George Monbiot
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I tried to ignore it. It deserved to be ignored — an ill-informed activist with academic aspirations using the Guardian as a pulpit to deliver a tiresome sermon filled with intentional misunderstandings, misinformation, and misapprehensions about academic publishing.

It deserved to be ignored.

Predictably, it caught fire in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and on Facebook. And now I feel compelled to jump into the fray. After all, the only coherent response I’ve seen was unfortunately limited to the admirable but necessarily finite accomplishments of Nature Publishing Group.

The author in question is George Monbiot, a sometime-professor with an ability to ignore basic economic realities for the sake of rhetorical extravagance.

His fundamental economic misunderstanding is that price is the defining problem when it comes to the accessibility of scientific information. Monbiot thinks that making scientific information free to readers is all it takes, and that the result will be a magically smarter populace:

Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

Has he read a scientific paper recently? Let’s assume everyone with a beating heart is interested in cardiology topics. Let’s search PubMed for a paper on “cardiac.” Let’s take the first one we find. Let’s read the conclusion from the abstract:

Intrathoracic herniation of the liver (“liver-up”) is associated with predominant left heart hypoplasia in left diaphragmatic hernia but not right fetal diaphragmatic hernia. Our observations indicate that this difference may result from different ductus venosus streaming sites in these conditions.

So my layperson understanding of intrathoracic heart hypoplasia is vital to my ability to function in a democracy and make informed political decisions? I think I sense a herniation just from the stretch that takes to achieve plausibility.

Let’s assume I can read the whole paper. Like 99.9% of the population, I’m not going to know what to make of it. It’s for specialists, or better, subspecialists (cardiologists who specialize in neonates, I suppose). It was published early online, so it’s likely free. Most journals make their content published early online free for a limited time. We have the English abstract, but it’s a German journal. Who paid for that translation, assuming there was one?

Economics have nothing to do with accessibility of this information. Specialty knowledge is a prerequisite, and German language expertise would help.

There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy. And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.

Monbiot claims there’s monopolization going on, yet three entities control only 42% of the market (by his math, 42/3=100).

By my reading, no single entity controls more than 17% of scholarly publishing contracts, as far as I read the figures, and competition is robust for journals contracts. Journals move from house to house, go independent, or subdivide all the time. This is hardly a monopolization. Yet, to Monbiot, a market in which hundreds of not-for-profit publishers, for-profit publishers, academic centers, and confederations compete for editors, authors, audience, cachet, and revenue — well, is it a monopoly because they’re all journals?

Monbiot compares scholarly publishers to Rupert Murdoch. This is a clear misunderstanding of the economics of publishing. Murdoch publishes hundreds of daily newspapers, runs television networks, and owns movie studios. His operation is about scale and reach, about the lowest common denominator. His fixed costs for any particular initiative are spread across tens of thousands, if not millions, of customers. Scholarly publishing has a much smaller possible audience, in some cases numbering in the dozens. It is most assuredly not about the lowest common denominator — sometimes, it feels like it’s about the least common denominator, or drifting in that direction as specialties and disciplines emerge and splinter and subdivide. Publishing materials for small audiences makes spreading the costs down below a certain level impossible, so comparing the two is invalid on many levels.

Yet, despite serving increasingly fragmented and demanding audiences, scaling up new editorial support systems, hiring new editors, knitting together new peer-review networks, and establishing new brands, scholarly publishers have found a way, in partnership with libraries, to make information available at prices Murdoch would never contemplate — because they’re amazingly low on a per-use basis. Yes, site licenses make most resources available per-use for pennies on the dollar, and price increases are negotiated robustly by both parties, usually hovering in the single digits on a percentage point basis. Site licenses have centralized purchasing at large institutions, saving departments thousands in redundant subscriptions, while providing academics with incredible access even while traveling.

But Monbiot seems ignorant of these economic realities — that scholarly articles are available at rock-bottom prices for the specialists who need them, the very core audience who Murdoch would charge the most. He even goes so far as to insinuate that astronomical journal prices account for tuition increases, when in fact the net expenditures of libraries have moved at a fraction of the pace of tuition hikes.

Monbiot swings at everything in his path — lengthy peer-review times are publishers’ fault (actually, peer-review takes time to organize, complete, and move along); publishers add little value (even though, somehow, no meaningful, important science gets published without them — maybe specialized infrastructure, marketing, editing, packaging, typography, archiving, institutional memory, domain expertise, connections, and branding all add value); and big publishers’ sometimes impressive margins (yet the publishers he points to are highly diversified companies, so it’s hard to know how much of their margin comes from academic publishing).

Monbiot is also apparently ignorant of the emerging inverse economics of abundance. That is, there’s so much information available at such low prices, most of it free, that people aren’t motivated to seek it out. The perceived opportunity cost in time in a barrier-free world is too high, so they wait for information to find them. Overcoming this is about more than just making information free.

An echo of the Monbiot rant can be found on Gigaom, where the author wonders when academic publishing will be disrupted. As we’ve discussed here, I believe it’s already been disrupted. Too often, the rhetorical use of “disruption” is meant to refer to the rending of the fabric of an industry, when in fact it’s about finding a new way to knit an industry together to achieve the same ends. Disruption, in the sense Clayton Christensen coined the term, is about achieving the same end product (not some new end product) using more efficient, newer, and leaner methods of manufacturing. So, Honda disrupts Harley Davidson with cheaper motorcycles as it moves upmarket into expensive bikes; Toyota disrupts GM with cheap cars as it moves upmarket with Camrys — either way, consumers still have motorcycles and cars.

Journal publishers have been proactive about adopting new technologies and business models, effectively disrupting themselves, which is what Christensen’s writings urged businesses to do — wise up to this phenomenon and don’t rest on the laurels of the incumbent, but disrupt yourself. So, site licenses, online manuscript and peer-review systems, open access experiments and initiatives, ending or curtailing print editions, supplementary data, video and audio, mobile versions, apps, blogs, and so forth — all this was done knowing full-well the risks they entailed, but it was done, and done proactively.

Ultimately, Monbiot’s essay reads like the ramblings of a Rip Van Winkle, who has dozed under a tree for a decade and woke up to find a memo from 1999 pinned to his shirt, a memo printed on recycled paper retrieved from the garbage can shared at one point by Pat Brown and Harold Varmus.

Monbiot’s portrayal of scholarly publishers, librarians, and scientists is roundly insulting to all. In Monbiot’s eyes, libarians are powerless dupes, scientists are exploited fools, and publishers are “parasitic overlords.” The fact is that librarians are intelligent players in the scholarly space who, working with publishers, have secured excellent, sustainable deals for their constituencies to resources that are almost all online now; scientists are altruistic, pragmatic types who know that prestige, connections, and ideas lead indirectly to professional advancement, so play vital roles willingly in authorship and review because they know the rewards will come; and publishers are the nexus for highly specialized professionals who help other highly specialized professionals craft information for small, exclusive audiences of highly specialized professionals.

