The Questionable Authority

I used to have a hard time explaining the anger, resentment, and hostility that many scientists feel toward the big academic publishing houses. It’s been getting easier, though. Recent events have, unfortunately, provided people with an experience that makes it easier to relate to what the academic community has been going through.

Gas prices are going up. You’ve been combining trips, cutting your milage 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. The price of something that you need to buy is going through the roof, it’s making things inconvenient for you, and the people who sell it are making money faster than the mint can print it. How happy are you?

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. In fact, it can be easier to cut utility usage than it is to cut journal use. If it’s a sunny day, I can turn the lights off in the lab. But if I can’t get access to the most recent developments in my field, I’m not going to be able to work effectively.

So far, the situation that I’ve described with journal prices is similar to the gasoline analogy I presented. Both are necessities (at least under certain circumstances). 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.

The Academic Senate at UC Santa Cruz summed this up well in a 2003 resolution:

Online journal charges have, however, been rising much faster than comparable prices, and Elsevier prices have been in the lead. Library acquisition budgets are increasingly being driven by unsustainable increases in journal prices. Elsevier’s revenues and profits have been rising fast in recent years. Their profits were up 26% in the last year. Elsevier’s prices are not proportional to the use of these journals made by UC faculty. Access to Elsevier journals costs the UC system 50% of its online budget, and use of these journals is only 25% of total online journal use.

UC Faculty members are important players in Elsevier’s journals. 10-15% of the content is written by UC faculty, 1000 faculty are on the boards of Elsevier journals, and about 150 faculty are senior editors for those journals.

The University of California started negotiation with Elsevier seven months ago, seeking to establish a sustainable relationship with Elsevier. Those negotiations have not yet concluded but there is a chance they will break down if Elsevier is unwilling to price its product in an affordable way that avoids punishing annual price increases that are 2 or 3 times the Consumer Price Index rate of inflation.

The relationship between publishers and the scientific community is not a partnership. It’s parasitic.

And it gets worse, because the parasite doesn’t even have the decency to try and hide what it’s doing. Instead, the 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 or 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.


  1. #1 Heather Morrison
    August 13, 2008

    Thanks for this post, Mike.

    Do you have an official citation for the Elsevier $1,700 per minute, or is this your own calculations – if so, can you provide any details? This could be quite useful for some writing I’m working on.

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    August 13, 2008

    It’s my own calculation, and it’s admittedly a rough one. According to their 2007 annual report, Elsevier’s Science and Technology and Health Sciences divisions combined brought in an operating profit of 477 million GBP. I used an exchange rate of $1.95 to the pound, then did the divisions. It works out to a bit over $1,750, but I rounded down anyway.

  3. #3 CR McClain
    August 13, 2008

    Great post and nicely stated.

  4. #4 Larry Fafarman
    August 13, 2008

    What about Harvard’s open-access policy? The Chronicle of Higher Education says,

    February 12, 2008
    Harvard Faculty Adopts Open-Access Requirement

    Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a policy this evening that requires faculty members to allow the university to make their scholarly articles available free online.
    Peter Suber, an open-access activist with Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group in Washington, said on his blog that the new policy makes Harvard the first university in the United States to mandate open access to its faculty members’ research publications.
    Stuart M. Shieber, a professor of computer science at Harvard who proposed the new policy, said after the vote in a news release that the decision “should be a very powerful message to the academic community that we want and should have more control over how our work is used and disseminated.”
    The new policy will allow faculty members to request a waiver, but otherwise they must provide an electronic form of each article to the provost’s office, which will place it in an online repository.
    The policy will allow Harvard authors to publish in any journal that permits posting online after publication. According to Mr. Suber, about two-thirds of pay-access journals allow such posting in online repositories. — Lila Guterman

    – from

  5. #5 Anne
    August 13, 2008

    Maybe this is just astrophysics, but for most journals you actually have to pay page charges to have anything published. Your analogy is missing something: you’re paying money for the privilege of working at an oil rig.

    On the other hand, virtually everything goes up on, so open access is effectively there already.

  6. #6 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    Given the obvious benefits to research and society of having this information freely available, it’s mystifying to me that there isn’t a deafening roar of voices from every corner of academia not marred by flagrant conflict-of-interest, demanding that it all be made available freely online and funds to support peer review replace a small portion of the journal access fees in the universities’ budgets.

