The Academic Publishing Protection Racket
A reasoned rant by Philip Tagg (2015-11-27 upd. 2016-04-18, 2016-08-31, 2017-07-12)

7bn Profits
‘The dirty secret about academic publishing is that profit motives drive (and restrict)
the production and distribution of knowledge.’ (Gideon Burton)


Most academic publishing is, at least as I’ve known it, a shamelessly parasitic protection racket. Before writing me off as a paranoid mythomaniac for using such emotive language, please take a look at some of the following articles.
  1. Stephen Buryani: ‘Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?’ (The Guardian, ‘long read’, 2017-06-27)
  2. George Monbiot: ‘Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist' (The Guardian, 2011-08-29)
  3. Cory Doctorow: ‘Absurd “academic publishing racket” is past its sell-by date’ (BoingBoing, 2012-04-22)
  4. Coen van Laer: ‘How researchers can protect themselves from the academic journal racket’ (Online Library, Maastricht, 2015-09-17)
  5. Rebecca Schumann: ‘The Bogus Academic Journal Racket Is Officially Out of Control’ (Browbeat, 2014-11-24)
  6. Pablo K: ‘Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons’ (The Disorder of Things, 2011-09-14)
  7. ‘Academic journal publishing reform’ (Wikipedia, n.d.)
  8. Mike Taylor: ‘Academic publishers have become the enemies of science’ (The Guardian, 2012-01-16)
  9. Fred Barbash: ‘Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal’ (Washington Post, 2015-03-27)
  10. Anon: ‘Why I had to quit the research excellence framework panel’ (Times Higher Education Supplement, 2015-11-19)
  11. Decca Aitkenhead: ‘Peter Higgs: “I wouldn't be productive enough for today’s academic system”’ (The Guardian, 2013-12-06)
  12. ‘On academic publishing, bibliometric lists and other random bits’ (TSEpustuksia, 2012-02-10)
  13. ‘Open sesame — When research is funded by the taxpayer or by charities, the results should be available to all without charge’ (The Economist, 2012-04-14)
  14. Alison Flood: ‘Scientists sign petition to boycott academic publisher Elsevier’ (The Guardian, 2012-02-02)
  15. ‘“Publish or perish” leads to fraud and paper bubbles in research’ (Shanghai Daily, 2011-10-10)
  16. ‘Aaron Swartz was right’ by Peter Ludlow (The Chronicle of Higher Education [2012?]) Aaron Swartz’s suicide was a direct result of repressive anti-democratic measures taken by academic publishing racketeers. His ‘act of hacktivism was an act of resistance to a corrupt system that has subverted distribution of the most important product of the academy—knowledge. Until the academy finally rectifies this situation, our best hope is that there will be many more Aaron Swartz-type activists to remind us how unconscionable the current situation is, and how important it is that we change it’.

‘Prestigious’ academic publishing houses like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell make huge profits from hoarding and then selling knowledge. That knowledge is a commodity generated by scholars who, in countries like the UK, make a living thanks to the taxpayer but who receive no remuneration for supplying content to publishers who then sell that content to cash-strapped university libraries at increasingly unaffordable rates, to the scholar’s colleagues and to students who can’t possibly fork out tens of pounds to check out each learned article they need to consult. One counter-argument is of course that ‘prestigious’ academic publishers offer scholars a career boosting service. However, publishers avoid paying not only their content suppliers but also those who, as peer-reviewers, do screening and editing work that under normal circumstances would be the publisher’s responsibility. Worst of all, the big academic publishers do nothing to compensate the public purse that supplied them in the first place with what they sell, while they overcharge publicly funded university libraries and individual scholars for commodities acquired gratis from the public purse. It’s a doubly parasitic activity.


Apart from the taxpayer, who’s fleeced twice by the publishers, two other populations suffer more directly from the racket: young academics and students.

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Young academics understandably believe —or are led to believe— in the ‘publish-or-perish’ doctrine. They think that to progress into an academic career, preferably with (the mirage of) a tenure fought over by countless other ambitious hopefuls, they have to appear in print as often as possible. As Rebecca Schumann notes, it’s in fact much more a matter of ‘publish AND perish’ because most university teachers languish on underpaid short-term contracts, ‘despite publication so frenzied that even Peter Higgs’ (the guy who had a particle named after him) ‘insists he wouldn’t get tenure today’.


As for our students, how can we insist that they check out articles costing them up to £42 a shot? (Rhetorical question, see Monbiot’s article). Since when was access to knowledge permitted only to those who could pay through the nose for it? (Another rhetorical question). That’s in contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights
.