To chart a useful course forward, we need accurate information, rational thought, and reasonable plans. Monbiot provides none of these in his inflammatory, off-base, and ultimately unfair rant.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


187 Thoughts on "Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair — The Monbiot Rant"

Monbiot’s arguments are of course open to debate, but I think resorting to ad hominem attacks- “ill-informed activist with academic aspirations”, “a sometime-professor with an ability to ignore basic economic realities”- doesn’t do your critique any favours.

To be ad hominem, arguments have to bring into play unrelated, negative, and personal aspects. These are not unrelated nor negative (“activist,” “academic aspirations,” “sometime-professor”), and the fact that he has an academic pedigree of a sort and is generally an activist has a bearing on his critique. As for “ill-informed” and “ability to ignore basic economic realities,” I stand by those, for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, Monbiot insinuates academic publishers are crooks and parasitic overlords who run scams and rackets. Given the tone and wording of his critique, I can only hope my calling him an activist with academic aspirations and a sometime-professor isn’t too upsetting. As we can all see, he’s very careful about how he portrays others, right?

Questioning his academic pedigree is, in my view, ad hominem, since the strength of his argument does not rest upon his academic record, an argument which (again in my view) you notably fail to address in the post above. I’m also unsure why being an “activist” should count against Monbiot, for the same reason.

You read it as questioning his academic pedigree. I wrote it as a quick summary of his bio. He is sometimes a professor, and he does have academic aspirations.

Ah… The classic dilemma of academic criticism: caught between the value of the argument and the value of the reputation of the arguer. Kent, you certainly come across as judging the man, but in the academic world, it’s hard to judge the content of the argument alone when careers are made on these very arguments.

When someone engages in rhetoric on that scale, it reflects poorly on the messenger, no matter the message. His message unfortunately had few redeeming elements.

Monbiot doesn’t differentiate between the small number of rapacious commercial publishers and the huge number of other, more responsible publishers, which is unfortunate.

But whether you agree with George Monbiot in this instance or not, your attack on his personality is unfair and unwarranted. This may not be his best article, but his writing on many subjects is insightful, well informed and refreshingly clear-sighted. Check out his work on oil, transport and environmental issues, which is both valuable and necessary to ongoing debate. His interview with the IEA for example is seminal.

This is the only writing of his I’ve read, as far as I know. It’s inflammatory, ill-informed, and derivative. As for personal attacks, I attacked his ideas, his ability to present them, and described him with phrases like “sometime-professor” (true, as far as I can tell) and “activist” (also true). Maybe my response has a slightly snarky tone in places, but it’s nothing compared to his.

As an “all-the-time-professor” and scientist, my main activity is to produce and disseminate knowledge. Restricting access to knowledge (particularly publicly-funded scientific knowledge) for monetary gain is one of the most counter-productive (if not unethical) things I can imagine. I find it deeply offensive when someone tells me that the dissemination of my publications must be restricted to some sort of elite, when the reason is that someone who brings no value to the table has to make money along the way.

With the advent of the Internet and word processing, the economics of scientific publishing have been changing drastically. In many fields, there is no need for publishers anymore (let alone commercial, for-profit ones).

I am a computer scientist. The best publications in my field are not only open access, but completely free to the readers *and* to the authors. The best example is the Journal of Machine Learning Research [ ]: its website is hosted at MIT (marginal cost = 0), its reviewing/selection process is performed by peers on a voluntary basis (as with every serious journal), and there is no need for an editorial and production process because it turns out that computer scientists are good with computers: they can actually do the typesetting of their own papers. That’s the way of the future.

There is certainly no need to pay for the outrageous profits of the scientific publishing industry. The example of JMLR shows that there is
no need to pay for publishers at all. The future economics of publishing is that university libraries will no longer pay for access to knowledge: they will fund the dissemination, archiving, and preservation of the productions from their own institution. And the cost will be very small.

I thought that Monbiot’s article was a long-overdue breath of fresh air. It’s Kent’s response that I found offensive, inflammatory, counterproductive, and completely misguided. Kent, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself how you are helping to disseminate knowledge. You are fighting a rear-guard battle, and you are going to lose it. It’s only a matter of time. You might as well find a job in another industry now.

JMLR proves that not all fields are the same. I’m not entirely clear how JMLR is supported, but there is financial and infrastructure support going on, most likely from MIT. The servers are not “marginal cost = 0” — as a computer scientist, you surely understand the 20-25% annual maintenance costs for computer systems (upgrades, repairs, expansion, updates). MIT is probably footing the bill for this. The journal has a 27% acceptance rate, so there is definitely a selection process going on. There is an EIC, a managing editor, and a production editor, all likely paid positions. There is a Webmaster. I think your understanding of JMLR’s financing is only slightly worse than mine — I don’t understand how it’s financed, but I know it’s financed somehow. You seem to believe in fairies.

These “outrageous profits of the scientific publishing industry” as you call them need to be put into context. Your employer — and employers in the higher education sector — have been increasing tuition/fees at a higher rate than publishers have been increasing their prices. And universities did this on a much larger base (hundreds of millions of dollars), so the net cash effect was much greater. They did this while underfunding acquisition to scholarly materials by putting a squeeze on libraries, one that was disproportionate to their increases in spending in other areas.

You should look at yourself in the mirror, and ask why you don’t understand even the most basic financial realities (computers cost money to run, editors get paid, and webmasters get paid), why you don’t understand how JMLR is funded, how much you’ve benefited from tuition/fee increases foisted on students at +395% over the past decade, and why you feel compelled to argue points you haven’t adequately examined (you tell me how JMLR is funded, and you’ll have much better face validity). Higher education may be the next bubble to burst. In that case, we’ll see who’s looking for a new job in a new industry.

Note that while this link leads to a post attempting to rebut, there are unanswered questions for Stuart Scheiber, including:

1. How much has the for-profit he runs off this free journal made in the past year? Where does this money go?
2. Has disclosure to the donors described in the post included information about Scheiber’s for-profit?
3. Why was the non-profit status of JMLR revoked? This usually requires someone to challenge it in addition to not filing the proper paperwork.

Scheiber’s response posits an “efficient” journal. One that has its non-profit status revoked, has incomplete disclosures to donors, and isn’t transparent about its proprietor’s financial interests doesn’t sound “efficient.” Other words come to mind.

You analyse Monbiots sweeping statements, fine and good. Have you got some figures for this please:

“It was published early online, so it’s likely free. Most journals make their content published early online free for a limited time”

“After all, the only coherent response I’ve seen was unfortunately limited to the admirable but necessarily finite accomplishments of Nature Publishing Group.”

I do think kudos are in order for Graham Taylor, who waded into the knee-jerk comments to leave some coherent thoughts about the growth of research output and the value that publishers add.

While Monbiot’s piece perhaps didn’t do justice to all the considerations, I think some of your assertions need examination. For example:

“people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.”

