually by libraries
* Elsevier must cease all forms of support for laws that would (choose none, any, or all):
- inhibit the ability of scientists to choose to make their data and results freely available to the scientific community
- inhibit government mandates for open access to scientific data and results
- inhibit the use of the Internet for the free exchange of data and results

- John


Myself, I would choose 10% for the first demand, agree with the second demand, and skip the third demand.

James Annan said...

I think the top goal has to simply be open access, doesn't it? Then Elsevier can charge authors (or get sponsorship or whatever othger options they can dream up) what they want, how they want - but the knowledge will be freely available. As I said, the EGU manages it on €24 per page, which includes a profit margin.

EliRabett said...

Perhaps what is needed is an Itunes database, where everyone buys any paper for a small amount, say the equivalent of a dollar (US).

Libraries could give up their subscriptions to the on line journals with the costs borne directly by the users.

Page charges are the last remnant of the vanity press.

James Annan said...


That's an interesting idea. I wonder what the charge would have to be in order to be workable. There aren't actually that many real readers for an average paper if my GRL downloads are any sort of a guide (and that should be at the broad end of the scale). DRM would make it a nightmare but it might be difficult to make it work fairly otherwise. The music industry copes but the sales volume is very different...

I don't think publisher pays (for open access) is that bad a model. As the EGU case shows, proper paper production doesn't come for free, though it should be a nugatory proportion of the research budget.

EliRabett said...

To get it out of the way in case someone ever thought bunnies can think, the idea is not Eli's originally.

Let the market set the price, the journals already have the mechanism because they are set up to accept the very high current charges. One publisher needs to move the price point down until the income matches the effort + profit. Of course cutting off the libraries requires some gumption, but you might interest a library in setting up an account that the faculty and student's charges went against up to some limit).

Eli has been the victim of systems where the number of free downloads from a particular university per month was allowed and it might have been Elsevier.