George Monbiot, writer for The Guardian, calls them "the most ruthless capitalists in the western world," and claims their "monopolistic practices makes WalMart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist."
When we first mentioned this issue, I described the villains using the following scenario: "A chef researches and finds a recipe he'd like to prepare for a culinary association's dinner party. He goes out and assembles the ingredients. He invites select friends over to give feedback on a few test-runs. They settle on a recipe. On the day of the recipe's grand unveiling, the servers, claiming that their part of the process--plating the food and delivering it to tables--is of cardinal importance, decide to charge anybody who eats any portion of the meal a premium for access. The guests, members of the culinary association, pay the premium. How could they not? They're supposed to know what the chef served.
And just last week Harvard's Faculty Advisory Council released a Memorandum on Journal Pricing that has been searing across the internet. Its title: "Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained "
Who are these supervillians threatening the very fabric of the academy? Academic Publishers.
Monbiot writes, "Universities are locked into buying their [academic publishers'] products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can't publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all."
Academic publishers receive work that has been researched and written using university funds (oftentimes from the public or state). They then turn around and claim that, in order to make this research widely available, universities must pay them gross premiums. Monbiot explains it as follows: "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 Eur34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read ten and you pay ten times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50."
Publishers claim they need these high fees for editorial work, etc., but, honestly, there are at least three glaring problems with this claim: 1) the bulk of the material they publish is commissioned and funded through government research grants and academic stipends; 2) the bulk of this material's peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of its editing is done for free within the academy's structure, and 3) these academic publishers are, by and large, recording astronomical profits--something in the 35% range.
Academic publishers are using copyright laws intended to shield Hollywood to turn a tidy profit off of academic work. The Harvard memo states, "Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices."
This is, in my opinion a disgusting form of rentier capitalism. Something must be done.
Our 2012 Una's Lecturer, Lisbet Rausing, delivered a wonderful talk with the following underlying claim: "Universities can and must embrace online open access of academic research, to ensure their public legitimacy."
The Harvard memo makes several recommendations for both faculty and students (F) and the Library (L):
- Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).
- Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).
- If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).
- Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).
- Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).
- Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).
- Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).
- Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).
- Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).
Lisbet Rausing, our 2012 Una's Lecturer and a fundraiser at Harvard, astutely argues that academia needs to begin investing in a sustainable open access structure.
It makes no sense that our system of advancement--tenure review and granting, etc., is tied into this parasitic system. We need to shift the prestige of peer-review, etc. to open access journals; we need to lobby for changes in copyright law as it applies to academic publications, and we need to cut the vampiric, rentier capitalist publishers off at their base.
I agree with all of the above suggestions, and I would like to add one more: we must coordinate this shift across universities, and we must begin it immediately.
This is a call to arms!