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.