  • §26.1. ‘[H]igher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’
  • §27.1. ‘Everyone has the right freely to... share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’

As if all that weren’t enough to dissuade scholars from giving their work to ‘prestigious’ publishing racketeers, it’s worth remembering that:

  1. It can take years for an article submitted to a learned journal to be published, that is if you’re one of the fortunate few; and that you’ll have to spend a lot of time revising it between peer review and publication.
  2. If you're one of the rejected majority, you’ll have to wait up to a year to learn the fate of your submission and you won’t be given adequate feedback.
  3. If you do receive feedback it can sometimes be very questionable. You can’t find out which reviewer thought what about your submission because they’re all anonymous: you learn nothing but frustration from the experience.
  4. The anonymous peer review procedure is seriously flawed in several ways (see articles 8, 9, 14, above). For example: [i] reviewers have to vet an impossible number of texts (e.g. 75 books and 360 articles in one year) and consequently don’t have time to analyse those texts in detail or provide feedback, let alone do their own teaching and research; [ii] it is open to serious abuse and corruption (see here and here).

In short, unestablished scholars have to try and publish (usually in vain) with recognised, preferably ‘prestigious’, publishing companies or in established ‘prestigious’ journals whose editors and peer reviewers are the (not necessarily reliable) gatekeepers of knowledge which readers can only access by paying sums that are unaffordable to most, especially to those living in nations with unfavourable exchange rates in relation to the €, $, £, etc. The racket is double-sided in that unestablished scholars can’t advance their careers if they don’t publish according to a system based not on equal rights to access knowledge but on the ability to pay for it.

Instead of blandly accepting the undemocratic outsourcing of our knowledge to private enterprise and to their parasitic actions against the public purse, I think that those of us with any academic clout should boycott any publishing venture that is profit based.

We should instead use or create open access, not-for-profit journals of the type suggested in the Wikiversity project. After all, we and our younger colleagues, not the publishers, own the expertise in our specialist areas. Any scholar in our area could subscribe, with name and email address and preferably free of charge, to our journal, post a semi-provisional text and invite comments from any other non-anonymous subscriber (open peer review, so to speak). The text could then, after a given time, be uploaded to the journal as a final version after revision based on comments received.

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Personally, I haven’t submitted anything to any ‘prestigious’ publisher since the mid-1990s without first ensuring that [i] I keep the copyright and [ii] I can put it up on my site so it can be accessed free of charge. My refusal, of course contested by the publishers, was at the time not motivated by a critique of academic publishing but by the necessity of circumventing restrictive interpretations of copyright law (see, for example, ‘Copyright vs. the democratic right to know’ and the background to establishing the Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press). My first ‘rant’ about the academic publishing racket went on line in 2008: ‘Pay-for-knowledge: why? —combatting another obstacle to the free flow of information’. That was after realising that invitations to speak in Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina were partly due to the ability of students in those nations to read my writings for free on line rather than having to pay a week’s wages for access to one or two JStor articles. Since then I’ve also been invited to Chile (2013) and Turkey (2015). Stuff published by ’prestigious’, private ‘first-world’ academic companies are simply out of the question in most parts of the world.

Gross national annual income
per capita in US$ (2015)

Norway
41,941
USA
41,557
UK
30,309
Argentina
13,153
Chile
11,537
Mexico
10,090
Turkey
 7,598

The academic publishing protection racket is a symptom of the underlying fallacy that something as qualitatively complex as the value of research and education is crudely quantifiable. Unidimensional, bipolar scales consisting of numerals —number of publications, the citation index, research rating figures, etc.— are of course like money: they are no more than abstractions of a socially constructed —and easily manipulable exchange value, like the money markets (e.g. data in the right column, above), the stock exchange, and the City of London —world capital of financial piracy. Most managers and bureaucrats seem to imagine that publication figures and citations express the real value of what we do. Both we and our institutions are judged according to those often erroneous criteria.


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Given that the worth of every individual in capitalist society is constantly expressed in terms of wages, contribution to the nation’s GDP, cost as a pensioner or hospital patient, etc., it is, I suppose, no surprise that we all live to some extent under the illusion that our value to society can be crudely assessed in terms of financial asset or liability. How the number of publications or of citations is arrived at, how research assessment figures are generated, and how a senior banker comes to be worth thousands of times more than I ever earned as a full-time senior professor are apparently non-issues. What counts is the outcome of the counting, so to speak. In academic publishing the currency which apparently counts is that of the questionable indicators I’ve mentioned. It lets managers and bureaucrats off the hook because their decisions, they like to believe, are based on ‘facts’ and statistics, not on the context or potential of those ‘facts’ (also facts) but on sloppy thinking about (or complete neglect of) the complexity of real life and on an irrational fear of the unknown, which is what we scholars are supposedly employed to research.

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