  7. #7 Alexis
    August 14, 2008

    Thanks for the analysis and articulation. I fear change is in store for Elsevier, Blackwell, Sage and the like. PLoS is proving a remarkably successful venture in terms of impact and growth, so much so that open-access journals are springing up like fairy circles. Research funded through the NIH now requires electronic manuscripts to be made available on PubMed, I do not know if the same is true for other publicly funded research. And of course, digital distribution makes the propagation through individual and small group channels very rapid (as anyone who uses e-mail, or attends conferences or seminars and carries a USB stick knows). And then there are repositories like arxiv, and open-collaboration projects like Wikibooks, and Connexions.

    In addition the library systems of Harvard and other major universities have been standing up to the publishers and refusing to carry the full line of subscriptions (for example pooling digital access across consortia of libraries).

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    August 14, 2008

    Maybe this is just astrophysics, but for most journals you actually have to pay page charges to have anything published.

    In the areas I publish (stats, ecology, evolution) most journals don’t do that. A few do, and one publisher (the ESA) manages to do that and still have a crap service (over a year from acceptance to publication, with no online first). I’ve decided to boycott them.

  9. #9 phisrow
    August 14, 2008

    The whole matter strikes me as a breathtaking demonstration of the legitimacy automatically accorded to the status quo.

    If anybody were to propose such an insane system from scratch, they’d be laughed out of the room, if they were lucky. And yet, even though everybody knows what is going on, you get ridiculously conciliatory statements like “The University of California started negotiation with Elsevier seven months ago, seeking to establish a sustainable relationship with Elsevier.” Why even try to establish a sustainable relationship with a parasite, when you could be trying to kill it instead?

  10. #10 Avi Steiner
    August 14, 2008

    What’s really interesting is that i don’t think there’s a single respectable literary journal that doesn’t pay/compensate authors for their submissions. In fact, there are entire movements within the literary community expose (rightfully) as scams those that do.

  11. #11 lpyudhb
    August 14, 2008

    I am frequently struck by the parallels between academic publishing and the music industry. Given the huge damage that P2P file sharing has allegedly inflicted on music publishers, perhaps a successful way to ‘kill the parasite’ would be for someone to set up a similar system for sharing pdf files. All academics have a substantial library of pdfs sitting on their machines, and utilities now exist (i.e. ‘Papers’) which can extract unique DOI information from the text of the pdf. If university libraries found that pdfs were no longer being downloaded from publisher websites they’d cancel their subscriptions. Obviously, publishing houses going bust would cause some difficulties in the short term, but it might kickstart a worldwide transition to the Open Access model. Furthermore, a large P2P network would function as a distributed (and hence massively redundant) repository for the world’s scientific knowledge.

  12. #12 Michael
    August 14, 2008

    As much as I agree that this is a huge problem, and would add in that it seems unethical for business to operate like this and for academic institutions to foster such a relationship, I fear that there will be no changes. Why? Academia seems like an awfully hard industry to break into and then succeed. Just to get job interviews those of us just graduating will need to have two to three publications in “respectable” journals. To get there we need to be pumping out as much fluff as possible: opinion pieces, article or book reviews, responses to X, etc. We will be spamming tier one, two, and three journals just hoping that someone will publish us, we will start to get name recognition, and eventually get those “respectable” credits. We will also be frantically trying to get into conferences, ranging from the “get your feet wet” graduate student events to the “you have made it now” professional society meetings.

    A change in the system has to happen at many levels. Those of us trying to publish have to refuse to play the game. But we cannot do this until those people hiring, or doing tenure review, agree that the system is broke and in serious need of an overhaul.

  13. #13 maxi
    August 14, 2008

    I agree with Michael. To carry on the analogy, it is like paying for the priviledge to work on an oil rig in order to get a job which will require you to buy more petrol! Its a vicious circle.

    But please don’t bitch about your petrol prices. We are paying £1.20 per litre (I think that works out about $6.00 per gallon).

  14. #14 WotWot
    August 14, 2008

    selling scientific research to scientists at outrageously inflated prices.

    By which of course you mean: selling scientific research back to scientists at outrageously inflated prices.

    …virtually everything [in physics] goes up on, so open access is effectively there already.
    Posted by: Anne #5

    I can only dream of the day that happens in medical science.

  15. #15 Matt Springer
    August 14, 2008

    Actually I think the analogy is unfair to the oil companies. Their profits are largely due to the massive number of gallons being sold. The profit per dollar paid at the pump is actually pretty small.

