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The Exploitative Economics of Academic Publishing 72

Posted by Soulskill
from the all-about-the-benjamins dept.
v3rgEz sends this piece from the Boston Globe: "Taxpayers in the United States spend $139 billion a year on scientific research, yet much of this research is inaccessible not only to the public, but also to other scientists. This is the consequence of an exploitative scientific journal system that rewards academic publishers while punishing taxpayers, scientists, and universities. Fortunately, cheap open-access alternatives are not only possible, but already beginning to take root, as this article explores in-depth: 'Why is it so expensive to publish in these open-access journals? According to the journals, these fees defray their publication and operating costs. However, this argument is undermined by the existence of open-access journals that charge authors nothing and have negligible operating costs. One prominent example is the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR), one of the top publications in the field of machine learning. JMLR has a similar editorial process to many other journals, with a volunteer editorial board and an automated system for managing the peer-review process. Unlike many closed-access publishers, it does not take any advertising. MIT provides the web server for hosting JMLR, which would otherwise cost around $15 per year. The biggest expense is paying for a tax accountant to deal with paperwork so JMLR can maintain its tax-exempt status. Altogether, the total cost of running JMLR since it was founded in 2000 is estimated to be less than $7,000, or $6.50 per article published. This proves that cheap open-access publishing is possible.'"
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The Exploitative Economics of Academic Publishing

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  • by TechyImmigrant (175943) on Tuesday May 06, 2014 @05:34PM (#46934075) Journal

    Shouldn't machine learning experts be able to get their systems to learn the tax code and so replace the accountants?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They need to learn math first. There is no way their web server will only cost $15 year. There are a ton of costs that MIT pays for that the Journal isn't accounting for.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        See http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/2012/03/06/an-efficient-journal/ The $15 is for the domain name. For the web servers, the university is going to have web servers anyway, so the question isn't how much it costs to maintain servers per year but how much more it costs to the university to host the journal on those webservers compared to not hosting those journals on those same webservers.

      • by retchdog (1319261)

        oh, shut up. the $15 quote comes from the stupid article, not from the machine learning people.

        the web hosting costs, at most, another few thousand bucks, so it's still peanuts. a single institutional subscription to a commercial journal can cost about that much.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by xfade551 (2627499)
      You're assuming you can teach a machine to learn tax code, which is filled with loopholes, circular reasoning, contradictions, and logical fallacies.
    • I saw a talk once by someone at a meeting years ago in which they said that they were trying to get politicians to use specific phrases and sentance constructs so they could more easily parse what the hell the tax code is actually supposed to be.

      (I think it was the IDCC in Chicago, which looking at the program suggests it was Kate Zwaard, US Gov't Printing Office, but it might've been at an ASIS&T meeting around that same time, or an ISO/TC 37 meeting, as all of 'em could've covered issues in parsing se

    • Shouldn't machine learning experts be able to get their systems to learn the tax code and so replace the accountants?

      Machines work with logic. That rules out the tax code.

  • JMLR is a fantastic journal, with high quality papers, high quality reviews, and completely open. The dream of many come true. I've always wondered why the idea did not spread to other fields.

    If someone is willing to start a Journal of Computer Vision Research based on the same principles, count me in. I'll be happy to do editing/reviewing for such journal instead of well known IEEE/Elsevier/Springer journals.

    • by docmordin (2654319) on Tuesday May 06, 2014 @05:55PM (#46934249)

      As an academic, part of the problem with starting wonderful open journals and conferences is the fact that there are very few incentives for us to spend our time to build up the reputation of the publication. Although being editor-in-chief or associate editor of a journal is nice to have for a tenure review, some universities weight it less than the number of publications produced, the prestige of the publication venue, how many students you have advised, how much grant money has been brought to the university, and how much publicity your work has received. Since so many of my colleagues are focused on maximizing these metrics, they have very little time for much else when starting their careers. Moreover, even when they have tenure, they still have to chase grant money to sponsor all of the students in their labs; when I was in graduate school, my adviser seemed to be flying around every two or three weeks to meet with program managers to get even more money.

      Another item of note is that it is much easier to get support to start a conference if you align yourself with one of the major academic publishers, e.g., IEEE or Springer. Provided you can meet your attendance quota, these publishers provide much of the infrastructure and initial funding to host such events.