I am one of those who “needs to see those papers” but I can’t always do so because of the subscription structures. I am based in a large institution with excellent journal access but there are still those papers I can’t access without making a request – which costs me a nominal fee, the university library a larger one, and may take a couple of weeks from the time of request to the time of receipt. I was previously based in a small but world class research institute with a finite library budget which meant I was only able to instantly access about 60-70% of what I wanted to read. Never mind the access issues faced by researchers in low and middle income countries…

Furthermore, the idea that researchers will be aware of the information “worth reading” via contacts and word of mouth is a rather outdated view of how researchers handle the available published evidence. For one thing, the outputs of the academic press are on such a scale that it is not possible to keep up with a field by just perusing a few keys journals. For another, in clinical research at least, such an attitude can lead to biased and inaccurate understanding of what ‘best practice’ in a treatment/disease is, something that ‘systematic reviews’ (which require access to a large body of literature) and evidence based medicine have tried to address.

I wonder to what extent the general concept of ‘journals’ will remain relevant? Maybe it’s a generational thing but I don’t read journals, I read papers. I find these via search engines rather than perusing specific publications, and my evidence based medicine training leaves me skeptical of any paper until I’ve critically appraised the contents – so the kudos of a JAMA or Lancet citation only goes so far in terms of predicting a publication’s usefulness. Perhaps we need to get past the silo organisation of published output, though an alternative model is not immediately obvious, as even the open access channels are largely reliant on specialised branding, and there are some features of the current organisational system that are desirable.

Undoubtedly Monbiot does over-egg the pudding somewhat and there are many ‘good’ publishers. I also agree that many (most) journal articles are very very specialist and may not be easily understandable. Nonetheless, I do feel that there is a lot of research about matters of public interest (yes, including climate change) that whilst very technical deserved to be accessed by the wider general public; there is a large constituency of people outside academia who have the necessary technical skills and understanding to be able adequately understand these articles, and crucially, may have more time and greater ability to interpret/translate this research into a more popular idiom than the academics do. I also believe fundamentally that as much academic research (whether in sciences, humanities or social sciences) is tax-payer funded (either through direct support for universities or chanelled via Research Councils and other funding bodies) there is a strong arguement that it should be widely and cheaply (not necessarily freely) available. My own field, archaeology, is obviously not a hot-button topic like climate change research, but it is increasingly hard for amateurs (of which there is a significant number) to carry out there own research in this field due to basic problems in accessing academic research papers. Will this is lead to the end of archaeology and/or civilisation? Of course not, but it is a real shame that on-going dialogues and co-operation between academics and the public they serve is being hampered by the ever rising cost of accessing basic data. Personally, I’d like to see funding bodies and research councils demanding that the research they fund is available in some form via an open access source. Perhaps the bigger underlying problem here is that the demands of a clearly ‘high-profile’ publication record to obtain tenure or to meet the demands of the Research Excellence Framework (here in the UK) many researchers who would be quite happy for their work to be far more widely diseminated via Open Access resources are pressured to channel their publications through the traditional journals.

There is a simple solution to the problem you note: funders should require submission of reports on the research done, and these should be made available OA by the funding body. But these reports may be quite different from articles published in professional journals, where value is added by publishers. There is no reason to make the latter OA if the former is OA, and the former is all that is needed to satisfy tax-payer needs.

Unfortunately NSF does not make is reports public. This is a huge hole in the US system.

“And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.”

This piece of rhetoric (as biased and unbalanced as Monbiot’s original piece) makes a lot of bold and uninformed assumptions of its own about scientists. Yes, most UK scientists work in institutes that can afford to pay for access to every journal they need and attend several conferences a year. But what about scientists in Eastern Europe, in India? Researchers every bit as clever and capable as Western ones are constantly held back by lack of access to the articles they need.

Before you argue that publishers and other organisations work to offer free articles to developing countries, be aware that there are many countries that fall into the unfortunate middle ground – the country is not low enough on the index to merit such help, but the institutes and scientists still suffer from a shameful lack of resources.

Expecting a clear and balanced argument from the Society for Scholarly Publishing on this matter is like expecting balanced advice on public spending from the Taxpayers Alliance, or health advice from the tobacco industry.

Normally I would regard your position that journals are a worthless racket as simply silly, but this is what some folks call the silly (election) season in the USA. Monbiot clearly speaks for a constituency, one which either does not understand the role journals play or does not care. The policy fight may be on. Publishers should pay attention, at least to the point of pricing author pays systems.Journals will not be outlawed but open access may well be mandated.

I have published well over a hundred papers in refereed academic journals and that’s quite enough for me to have learned what a waste of time and money they are. It’s largely those who have a vested interest who are defending the status quo.

You can regard this position as silly if you like, but the arrival of the internet has made the traditional model of the academic journal completely redundant. Virtually every researcher that I’ve spoken to in my field agrees that these journals are a complete rip-off

Is this a joke?

His name is findable practically instantly on visiting his blog. He’s not keeping it secret.

Kent, I like blogs which assign “Anonymous coward” to anyone not using their real name. (Not suggesting telescoper is!)

My name is Peter Coles, as you would have discovered very easily had you clicked on my blog link.

There was/is no blog link, only an email address in comments. So, my choice was to either hold your comment until I emailed you and heard back, and even then, I’d have needed to mess with your comments, or publish your comment and note that you were publishing under a pseudonym. Nice to meet you, Peter. Thanks for clearing this up.

(And for those who complained that I should have looked this up for Peter and so forth, I have no such obligation. It’s up to each person to be responsible for themselves.)

You were provided with a direct link to his (well known) blog, Kent, if that is your real name.

I was not provided with a direct link, only an email address. His blog may be well-known to you, but I’ve never heard of it.

My real name can be found on this comment. That’s normal, accountable, and transparent. That’s what I asked for, Cameron. What’s so offensive or unreasonable about asking someone who argues with you to identify themselves? He’s an adult. He can state his full name, and since has.

I’m still a bit astonished that you couldn’t see the blog link in the comment – admittedly there’s no link in his *second* comment.

I don’t think it’s terribly unreasonable to think if you wanted his real name (rather than his equally useful pseudonym which directs the savvy user not only to his blog but his Twitter stream as well) that you might want to click a link, especially when part of this argument seems to expect that someone wanting a paper who can’t afford the high fees charged by a journal should go to the much greater trouble to track down and email the author and that the author should then go to the trouble to send anyone asking in such a way a copy of the paper – hardly efficient compared to simply providing the paper on the web for free.

Go back to my original comment (number 8 if you can’t find it) and you will find a link to a blog article on this topic.

I found it. I look at the identity area of comments for identity, not in the body of the comments. My urging to use your real name stands. That’s where people expect to see it, and that’s where you should put it. Why are you using a pseudonym?

As a matter of fact I posted on your blog directly from my own WordPress account, my username there is Telescoper and wordpress automatically posted the comment under that name, as it has done every time subsequently.

