The scourge of the academic publishers


30 August 2011


Academic publishing is built on an old model where publishers were needed to print and distribute journals to libraries. Under this system, it makes sense that the journals are distributed by publishing companies who charge fees for their work. On the other hand, the academics who write for the journals, the peer reviewers and (almost all) editors, have always contributed their time and expertise without cost. Essentially, they are being paid by universities and other research organizations to do this work. While we had print-based distribution, this model largely worked.

But now we work electronically, the model is broken. We do not need publishers to print and distribute journals. In fact, they are now hindering rather than helping academic research. You would think that in the modern world, we would have high quality on-line journals available free-of-charge. It costs almost nothing to maintain a journal website, and with academics contributing their services without cost, why are we still persisting with the old model in which we pay publishers enormous sums of money?

There are several reasons why the status quo is very difficult to change, perhaps best understood by example.

If one of my PhD students has written a new paper and asks me where they should send it, I am going to recommend an existing, well-recognized journal. That inevitably means a journal that is expensive and does not have open-access. I cannot suggest that an aspiring academic publish in an open-access online journal because it will not help them get tenure or promotion. As long as the publishers control the most recognized journals, the system is self-perpetuating. Put another way, as long as academics judge research output based on where it appears rather than what it says, the situation is unlikely to change.

Now think about it from the point of view of the academic societies. I am a director of the International Institute of Forecasters (IIF) which publishes the International Journal of Forecasting (IJF). Every few years, the IIF must decide which publisher (if any) to partner with in order to produce the IJF. We have been with Elsevier since the journal was founded, but there is nothing to stop us splitting and going our own way at the end of the current contract. What keeps us with an existing publishing company is money. Elsevier sells our journal to libraries and gives some of the money to the IIF as a royalty payment. They sell the IJF as part of a journal bundle which also includes some well-known journals that are must-buys for any academic library. We benefit enormously from this practice as it forces libraries to buy the IJF also. If we self-published the journal online, we would lose the associated income which we use to fund other activities (e.g., scholarships and conferences). Even if we charged a small fraction of what Elsevier charges, it is unlikely that many libraries would buy the IJF if it was not bundled with more famous names. So our choice is to stick with a big publisher and receive some much needed income, or go online and open-access and be poorer. Of course, we could charge more for society membership, but most academics do not have the available funds to afford it.

Nothing much will change while the academic societies are locked into the system, and budding academic authors need to get publications in the existing publisher-owned journals in order to get promotion or tenure.

The publishers, of course, argue that they provide a useful service even in an electronic age. Apart from printing and distribution, they do provide the web-based submission systems that are useful for journal management (e.g., ManuscriptCentral and Elsevier’s Editorial System), and they provide online repositories of published articles (e.g., ScienceDirect and SpringerLink). However, in both cases what they provide is actually pretty ordinary. Elsevier’s Editorial System is so appallingly difficult to navigate that I used to be inundated with emails from confused authors, reviewers and associate editors wondering how to use it. I eventually convinced Elsevier to let the IJF switch to the rival ManuscriptCentral which is certainly better but is by no means a great example of a simple user-interface. Furthermore, the online repositories are clunky and out-dated — they do not allow moderated commenting on articles, or easy upload of associated data sets and computer code.  So I maintain a separate website for the IJF at in addition to the ScienceDirect site in order to provide these facilities. If the publishers were really adding value, they would be providing a much better service than they do, and I would not need to run a separate web site.

I should point out that I am paid by Elsevier as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Forecasting, and I have an excellent working relationship with the Elsevier staff. So I am biting the hand that feeds me. However, despite the personal benefit I gain from the existing system, I think that the whole scholarly enterprise would be much better served with an online open-access system.

It is hard to see how individual societies and authors can change the system to online and open-access given the current entrenched interest groups. What is needed are several simultaneous changes:

  1. We need university administrators to concentrate on what people write rather than where it appears (yes, they actually need to read some papers). It is crazy that a great paper that gets published in a low-ranking journal is ignored, while an ordinary paper that gets passed the reviewers and appears in a top journal leads to promotion. The papers that appear in top journals are not all good, and the papers that appear in lower-ranked journals are not all bad. There is no substitute for reading the papers and judging the quality of an academic directly on their research, not indirectly based on where it is published. If universities want to cut their library bills they need to stop pressuring staff to only publish in the top-ranked journals and let them get on with writing good papers regardless of where they appear.

  2. Academic societies need to wean themselves off the publishers’ purse. One way would be to make publication in a society journal more expensive (in statistics it is usually free) and get the employers of researchers (e.g., universities) to pay the costs. After all, they should be saving a lot of money in library fees and this way it is given directly to people who will spend it for the benefit of researchers. There would need to be some discounting system established to provide for researchers in developing countries.

  3. The major funding agencies (who are not wedded to the existing system) need to take a stand for the benefit of everyone (except the existing publishers). We need the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the UK Research Councils, the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Centre, and similar funding agencies in other countries to insist that government-funded research be made publicly available online and without cost. That will short-circuit the existing system and help weaken the publisher-stranglehold on academic journals. Research that is publicly funded would then also be publicly available. This is argued persuasively by Danny Kingsley and George Monbiot.