    • by EvanED (569694)

      In addition to what the other reply said: chicken and egg.

      Professors on tenure track want publications in highly-rated conferences and journals. Professors who have tenure want their students to get publications in highly-rated conferences and journals. So when they have a good paper, they want to submit to them.

      The prof or grad student isn't directly paying the costs of closed journals, so why would they take the risk of submitting their best work to a journal that at best is untested when they think they

  • by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday May 06, 2014 @05:44PM (#46934151) Homepage Journal

    Taxpayers in the United States spend $139 billion a year on scientific research, yet much of this research is inaccessible not only to the public

    The largest - by dollar amount - government funding agency is The National Institutes of Health (NIH) [nih.gov]. For some time now they have required that research they fund is published in publicly-accessible ways [nih.gov]. This means that all new grants they have handed out have been required to make their published results viewable by anyone, from anywhere.

    Similarly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) [nsf.gov] is planning to go the same way very soon [nsf.gov].

    So while the for-profit publishing model is generally bad, it is being chipped away at. And with each passing year, more of what taxpayers fund is made publicly accessible immediately; we are already at the point where only the oldest and longest-running NIH grants (and there aren't many left as very few grants go more than 5 years) are exempt from this policy.

    • The UK requires that that publication be publicly accessible if it receives public funding.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      There is boilerplate language in R&D contracts and grants across the government for open access to papers. I know that's been standard language in DoD contracts for a long time. That doesn't mean it happens. There is no benefit to a government program manager for enforcing public rights. There are many penalties. Unless a clear stand is taken from the top (like with NIH), the low level "bureaucrats" in charge of enforcement are at the mercy of immense political pressure to ignore little things like

  • Aren't scientists able to publish their work wherever they want? They choose to publish it in academic journals because, whatever downsides (loss of copyright), the value that the journals provide it is worth it to them. Otherwise they wouldn't do it and would simply publish it on a website or something. Same as recording artists complaining that labels give them only 5% of the sales while at the same time queuing up and begging labels to take them on.

    • Re:Explotative? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by gwolf (26339) <gwolf@gwoCHICAGOlf.org minus city> on Tuesday May 06, 2014 @06:08PM (#46934369) Homepage

      Not precisely.

      Yes, they are free. But the scientific world revolves around the notion of the different metrics to your work. And it's not only prestige: Often, your income level will be determined mainly by the impact factor of the magazines you publish in.

      But... Guess who dictates the values for said impact factors in the international indexes?

      Of course! The publishers of closed sciencie magazines.

      • by chihowa (366380) *

        Impact factor is determined by the average number of citations a contribution to a journal gets. They aren't dictated by the publishers.

        There are sleazy things that publishers can do to boost their impact factor, and it's not really the best metric to use anyway, but it's not subjective or made-up like you imply.

  • I largely agree that journals charge far too much for subscriptions but they do provide value added. Latex is great for physics and math, but provides little help to biologists. Frankly, after writing grants, doing the work, analyzing it, writing it up, and defending it at conferences, I feel I don't have a lot of time left over to play with margins and get the typesetting and hyperlinked references all working. The layout work actually is valuable. Yes, new tech makes it easier, but there's still the r
    • by m00sh (2538182)

      I feel I don't have a lot of time left over to play with margins and get the typesetting and hyperlinked references all working. The layout work actually is valuable. Yes, new tech makes it easier, but there's still the research to do.

      Really? Type-setting can be learned in half an hour. When you submit you PhD dissertation, you have to typeset it to the specs of the graduate school and nobody helps you. So, most PhDs already know how to typeset.

      Additionally, some journals have staff that help with the review process. Peer review is done by people busy with other things who often miss a lot, espeically well executed fraud. Many of the biology-related publishers perform text and image analysis of submitted articles to look for evidence of fraud. They find duplications, square edges where square edges are never found (introduced through deletions), etc.

      Again, this is easily done with html forms and there are plenty of fraud checking software out there.