Telescoper, yours is basically an argument from ignorance. You can’t think of what journals do so they should not exist. (This has nothing to do with open access, etc.) That you have been so active in the journal system makes this ignorance especially interesting. I suggest you think harder. (Note too that the Internet arrived 40 years ago or so.)

The journal system collects and ranks research results by importance. If you have a computer algorithm that does this as well as the journal system we would all like to see it. I myself am trying to develop one. Of course it is easy if we wait for citations to develop but the journal system does the ranking in real time.

You say that “The journal system collects and ranks research by importance.” I say “No it doesn’t”, at least not in my field. The papers I write go straight on the arXiv and their importance (or lack of it) is measured by citations from that point. Most people in my field read papers from the arXiv, not from journals, so where the paper eventually ends up is entirely irrelevant. Of course those who actually make their living from the academic journal racket will carry on trying to pretend that they do a useful job and aren’t just profiteering. But then that’s what vested interests do, isn’t it?

I must say that “parasitic overlord” has a certain self contradictory elegance to it. In fact the medium of inflammatory exaggeration may be the message. This is a policy fight so economics may be irrelevant, compared to rhetoric. Most research is government funded and if the governments opt for open access they can do that. Governments often restructure industries much bigger than scholarly publishing. Publishers need to mobilize the author community, if they can. This is clearly a political movement in progress. Action is called for.

I think Monbiot looks rather dashing in the image you posted of him, so I guess that’s doing some credit to him.

“So my layperson understanding of intrathoracic heart hypoplasia is vital to my ability to function in a democracy and make informed political decisions? I think I sense a herniation just from the stretch that takes to achieve plausibility.”

That depends if someone in office is making a claim, using evidence from the published paper, to support a change in policy, law or funding. If intrathoracic herniation of the liver is described as causing heart attacks and a motion tabled on that (entirely incorrect) evidence, then it is something the public should really know. If the public cannot access that paper, that is impeding the ability for the public to make informed political decisions. You seem to think that the only people who want to read scientific papers are other scientists – not so, and that is rather the crux of Monbiot’s argument. Journals and journal publishing are okay for most scientists at large institutions but not for anyone else. An overhaul to allow greater access to the public can only be a public service. More access to credible information is inherently a good thing.

Most research published in journals is niche, preliminary, incremental, and specialized. I believe you’re romanticizing science and denigrating scientific publishing. Monbiot could have just as easily written an article lauding scholarly publishers, scientists, and librarians for vastly increasing access to the literature over the past decade, willingly feeding and enhancing large services that make it easier to find and retrieve information, providing access to low-income countries in ways impossible 10-15 years ago, expanding the amount of science published while increasing its reach, and migrating in a cost-effective manner to online business models. But, instead, he went into attack mode on recycled complaints that just don’t hold up.

It’s the fact that most journal-published research *is* incremental and specialised that means researchers and policy makers need access to a large quantity of it from a wide range of sources in order to be able to develop well informed positions from which to derive policy or new avenues for research. If those articles are distributed across a large number of subscription only journals, access can be problematic outside of large, well funded institutions.

I’m not going to comment on the extent to which the general public wishes to access original source material, and the extent to which it can be understood by the layperson, but the current system does present barriers and difficulties to researchers that actually produce material in the first place. Access has vastly improved as you point out, but the system still doesn’t work completely for primary and secondary consumers, even leaving aside access for the general public.

This is a comment I added to discussion of Monblot’s article that took place on an ALA listserv (I didn’t know that he was a scholar himself):

“Uh, what does this journalist mean by “perpetual copyright”? In the UK, I believe, copyright lasts for 70 years past the author’s death. That is also the term now in the U.S. How is that “perpetual”? In the U.S., moreover, there is a provision in the law for any author to terminate a transfer of copyright well before the work would fall into the public domain. Sec. 203 of the law reads in part:

(3) Termination of the grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier.”

We could debate the pros and cons of OA vs non OA publishing as much as we want. Even ‘free’ which is what Mr Monbiot is possibly advocating.That’s absolutely fine. I’d be happy to. But let’s respect the rules of a discussion. This is my problem with the Monbiot article. He equated the industry I work in, indeed, he equated the organisation I work for with:

Exhibit A: Robert Maxwell, who is described by Mr Monbiot as “One of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country”. Think about that statement for a minute.

Exhibit B: Rubert Murdoch (aka Newscorp, aka hacking phones of murdered teenagers). Think about that for a minute.

That is a prima fascia case of demagoguery right there.

And he called my industry/my organisation/me a “parasitic overlord”. That’s namecalling that is. It’s the lowest form of argument (just below ad hominem).

Now some have questioned Kent’s description of Mr Monbiot. I think he was perfectly entitled to describe him as an activist, because he is. I think he was perfectly entitled to describe him as a sometimes-professor, because that’s also factually correct. Kent even provided a link (and so will I: Read his own description.

Unlike Kent, I have read a number of Mr Monbiot’s articles. In my opinion, all too often he resorts to framing his argument on whatever topic using exactly the same tools he decries others for using. That’s my opinion, you may disagree (here’s a link to help you in your assesment:

And that’s the point isn’t it. The Monbiot article did absolutely nothing to enlighten the reader, move the debate forward or introduce any new ideas. It was deliberately and cynically constructed to inflame opinion. To stop people from empathising with other pojnts of view even if they disagree. Right at the very end, there was the rallying cry to pick up the pitch forks and do away with people. If you are an OA supporter, is “Kill ‘Em All!” really where you want to pitch the argument? How about “Let’s build a better business! For Scholars! For All of Us!”.

Kent, you make some good points, but it seems to me that you miss the essence of Monbiont’s argument: The public pays for research to be conducted, and publishers receive the efforts of those researchers for free and repackage it, selling it for a profit back to many institutions that are themselves publicly-funded. And let’s face it: Journal prices, contrary to economic theories, never go down. $10,000 for an annual subscription is hard to justify.

While price tags like $10,000 are optically challenging, usage and reshelving data have repeatedly shown that on a per-use basis, these journals are good value for the money. Consider that for a moment. There are so many scientists getting so much access even at that price that it’s a good value. The journal that started all this had a price of about $15,000 a year about a decade ago, and the reaction was basically shock and mockery. Usage data emerged later, showing that it was a very good value at that price, so the publisher had priced it fairly.

This is an area chock full of rhetoric. Facts often get buried or ignored. That’s too bad, especially given the fact that we’re debating scientific publishing, and we should care about evidence. Monbiot doesn’t really care about evidence in the essay he wrote. He cultivates a divisive, tired, and inflammatory rhetoric. That’s not helpful, and not reflective of reality.

The public pays for research. The public doesn’t pay for research report publication and all it entails. Let’s look at the bright side for a moment. In China, the public pays for research, yet most of the reports are troubled for a variety of reasons. The value of third-party, reader-oriented sources of judgment alone is vital to the culture of Western science. Then we get into all the other value provided. And, while continuing to ramp up vigilance on conflicts of interest, trial design, and ethics, publishers have supported the emergence of new fields, expanded access in major ways, and made access generally cheaper and more efficient. The public benefits from having information that isn’t straight from the researchers. It needs to be filtered, probed, improved, and polished. Look around the world. Where does anything but that work reliably?

