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.