Putting the evil academic publishers in perspective

Academic publishing is a bit of a perverted business. Let us recap what should be well known: professors write papers for free while publishers take the papers and resell them to universities for a large profit.

I do hope to live one day in a world where everyone can have free access to all the research in the world. There is irony in the fact that the Internet gives us free access to junk and informercials, but asks us to pay for high-quality government-sponsored sources. Sadly, that is what we have right now.

A common narrative is that universities are victims of this arrangement. They have to pay exorbitant prices to publishers, money that they would rather spend on their students.

There is just a small problem with this narrative: it does not fit the facts on the ground.

It is maybe worth pointing out that many colleges are themselves academic publishers (e.g., Oxford University Press). These college-based publishers are not shy about charging the full amount for their goods. Whenever I see a book priced upward of $40 on Amazon, it is almost always from an academic publisher. So, at a minimum, colleges are complicit in the business of overcharging for academic work.

But how much do academic publishers charge? Academic publishing is a small component of higher education. Harvard University (alone!) had a budget of over $4 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, one of the largest publishers, Elsevier, had revenues of only $3 billion. There is only a handful of large publishers, and thousands of large colleges… Even if Elsevier folded and gave away for free all its subscriptions, students would not see lower tuition fees.

Nobody likes a tax though, right?

Well. What about Microsoft and Oracle licences? Most colleges rely on Microsoft software to operate when they could as easily use free software to achieve much of the same goals. And, let us be honest, most colleges could replace their expensive Oracle software by a free alternative (PostgreSQL) with no lasting consequences. Yet few colleges have decided to do away with the “Microsoft tax“.


Because to do away with proprietary software and replacing it all by free software would not significantly affect budgets. And, at the margin, it may leave the impression that the school is too cheap to afford real software. Image is important.

The same is true with academic publishing. Library subscriptions are a small price to pay. Offering great library access, especially if it is a tad expensive for an individual, looks great.

Can you imagine a world where all the academic books and research papers were freely available? In such a world, university libraries would face an uphill battle to show their relevance.

Universities do not want to do away with their libraries and library budgets. Not really. If you are a curious fellow and want to read deeply on a subject… the current system pushes you to go to college, if only so you have good library access.

Many researchers are also very fond of publishers and librarians. They make researchers look good. I have yet to see one reputable academic calling for a library-free college. Most academics do not really want academic publishing to falter…

It may be that Elsevier is an evil company run by a Satanist cult. But keep in mind that Microsoft has been called the evil empire. Speaking for myself, I do not really worry about either Elsevier or Microsoft being evil.

6 thoughts on “Putting the evil academic publishers in perspective”

  1. There is one more issue often overlooked: publishers do not charge only for work done by authors, there is one more thing they do: select some papers from the rest to publish. the quality of their selection criteria can be questioned, but frankly, a completely random choice of a handful of papers every week would still be a far better option in terms of reader efficiency than trying to sail the vast sea of extremely bad quality papers (go check out a journal that no one reads and you will see).
    and high-impact journals are still doing a job better than random, and the publisher-free world did not come up with a viable solution for the selection problem so far. partial solutions exist, ideas exist about how to do this on the large scale, but no successful implementations so far. i hope to be proven wrong in this point as soon as possible.

  2. I guess this puts things in a North-American perspective.

    I guess this is one of those days I wish I had found a way to move there. I should have focused on that when I was 20, but I was young and confused. Now I’m only confused.

    Anyway, there are many universities out of North-America that have to pay to publishers, Microsoft and many other American companies. Open publishing does not help much when the authors have to pay for it, as that basically prevents poorer countries from entering the system at a different level, a level at which they can observe, cite and make “suggestions” (in open places like arxiv.org) about what should be done next in the “1st world research”.

    In short, in a different perspective, these amounts of money that may be negligible in some cases may be significant in others, and due to this difference they may be one of the causes of a growing gap.

  3. @trylks

    I do not think that there is a growing gap between the universities in poor countries and the universities in rich countries. I believe that the opposite is true… if only because the wealth gap between rich and poor countries is closing.

  4. This “expensive library is for prestige” idea sounds convincing. However, imho younger researchers tend to ignore this. Personally, my only interaction with my universities library/publisher is when I mail them a tech report. Of course, I use the ACM/Springer/IEEE digital libraries, which feature a little banner that my university pays. At least in computer science though, I could get all papers via Google or mail-to-author as well.

    So maybe it requires one or two generations, but then the rent-instead-of-buy generation takes over.

  5. I would frame it differently. Most universities would love to avoid paying journal subscriptions (in our case 5M/year) and use that for something more useful. However, we academics have moved from using journals to communicate (which we could perfectly do with blog posts) to signalling for promotion/funding purposes.

    I don’t think Elsevier is any worse than the other big publishers (my current issue is with Springer, which was for a while selling one of my Open Access articles). At the same time, I look forward to the day that we make all articles freely available; people already payed for their production through taxes. Given that writing the articles, their selection and editorial process is already done by volunteers I do not see why we can’t just publish them for very close to free.

  6. I do not worry about Elsevier being evil.
    It is a corporation with a clear mission of maximizing its own profit: there is nothing inherently bad with that.

    On the other hand, scientists have a different mission: to extend human knowledge as much as possible.

    For a long time, those two missions were complementary, since the publishers crafted the publications from a raw (from a typographic point of view) version, and they provided the only feasible and reliable distribution channel, i.e. selling to libraries.

    Now that the authors can (and usually are required to) provide the final publishable version of a paper and that the Internet provides an alternative, cheaper, and more reliable distribution channel, the role of academic publisher has changed.

    In economic words, the utility of academic publishers has greatly decreased, but their cost is not.
    On the long run, this calls for some changes.

    Elsevier is not singled out because it is more evil than, say, Springer, but because it is the one for which the gap between cost and utility is increased the most.

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