WMR, I don’t see that you have explained the essence of Monbiot’s argument, or even that there is one. If we switch to author pays somebody is still paying. My understanding is that this is a $6 billion/year industry, or some such. The fact that somebody paid for the research is irrelevant. The only question is who is going to pay for the publication? Subscription prices are not a measure of the problem, they are just the issue. These costs are not going away. If you don’t like profit, on ideological grounds, then you can nationalize the industry, but the costs are still there.

Or you can wave the magic internet wand and say we don’t need this industry any more. But how do you make that actually happen? Outlaw journals? I think not.

1. The taxpayer (directly or indirectly) certainly shouldn’t pay for the outrageous profits of the commercial scientific publication industry.

2. In my field (computer science) one of the most prominent journals is entirely free and open access (Journal of Machine Learning Research). No-one needs to “pay for publication” because publication costs are almost exactly zero. The journal’s website is hosted at MIT (marginal cost = 0), the reviewing work is done by peers (who are volunteers, as usual), and there is no editorial work to be done because computer scientists are good enough with computers to do the typesetting of their own papers.

3. Why would a climate change denier, and advisor of the defunct “greening earth society” (funded by the coal industry) like David Wojick defend commercial scientific publishing?

As noted elsewhere in a reply to this person’s other comment along these lines: 1) that’s not the argument, it’s that taxpayers should have access to research reports, and they mostly do, especially after 6 months; 2) JMLR most certainly does not have publication costs that are almost exactly zero — this person doesn’t understand how JMLR is funded (nor do I), but at least I understand that JMLR’s EIC, managing editor, production editor, and webmaster are most likely paid somehow, and that servers and software do cost money; and 3) oh please, that’s not even an argument or serious question, and it doesn’t deserve a response — at least not until you demonstrate you have even a basic understanding of how computer science journals are financed (or appreciation THAT they’re financed).

I read this post, and had a few questions for Stuart Schieber, which I tried to post on his blog, but the comment was moderated out of existence. Here are my questions:

1. Shieber is running Microtome Publishing, which looks like a for-profit endeavor all his own, using papers for JMLR to create printed tomes he sells at increasing prices. I wanted to know a) how much Microtome made in 2011; b) what his margins were in 2011; c) where the money went; and d) if people donating to support JMLR know that a for-profit personal company is being run by Shieber on the side?

2. Are the people who are donating to JMLR able to write-off their donations as tax-exempt? If so, why did JMLR have its non-profit/charitable status revoked?

3. How are the listed staff editors being compensated by their institutions?

I have no answers from Shieber because I assume he read my comment and decided to erase it rather than publish it and respond.

I don’t see how my views on climate science play in here, but I can’t resist the irony of pointing out that Greening Earth was funded by non-profit rural electric cooperatives. American industry has always been beset by people like you so I am kept busy. Scholarly publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry which you seem to wish away. Good luck with that (just kidding).

“So my layperson understanding of intrathoracic heart hypoplasia is vital to my ability to function in a democracy and make informed political decisions?”

No. But not every journal is related to cardiology is it? or even science? I’d say that people’s understanding of economics, politics, culture, environmental science, sociology etc… are pretty vital to making informed decisions and functioning in a democracy and yet academic publishers of journals which bring out research in these areas charge extortionate amounts for both institutional subscription and individual access.

The argument that “what people can’t understand, is not important for them to have access to” (which, forgive me if you’re not, but sounds like what you’re saying there) may hold for Neurosurgery, Astro-physics etc.. in a few cases but otherwise it’s just disingenuous.

It’s not disingenuous, it’s realistic. The fragmentation of professional roles and domains has been going on for centuries, and has accelerated as information has become more stable and available. In the past few decades, major new fields have emerged, and many fields we’re only barely aware of even in scientific publishing. Do you really think it’s important for me to have access to the latest gel phosphoresis research? Realistically, I don’t have the time, knowledge, position, or skills to make anything of it. When and if I ever have reason to know it, I’m likely going to need a sherpa or translator or guide. It’s arrogance to think otherwise.

As for your allegations that publishers charge “extortionate” amounts, a) there is no extortion involved, so that’s unfair; and b) on a per-use basis, access is generally quite cheap, which only shows you how many working scientists rely on these information resources and use them.

Charging $30-40 per PDF article makes publishers an easy target. It is my understanding that some publishers are considering an i-Tunes model, renting articles for a dollar or so.

This is already in place with DeepDyve (, though so far, from the reports I’ve heard from journals that have partnered with them, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for article rentals.

Sandy: Copyright is “perpetual” in the sense that every time works are close to entering the public domain, the duration of copyright gets increased. Google “mickey mouse law” for more details. It’s also worth noting that life plus seventy years is a completely ridiculous duration in the first place – a fixed length of twenty or thirty years would be more than enough to incentivise the creation of new works.

Kent: You are completely misrepresenting Monbiot’s monopoly argument. The point is not that all journals are owned by a few people. The point is that all /prestigious/ journals, in which academics are forced to publish in order to advance their careers, are owned by a few people. And considering the actual writing, peer-reviewing, and in many cases editing are done for free, these people add very little to the process besides the name.

And while the majority of the population might not benefit directly from free access to scientific papers, I’d be amazed if there were no positive side-effects from allowing (e.g.) science journalists free access.

You also quietly ignore his point about obscene profit margins (36% for Elsevier!) even as you talk about the costs involved – I wonder why?

“The point is that all /prestigious/ journals, in which academics are forced to publish in order to advance their careers, are owned by a few people.”

I think this is an important point & I’m surprised it’s not discussed more. Who exactly is “forcing” academics to publish in specific journals to advance their careers? It’s not the publishers. The reward system which academia has set up (publish in a journal with an Impact Factor of greater then X if you want a promotion or tenure) seems to me to be a big part of the problem. The research/work is not being rewarded on it’s own merit. WHO you publish with has become more important than WHAT you’re actually publishing. If Academia ever changes their own system then publishers, both OA & subscription-based, will be forced to adjust. I put this forth as someone who is admittedly NOT an academic or an expert on the system. So feel free to correct me if needed. I defer to others who are experts in this field on this point.

Also, all the repetitive talk about how reviewers & editors do “all the work” for “free” seems a bit inaccurate IMO. Many editors do get paid, although usually not that much, and there are other rewards reviewers/editors get from participating in the process.

It’s hot in the kitchen today!

Many journals survey their authors. Most authors think the journal review, editing, and publishing process improves their papers significantly.

I can imagine that being true actually. But are there numbers/studies to back that up?

I think many not-for-profit publishers would be surprised to learn that their journals are apparently not “prestigious” and fail to contribute to the career advancement of their authors.

