Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Journal prices and gas prices

Mike Dunford, For-Profit Scientific Publishers and the Culture of Entitlement, The Questionable Authority, August 13, 2008.  Excerpt:

I used to have a hard time explaining the anger, resentment, and hostility that many scientists feel toward the big academic publishing houses....

Gas prices are going up. You've been combining trips, cutting your mileage as much as you can, driving a more efficient vehicle, and your fuel costs are still going up. You drive home from work, stopping along the way to put $30+ dollars worth of gas into the 10 gallon tank in your Prius. You sit on the sofa, turn on the news, and hear that Exxon-Mobil just reported quarterly profits of about $1,500 per second....

If you want to understand the anger that the major publishing houses are generating, that's a good place to start.

Publishers don't make money at anything close to the clip that Big Oil does, but they're not doing badly. Elsevier is probably the biggest fish, and they come in at a respectable $1,700 per minute. That's 60 times less than Exxon-Mobil, but it's still a nice chunk of change.

The university libraries that make up a large proportion of their customers have been feeling the pinch more and more. The cost of the journals has been rising at a much higher rate than inflation. This means that either the library need to receive a significant budget increase every year (and if you've ever worked at a university you know exactly how easy that is to do) or they need to cut spending somewhere else to make up the difference.

It's important to remember that access to journals is, for scientists, as much of a necessity as gasoline.... 

[Gasoline and journals are both] necessities....Both have been increasing in price. And the providers of both are making large profits, while their customers suffer.

That's where the analogy ends, though, because scientists are not only the end customers for journals, they're also the people who provide the content. For free. If you want to continue the analogy, you'd have to pretend that during the whole time that gas prices and profits have been rising you were spending five or ten hours a week working on an oil rig, and that you're doing it without pay....

[T]he major academic publishers seem to feel that they are entitled to continue to make enormous profits selling scientific research to scientists at outrageously inflated prices.

This sense of entitlement has been at its most obvious where the open access movement is involved. Publishers like Reed Elsevier fought tooth and nail against legislation that would require researchers to make a copy of their work freely available within a year of publication. Along the way, they claimed credit for the entire peer review process, slighting the editors and reviewers who actually do the work - for free - for them. Then, when they finally give in after fighting tooth an nail against open access requirements for years, they brag about their "leadership" when it comes to making their products more accessible.

Were it not for their track history, I suspect that neither the Mad Biologist nor I would have been quite as irritated when they "borrowed" some of our work for internal use. With the track history, though, seeing our words sitting, without proper credit, permission, or attribution, on a page that bears a prominent notice protecting their copyright becomes something more. It goes from being a minor discourtesy to being another symptom of the company's lack of respect for the people who do the bulk of the work to produce their profits, and provide the bulk of their customer base.