      I suppose this COULD be done by a volunteer army by it's important enough to pay to have it done well. These are the archives of our knowledge. This may look cheap and easy to the IT crowd but other disciplines don't fall so easily into having 1 server at MIT and some volunteers. It doesn't and shouldn't be as expensive and bound up in copyright as it is (PLoS lets me keep the copyright and it's so nice not to have to ask for permission to use my own figures) but there is probably a happy middle ground as is already been explored by more and more open access journals.

      Volunteer army? A company hosting thousands of websites with 99.99% availability doesn't need even need an army to do the job. Just a small group of people can do it. Every university has websites

    • by williamhb (758070)

      Frankly, after writing grants, doing the work, analyzing it, writing it up, and defending it at conferences, I feel I don't have a lot of time left over to play with margins and get the typesetting and hyperlinked references all working. The layout work actually is valuable.

      I have to disagree with this. Journals and conferences increasingly allow the author to make a "pre-print" (a PDF as submitted, without the publisher's layout work) publicly available, to meet open access requirements. When reading conference papers that I might wish to cite, I find there is very little advantage in reading the publisher's laid-out version over reading the author's pre-print. The layout might look fancy and attractive, but unlike regular publishing and journalism, science publishing is not

  • It's worth noting that while many open access journals charge for publication, so do many closed access journals. I can't find the link now, but a comparison a few years ago found that the average cost was actually higher across closed journals than open access ones. And of course, they "double-dip" by also charging libraries and readers high fees for carrying the journals.

    • It's true. When PLOS first came out it was $1500 and article flat rate. They got blasted in the popular press for this. The article i published there was originally slated for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. If we didn't use any color it would've been $4,000 and in color it would've gone to nearly $6,000. PLOS was cheap, colorful, and it's still free to read online and I've never had to get copyright permissions to use those figures. I still have the copyright technically.
  • Someone needs to create a platform which uncouples the discrete services that academic publishing houses do for authors:

    1) Organized peer review process - a platform can automate the process of this. Peer recognition can be adequate compensation for some academics to lead the review process (made easier by the automation), and/or a relatively small fee can be charged to authors for freelance review-organizing editors found through a reputation network.

    2) Final pre-publication copy editing - a distinct, free

  • The main cause of scientific publishers charging excessive fees is their monopoly. While there are many different scientific publishers, a reader is usually interested in specific articles he cannot find elsewhere (publishing same results in more than one journal is nothing more than plagiarism). This puts university librarians into a weak position since they have to provide access to basically almost all journals publishing useful papers.

    With open access publishing, sooner or later we should get some he
  • "However, this argument is undermined by the existence of open-access journals that charge authors nothing and have negligible operating costs. "
    yes, and they host any bad, bad studies.

  • I call bullshit (Score:4, Insightful)

    by msobkow (48369) on Tuesday May 06, 2014 @06:52PM (#46934759) Homepage Journal

    $15 a year is barely enough to pay to register a domain. Any decent ISP is going to charge more like $20/month, not $15/year.

    Just because MIT can do it for $15/year does not mean that is a reasonable cost for anyone else to expect to get away with.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      It's not even a fair comparison anyway. According to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], "In 2013, PLOS ONE published 31,500 papers." I checked the JMLR website, and they had 121 papers last year. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that a journal that publishes more than two orders of magnitude more papers has higher operating costs. The other issues are that a) PLoS does not turn away papers on the basis of ability to pay, so institutions that have money are to some degree subsidizing institutions that don't, and b) the edit

  • Starting a journal is a good idea but will take time to make it a respected, viable option. Why not strike at the heart of the issue and push for copyright reform; say giving academic authors rights to publish their articles on a university or personal page while still letting the journal retain all other rights if they sign over the copyright? Then, all it takes is a good way to search for relevant papers without all the random garbage Google introduces.
  • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @06:55AM (#46937797) Homepage

    Case in point:

    I wanted to write an article on WWII British airborne radar systems. Found a source, oddly, on the IEEE. Reprint in PDF format is $39.95.

    The economic value of this article is a number best represented as zero. The distribution cost is perhaps a few pennies. But they want to charge $40 because that's what they used to charge for a monkey to go and photocopy it and mail it to you, so why change now?

    If the article had been 99 cents I would have purchased it no questions asked.

    • by ax_42 (470562)

      Find a buddy at university (or the buddy of a buddy) -- they can often access material like that under the university's general subscriptions (ie no additional cost to you).

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