Monbiot’s piece is naive and a bit over the top. That said, to state “The fact is that librarians are intelligent players in the scholarly space who, working with publishers, have secured excellent, sustainable deals for their constituencies to resources that are almost all online now” is a bit over the top in the other direction. I’ve spent my career in academic and research libraries, and I don’t know a single librarian who thinks the deals they are currently in with the major STM publishers are sustainable, let alone excellent.

I suggest anyone who’s seriously interested in this issue should take a look
at – this is a free, open-access repository of research papers. It’s run on a tiny budget, but it’s the primary source of research papers in astrophysics and many other fields. It’s not perfect, but it’s the future.

Unfortunately, arXiv has been looking for a sustainable funding solution for years. If it’s the future, it needs a clearer path to sustainability.

One could argue that what is good for the advancement of science and what is sustainable are mutually exclusive. And research itself would scarcely be sustainable without tremendous subsidizing from government. Does this mean that we should cut research and other endeavors, which advance society, if it is not self-sustaining? Obviously not. Perhaps one day we will properly subsidize OA, as some things should be promoted regardless of a lasting business model in place.

That said, OA has had but a mere decade+ to find its business model, whereas non-OA has had three+ centuries to refine theirs.

It’s interesting that OA advocates believe open access (author-pays or funder-pays) is less expensive than subscription publishing. PLoS, for instance, not only charges authors, but charges institutions when they can. They’ve had to hybridize their business model. It has been interesting to watch it evolve. And, as you note, it will continue to evolve.

Research grants are competitive, and not all get funded. Those that seem more likely to deliver something are more likely to get funded. So, in essence, it has to be sustainable, as well.

A few years ago I considered starting my own OA publishing company. I worked on the plan over & over, crunched the numbers & in the end gave up on the idea because I did not see any realistic way I could survive financially. Kudos to those who have figured out how to get started & sustain their model.

The arXiv seems to be finding a sustainable solution by becoming so indispensable to researchers that use it. Could one not equally argue that the fact this discussion is taking place indicates that traditional publishing can no longer depend upon long term funding into the future?


I’m interested in your comment: “In my field – astrophysics – journals add next to nothing in value and all articles are made freely available on the arXiv anyway”.

If your comment is accurate then why, why, why (!) do astrophysics journals remain viable and highly profitable for commercial and society publishers?

It can’t be “monopoly” forces because, as you point out, many of the journal articles are already freely available on arXiv.

Any comments on this paradox? Richard.

Wiping the flecks of foam from my shirt after reading Anderson’s sputtering rant, it just reminds me why SSP and SK have become so very tiresome. Anyone who advocates for a more open scholarly environment is immediately branded as an ill-informed, ignorant, stupid, pestilential socialist what should have his face sawn off. This isn’t advancing an argument any better than Monbiot does. There’s enough pedantry on the web already.

I have to say, I admire a man who can accuse another of a rant while at the same time using sentences like “ill-informed, ignorant, stupid, pestilential socialist what should have his face sawn off.”

The SK is a group of individual authors, many of whom advocate open access as one future path for scholarly publishing. We actively disagree with each other, for all to see. My response to Monbiot didn’t denigrate open access or argue against a more open scholarly environment at all. In fact, if you read my responses to comments, one complaint implicit is that Monbiot chose to rehash and attack, rather than taking a clear-eyed look at all the advances that have been made in pricing, access, and availability of scholarly materials. One thing we’re proud of here is that we do maintain a healthy skepticism, and working in the industry with a lot of connections and colleagues, we at least feel (and always seek to improve upon) some knowledge and experience, well-earned. Are you for a scholarly publishing environment without conflict of interest disclosures? Where companies can flood journals or repositories with favorable studies? Where authors can endlessly pump their pet theories out ad nauseum? I doubt it. But without objective third-party evaluation providing some objective offset, that’s likely the publishing environment that would emerge pretty quickly.

Please resist the urge to paint us with a broad brush. There’s enough polarization on the Web already.

Monbiot’s essay reads like the ramblings of a Rip Van Winkle, who has dozed under a tree for a decade and woke up to find a memo from 1999 pinned to his shirt, a memo printed on recycled paper retrieved from the garbage can shared at one point by Pat Brown and Harold Varmus.

Monbiot’s argument is not new. As I report in a 2009 article, the structure is found in almost every open access advocacy piece. Such structures are called “Collective Action Frames,” and they contain 3 essential pieces:

1) Moral outrage (i.e. Being in the business of information is wrong)
2) Identity (The “us” versus “them” with “us” being the victim)
3) Agency (A way to channel your outrage; a form of social action)

The only thing novel in the Monbiot essay is the strength of the language.

I would consider myself as “being in the business of information”, yet I am an open access advocate. How does this affect point 1 of your argument above?

I don’t mind the tone of this post, I know from experience the disinformation methods used by Monbiot and others against whatever they wake deciding to be against that day. I don’t accept that all is OK with academic publishing though.

a) Library subscription charges of around $10,000 may be acceptable given the availability to many thousands of individuals, including the online versions – but the subs should be made available at much lower charges to developing countries, maybe they are I don’t know

b) paying something is also acceptable, someone has to pay. Open access is funded by the authors charge

c) I don’t find it acceptable though to have to pay $35 for access to a single article. Usually when I cannot get access I email the author and about 80% of the time I get a quick reply. Sometimes though I get an email saying “sorry the publisher specifically forbids me from distributing a pdf copy of my article”! That is a terrible restriction, thankfully largely ignored

Apart from the very top rank journals (Nature, Science, Cell, etc) there are plenty of highly rated open access journals (PLoS etc) so it is up to us to act and reduce the power of the commercial publishers if we want to

As for keeping this debate fact based, which Dr Anderson calls for I would still like some facts to support this statement:

“It was published early online, so it’s likely free. Most journals make their content published early online free for a limited time”

I don’t have the figures but that’s not my experience at all

From this incoherent rant I conclude that you agree that Monbiot is right, and you don’t like it.

The only coherent argument seems to be not about the economics, but that lay people don’t need to read research papers so it doesn’t matter what you charge.

I’m a scientifically-educated person (PhD) with no academic affiliation and I find paywalls (typically over 30 quid an article) everywhere I look trying to follow up matters where I’d like to check what I read in the the press or blogs.

That’s a poor conclusion.

Remember, in addition to libraries, you can also request articles from their authors. In many cases, they’ll be happy to oblige. And, as an educated person, you know the difference between anecdotes and data. Your story is an anecdote. According to the data, more than 97% of journal articles are easily or very easily accessible to people in the Western world, studies have found. Since you pay with quid, I assume you’re in that group.

Thanks for hosting an interesting discussion.

