Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, June 12, 2008

OA and journal prices in India

Nick Gill, Knowledge for all, InfoChange, June 2008.

Last month the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (IMSc) launched its new open-access repository. The repository provides open access to research articles written by members of the Institute. Anyone who has an Internet connection can access the server and can read articles about physics, mathematics and theoretical computer science written by members of IMSc.

Of course these articles are also available to anyone who subscribes to the journals in which they are published. But herein is the key point: journal prices have, in recent years, gone through the roof and many journals are now so expensive that access is restricted to universities with extremely deep pockets. For obvious reasons, universities and scientific institutes in India, with the exception of a few, cannot afford access.

The IMSc repository is part of a growing backlash from academics around the world who are angry at this state of affairs. They are seeking new and different ways to wrest back knowledge from the corporations and to open up access for all. ...

[Dramatic increases of journal pricing] is a trend with a hugely negative impact on academic research. Consider the situation at IMSc, Chennai. The total annual budget for IMSc is around Rs 13.3 crore, of which Rs 2.55 crore is spent subscribing to academic journals. Around 55% of this Rs 2.55 crore is paid to the two largest publishing companies - Reed-Elsevier and Springer - for the privilege of receiving a selection of the journals that they publish. In other words, more than 10% of the total budget for IMSc (more than the entire budget for faculty salaries) is paid directly to these two multi-national companies.

M Paul Pandian, the IMSc librarian, estimates that journal costs for IMSc are increasing at an average of 8% per annum, far in excess of inflation these past years. In the last year, this increase has been mitigated by a weaker dollar, but in general the effect of this increase is substantial. What is more, according to Pandian, price increases appear to have no correlation with increased costs for the publisher, or with better service.

Now IMSc is in the fortunate position of being one of the premier scientific institutes in the country and, as such, it has been given a budget to accommodate the commercial publishers. But, as Professor VS Sunder of IMSc says, "barring a minuscule number of institutions (such as IMSc and TIFR), the majority of universities in India (and even some good research institutes, which do not happen to be quite so fortunate in the funding they receive) simply cannot afford to access many journals as they are priced today. This situation represents a serious handicap for many Indian students and academics who wish to do significant research." ...

A research academic has two fundamental duties: to perform research and to share that research with others. Sharing research has traditionally been achieved through publishing, but many academics now do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in an over-priced journal. With this in mind, and angry at the policies of Reed-Elsevier, Springer and their fellows (such as John Wiley and Taylor & Francis), many academics are using new, non-commercial methods to undermine the corporate publishing houses. ...

Corporate publishing houses, though, are not going to sit by watching their profits vanish in a mist of open-access. ...

On a visit to IMSc, an executive from Reed-Elsevier was challenged by academics on the issue of pricing. He freely admitted that it is not in Reed-Elsevier's interest to reduce prices (and therefore profits); rather he said that Reed-Elevier were investigating methods of "adding value" to their service. For instance, they were considering paying referees for their work, thereby establishing a commercial transaction in the heart of the peer-review process. ...

Updated with Comments:
  • The revelation that more of the university's budget goes to Elsevier and Springer than to faculty salaries should cause many faculty, administrators, and public officials to take notice. That the journal pricing situation is now an outrage perpetrated on higher education overall, rather than a niche issue of librarianship, can no longer be denied.
  • The comment that "many academics now do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in an over-priced journal" paints a delightful contrast with our recently-blogged item on the struggle of review committees to validate research published in new electronic fora. (Compare also this recent item, entitled "Nanotechnology research is outpacing an outdated peer-review publishing process", and the recent question to Slashdot, "Are Academic Journals Obsolete?".)
  • Not all OA fora are "non-commercial", as the article implies. Two of the most notable OA publishers, BioMed Central and Hindawi, are for-profit organizations.
  • The Elsevier executive's hint that its journals may begin paying reviewers seems less like a method of "adding value" and more like a bold-faced attempt to bribe faculty into maintaining fealty to their Elsevier journals. Paying referees might result in faster turnaround of reviews, but would certainly give referees more financial incentive to continue reviewing (and writing) for Elsevier journals rather than OA competitors.