    Publishers on the other hand only have to pay typesetters and a paper mill. Given that non-academic publishers can profit while putting out beautiful magazines and books for a few dollars each, I don’t see why libraries and academics put up with the obscene cost of journals, especially in the internet age.

    National Geographic even at newsstand prices costs $59.40 a year. Why Nature should cost $2730 is beyond me.

    Actually, no it’s not. The reason is because for some ungodly reason we scientists are willing to torpedo ourselves by continuing to allow those expensive journals such respect. Nature, Science, and other journals’ prices would drop like stones if we simply took out papers elsewhere. But no one wants to be the first to try it.

  16. #16 Azkyroth
    August 14, 2008

    Given the huge damage that P2P file sharing has allegedly inflicted on music publishers, perhaps a successful way to ‘kill the parasite’ would be for someone to set up a similar system for sharing pdf files.

    PDFs can easily be shared through existing channels. Unfortunately, so far as I can tell, the damage done to recording companies through P2P (as opposed to that done by insulting fans and alienating customers) is entirely fictitious, and in the absence of such insult and alienation, P2P seems to actually function as free advertising with a beneficial net effect on sales. Of course, even the members of the MAFIAA don’t charge four-digit figures for access to the content for which they’ve acquired copyrights…

  17. #17 Shigella
    August 14, 2008

    Does someone want to explain to me how shelling out $3270 to a publisher in order to make your work “open access” is not paradoxical in some way? I’ve been trying to get a copy of my paper from a certain biochemistry publication, and they are seriously dragging their feet, hoping I’ll eventually cave and pay for an article that took me over 300 hours to write and edit. They can bite me.

    I’m all in favor of an “underground” PDF file-sharing network among scientists. We could call it “La Resistance.” Or not. Just a thought.

  18. #18 Richard Parker
    August 15, 2008

    Isn’t Elsevier the…ah…’love-child’ of the infamous Robert Maxwell? So what do you expect?

    I am an amateur researcher living in the Philippines, and I can’t afford regular magazine or journal subscriptions. Nor do I have access to any academic library within 3 days voyage.

    On the other hand though, I do, as resident of a Third World country, have free access to PNAS, and I have finagled an American public library ticket that gives me on-line access to a wide range of other journals.

    Many journals allow free access after, say, one year. But some fields are almost entirely monopolised by certain journals. In my case (Pacific archaeology), most ‘classic’ papers appear in Nature, and this journal appeared on my library list for some time, but has (just now when I checked) disappeared again. Must have over-charged the librarian.

    $2730 for a subscription – %&&$!! – it’s being propped up by very established academics who give their contributions free just for the prestige of being published in Nature. I’d call that vanity publishing.

    Better to go over to PLos One.

    There is a ‘samizdat’ – on-line discussion groups can post journal files under the usual ‘correct copyright use’ rules, quite freely.

    So I’ve just joined a couple of nutter groups discussing Lemuria, the fictional sub-Pacific continent. I keep very mum, but I trawl their files sections.

  19. #19 razib
    August 15, 2008

    Actually, no it’s not. The reason is because for some ungodly reason we scientists are willing to torpedo ourselves by continuing to allow those expensive journals such respect. Nature, Science, and other journals’ prices would drop like stones if we simply took out papers elsewhere. But no one wants to be the first to try it.

    …collective action problem….

  20. #20 Barn Owl
    August 15, 2008

    I think those who are just graduating, as commenter Michael describes, are in a worse position than the Prius-owner of Mike’s analogy. Just as many working people in the US cannot afford to buy a new hybrid vehicle, and must make do with their current car (hopefully gas-efficient), or go without a private vehicle entirely, those who are just graduating or making the transition to a faculty position face considerable financial challenges. Professional societies often give substantial registration discounts to students and postdocs, but there are also the travel and cost of staying in a hotel to consider. I think the culture of academia is a bit insane to expect up-and-coming scientists to incur even more debt, beyond that accrued during grad school and postdoctoral years, sometimes simply due to living a very modest or frugal lifestyle in an expensive city.

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 16, 2008

    I’ve played sporadically with writing a short story about the Mafia deciding to get into the lucrative science journal business.

    Somewhere in “Making Light” a couple of years ago, when I suggested this, a clever commenter provided some opening lines of dialogue. Loosely paraphrased:

    “Wait a minute, Rocco. You say that these eggheads pay to have their stuff printed in these science magazine things, and then the companies or colleges where they work turn around and pay a second time to buy them? This is some tax scam, right?”