Your 97% figure is, I presume, based on the article you linked to earlier (

If so, then what it actually shows is that most journal articles are easily or very easily accessible to academics in the Western world. Page 2 explains “…this study addressed the most important core users, i.e. those researchers who also publish their research in peer reviewed journals”

Resorting to cost per use as an argument for why academic journals are affordable and a good value is a specious argument, regardless of how often that argument is repeated. Let’s use growth in computing power as our analogy. Computer power from 1940 to 2002 increased by a factor of 75 billion while the cost of computers declined sharply . Personal computer prices have fallen over long periods of time while processing power was increasing at rates correlated with Moore’s Law. No one would argue that because computing power has dramatically increased, computer prices should not have come down. I realize that the cost of manufacturing physical devices and the cost of producing scholarly output that is largely dependent on skilled human labor are not exactly comparable, but the fact remains that unit gains are neither a substitute for nor necessarily incompatible with a reduction in real costs. Given the unsustainability of an ever-expanding amount of scholarly output, we need to find ways to either radically lower the cost of production, redistribute the cost of the system over a larger and more diverse set of players (which is achievable through various approaches to open access), or limit the growth of scholarly publishing – or some combination of all three. Given the public good aspects of open access, and the opportunity it offers to deploy research funding (which has been shown to be correlated with research output) toward the cost of publication, an evolution toward open access publishing, at least in some domains, would seem to be the preferred route if we can just figure it out.

Also to the monopoly issue:

>a market in which hundreds of not-for-profit publishers, for-profit publishers, >academic centers, and confederations compete for editors, authors, audience, >cachet, and revenue […]

This is a market between publishers and authors, but as everyone knows, the journals monopoly is between publishers and libraries. The fierce market for authors is another reason why publication-side funding may contribute to a healthier (or at least a more price-sensitive) market.

In any event, let’s put to bed once and for all the canard that declining cost-per-use is making the journal literature more affordable.

You list the very reasons why your analogy fails — you can’t compare manufacturing processes with human work processes. Moore’s Law stands out because it’s so unique, which makes your comparison even wilder — it’s amazing that computing power doubles so often, a truly unique phenomenon. Meanwhile, scholarly publishing has become more burdened in many ways — more conflict of interest requirements, more supplementary data to handle, more papers, more disciplines, more journals, more versions, more corrections, more authors, more papers, more reviewers, more editors.

None of this explains why cost-per-use is a “canard.” What other measure would you propose? Cost per article published? So, even if the literature isn’t used, like so much OA literature (no data here, just speculating — my spot-checking of PLoS ONE indicates there’s generally low usage per article), then that’s OK? Isn’t the point to have scientific materials USED?! How in the world can a per-use measure be a canard? I think you’re completely off-base, and arguing against a useful scientific literature.

My argument was that cost-per-use is not a measure of affordability — which it is routinely trotted out to be. I was not arguing that usage measures are not meaningful. Relative usage — this is highly used, this is used more than that, this is very little used at all — as well as comparative cost-per-use measures — this content is costlier on a per-use basis than that content — are very useful indicators (although in the evaluation scheme that CDL employs, these are only two measures among several that we use to determine which journals to retain or cancel). Generally declining cost-per-use rates have everything to do with the evolution of technology, tools, and behavior, and little or nothing to do with the affordability of an ever-growing amount of scientific and other research literature. They are a reflection of usage going up, not of costs coming down. Let me explain it another way: the population of my institution is relatively finite, and my users don’t pay for their use; so increased usage doesn’t allow me to spread my costs more widely, and a resultant decline in per-use cost does not help my wallet. Of course if we were able to radically lower the cost of the literature, then cost-per-use should also be lower – but that would be because absolute costs have come down, not because usage has risen. So in other words cost-per-use only partially correlates with absolute cost and is not a proxy for it. This is why I called it a canard with respect to the institutional affordability question.

But if usage is up, isn’t that good relative to reliance on evidence to answer questions, the purpose of scholarship, and so forth? I can’t help but think you’re focusing on costs at the expense of higher ideals. What if nobody used the literature at your institution, to argue the absurd? Then you could cancel everything, your costs would fall to zero, and that would be . . . good? bad? Which direction do you want usage to go in?

Basic academic publishing in journals seems to be over-complex and over costly.

There is absolutely no need to publish in paper form, electronic publishing is far more effective, increasing availability and extending reach, whereas paper publishing is costly and restrictive.

The main issue that publishers need to deal with is to ensure that the articles are properly peer reviewed, avoiding the Wikipaedia problem. Peer reviwers in Journals are not ofte paid – so minimum expense there!

Renting space on a server, sufficient to store over 100,000 pdf files would cost only a few hundred pounds a year.

There are relativly low cost alogorithms avalaiblle to aid searching and indexing. The thing could be run by a staff of 3 or 4 people.

Big publishers rely on big name journals, and charge big name prices, it is all about branding – but there is another way. It seems Kent Anderson is the dinosaur here not Monobiot, or he may simply be acting as an apologist for the publishers, one might think he had a vested interest.

I’m not exactly on the side of the publishers on this one, but it’s naive to think you could manage with a few hundred pounds/year of server plus a few staff. Have you seen the operating costs of the arXiv?
A good alternative solution is not that trivially achieved.

Nor is arXiv an alternative to the journal system. A grand database of everything anyone wants to send in is not an alternative.The journal system selects articles by topic and then ranks them by importance (via rejection). At this point in time there is no alternative. The problem is that people do not understand what journals do.

I’m with you there (partly, I don’t think there’s as much ranking as you imply but there’s some added value for sure). I think we both agree with what I was trying to say – that the answer is by no means easy. I didn’t mean to imply that the arXiv is as it stands a solution, only that as a relatively straightforward database its costs are still considerable.

I don’t have a good answer for all this anyway, and wouldn’t like anyone to think I did.

I can’t speak for other journals, but at mine the cost of print pales in comparison to the rest of our expenses. We’re a non-profit, working on small salaries and lots of volunteerism. We pay for the electronic peer-review system, for the online hosting of the published papers, for the technical copyediting and layout, for the time it takes to run the peer-review, for the time it takes to prep the papers for publication, etc. Never mind everything else that any business or non-profit is responsible for – taxes, contracts, accounting, administration…
Those of us involved in the journal could make far more money doing something else with our time, but instead we choose to contribute to the advancement of science and sharing of knowledge.
I resent the huge publishing conglomerates as much as anyone, but I’m also insulted by those who think scholarly publishing is easy, cheap, or simple. Even charitable volunteer organizations have costs.

If this bit is true from Monbiot’s piece then the cost of journals is too high – 36% profit isn’t justified

“The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn)”

Three points to consider:

1) as noted in the article above, Elsevier is a diversified company, and it is unclear what percentage of the profits come from their academic journal publishing efforts.

2) Not every publisher is Elsevier, and their profit margin is likely different from smaller university presses and not-for-profits.

3) If profit needs to be cut from the system, then perhaps one should take a hard look at PLoS ONE, which is said to be generating enormous profits (enough to find PLoS’ entire publishing program) and inspiring countless other publishers to create copycat journals.

