Academic papers want to be free

An interesting article at the David Colquhoun blog, Open access, peer review, grants and other academic conundrums.  It’s a report of a debate on open data held on December 6th by Index on Censorship.

People are obviously influenced by the release of the ClimateGate 2 emails, but if we look beyond this, the points being made are general, and very sound.

We all agreed that papers should be open for anyone to read, free.  Monbiot and I both thought that raw data should be available on request, though O’Neill and Walport had a few reservations about that.

A great deal of time and money would be saved if data were provided on request.  It shouldn’t need a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and the time and energy spent on refusing FOIA requests is silly.  It simply gives the impression that there is something to hide (Climate scientists must be ruthlessly honest about data).  The University of Central Lancashire spent £80,000 of taxpayers’ money trying (unsuccessfully) to appeal against the judgment of the Information Commissioner that they must release course material to me. It’s hard to think of a worse way to spend money.

A few days ago, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published a report which says (para 6.6)

“The Government . . .  is committed to ensuring that publicly-funded research should be accessible free of charge.”

That’s good, but how it can be achieved is less obvious. Scientific publishing is, at the moment, an unholy mess. It’s a playground for profiteers. It runs  on the unpaid labour of academics, who work to generate large profits for publishers. That’s often been said before, recently  by both George Monbiot (Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist) and by me (Publish-or-perish: Peer review and the corruption of science).

David Colquhoun then goes on to detail just how corrupt the current system of academic journals is, with statistics.  It’s very well worth paging down through this.  Here are a couple of snippets:

UCL pays Elsevier the astonishing sum of €1.25 million, for access to its journals. And that’s just one university. That price doesn’t include any print editions at all, just web access and there is no open access. …

Most of the journals are hardly used at all. Among all Elsevier journals, 251 were not accessed even once in 2010. …

I haven’t been able to discover the costs of the contracts with OUP or Nature Publishing group. It seems that the university has agreed to confidentiality clauses. This itself is a shocking lack of transparency. …

And the hammer blows continue:

Almost all of these journals are not open access. The academics do the experiments, most often paid for by the taxpayer. They write the paper (and now it has to be in a form that is almost ready for publication without further work), they send is to the journal, where it is sent for peer review, which is also unpaid. The journal sells the product back to the universities for a high price, where the results of the work are hidden from the people who paid for it.

Precisely.  The publisher pays almost nothing for the product, and rakes in substantial money on it (and, as a publisher, remember, albeit with a different model, I know precisely what each stage costs).

It’s very encouraging to see a post like this.  The revolution is on the way.


One thought on “Academic papers want to be free

  1. Roger,

    Not all journals are priced that way—and not all journal publishers “rake in substantial money” on them. Eisenbrauns publishes several journals; we charge a modest $49.00 for institutions. And, they are in the liberal arts, which automatically means that they aren’t high volume. Needless to say, no one is going to retire on the profits from them.


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