1. OK I don’t know either
2. information would be useful
3. For me there is nothing wrong with profit as long as it is not excessive especially when dealing with dissemination of publicly funded research

If that is true about PLoS ONE then that is excellent – using profits to fund the rest of the operation which is providing extremely high quality open access articles

The information about profits of the 3 major publishers is important – how much do they make and is there really a reason to look into them from a monopoly or cartel point of view

This whole debate is pretty short on information

So, if an open access publisher makes a large profit, that’s great because it supports dissemination of more publicly funded research by charging the public for it in a way that’s hidden from the public (grants bulked up for publication charges, academic institution support from special funds extracted from the library, and the like)? I think the monetary flows are a little more nuanced than most of these arguments allow. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Elsevier is a publicly traded company. The vast majority of its profits go to shareholders. Shareholders are mostly individual taxpayers. By your logic, then, reducing the profitability of a company effectively funded by taxpayers (as investors) could be just as financially costly to them as charging taxpayers for access to research they’ve paid for. After all, either way, you’re taking money away from taxpayers. And, in either case, you just don’t know which ones your policy is affecting, and you can’t measure the fairness of the approach. Did the person paying for that Elsevier article also get a dividend from owning Elsevier stock, making the article effectively free to them? Did the person getting the PLoS article for free not actually pay taxes to the government that funded the research, making them effectively freeloaders? Specific examples like this make me wonder if the surpluses generated by the likes of PLoS ONE are any more righteous or pure than profits generated by Elsevier. At least Elsevier is accountable, heavily regulated, and forced to publish detailed financial statements. And at least they share their profits with taxpayers (shareholders). PLoS has no such obligations.

If Elsevier is making a 36% profit margin off its journals business, that’s good news for potential disruptors. It means there’s a lot of room for pricing advantages to carve away business, if your conjecture is correct that this means journals prices are too high.

There are many dynamics going on simultaneously, including rapid growth in STM information needs outside the US and Western Europe, leading to enormous growth potential for companies like Elsevier, WK, and other large players; growth and expansion of US and European research programs (until very recently); more researchers, physicians, and PhDs than ever; and more information (papers, books, videos, etc.) seeking legitimate venues. Most journals are turning away MORE papers than ever before, not scooping up dregs. Both supply and demand are increasing. The Matthew Effect, which we’ve written about here, and against which many non-profit publishers and their allies have worked hard to limit, is in effect to some degree. However, most highly prestigious journals are run by non-profits.

Oh come on you must know very well that very high prices are possible because libraries HAVE to subscribe to the top journals – disruption is not a possibility at least not in the short term. PLoS is doing well but it has taken years to get where it is and the Elseviers etc are healthier than ever.

Like in any other case, like airlines on major Atlantic routes, if there is a small group that controls the majority of the business and are making excessive profits, it suggests that some investigation of monopoly or cartels practices is needed.

So the question is, are the profits excessive? Supply, demand, other non-profits are just irrelevant

Wrong. These are very relevant matters. If you ignore them, you’re choosing to not understand what’s really going on. Your choice.

As for profits, remember that profits from companies like Elsevier are distributed to shareholders, who are also taxpayers. Non-profits like PLoS have no obligation to disburse their surpluses, and can sit on them for years, with reporting requirements that are much less granular than for-profit companies have to meet. So if Elsevier is sharing the wealth and PLoS isn’t required to and possibly is not, which one is purer? Why is “profit” that is shared with the people so objectionable?

if you read my other answers I have said that profit is OK. That possibility that PLoS is a corrupt company pretending to be good but instead sitting on its profits is another irrelevance. It doesn’t mean that it is OK for Elsevier etc to make EXCESSIVE profits if they are overcharging for their content.

If you think that the other stuff is relevant then tell me why, don’t just say I’m wrong. You don’t seem to be very good at going into detail do you? you still have not answered my question about the

“It was published early online, so it’s likely free. Most journals make their content published early online free for a limited time”

Will you do so now please – otherwise I’ll just give up on the thread

You can give up the thread whenever you want. I’ll hang with you as long as you want.

I couldn’t get to your question yesterday because I had a full plate and tons of comments coming in. Sorry I missed it. To answer it, no, I don’t have data, but my experience is that most editors insist that online-first materials be available free online until they’re published in an issue. So, in my experience, it’s likely free because it was published online early. Also, a large number of journals make their contents free after 6 or 12 months. So, what subscribers and institutions are paying for is immediate access to information and a 6-12 month advantage.

My point about Elsevier’s profits is that they are shared. Let’s assume Elsevier made 200% profit one year. So what? That just puts more money in the pockets of thousands of shareholders, many of whom are academic institutions, people who have mutual funds at academic institutions, retirees, pension funds, etc. Let them make 500%. It’s not like they sit on the money. For-profit companies are investments for taxpayers, universities, pension funds, and so forth, and when they make profits, all those people benefit. If PLoS makes a surplus this year of $1 million (just an arbitrary Austin Powers number), who sees the benefit of that? Does your local university get more money for a new faculty position or new research grants? They might if their publishing stocks perform.

Can you define “excessive”? Where is the line drawn? Is the line in a different place for a university press that puts all of its profit toward funding research?

What about a company that invests their profits in progressive experiments to benefit the research community, things like Elsevier’s SciVerse and semantic technologies, MacMillan’s Nature Network or PLoS’ article level metrics? If profits are strictly limited, then bold experiments like these will no longer be possible.

Ok, let’s break this down.
Pg10 is where the numbers are.
First and very important point, this is actually profit before tax. It’s not possible to do after tax profit on this line because of all the other items that need to be accounted for when considering the tax bill, but still, it isn’t the same as profit after tax…

Anyway lets divide 724 million by the 11 million researchers that Elsevier serves via ScienceDirect and their journals No. via their marketing). We can’t add in the extra users of their other products, but 11 million sounds like a decent number.

That comes to £66 per researcher.

At a profit margin of 36% that means the original charge per researcher is: £183. per annum.

That doesn’t sound to bad to me. It’s monthly charge of £15.25

By comparison, my skytv subscription costs me £816 per annum and I also have to pay the UK tv license fee at approx £145 per annum. Sky tv makes approx £86 profit per customer. I can’t give you the margin as the numbers aren’t there in the subscription types to work it out.

Lovefilm ultimate sub (like netflix) would run about £230 pa

my Spotify premium sub costs £120 pa.

There is a cost to access content. I contend that a 36% before tax profit margin isn’t massively over the top. And As I’ve stated, I don’t think £183 per year is a huge sum either. If you think the stuff should be free, these numbers won’t sway you I guess, but then one could ask if it’s possible to publish truly for free.

What do you think?

Hi David

Interesting comparison. Should we also take into account the time the academics donate to peer review? I reckon I spend something like three days a year on reviewing papers. Don’t the journals owe me (or my employer) money?

Also, some fraction of netflix, sky, spotify and the rest goes to content creators. Should I be compensated for that content too?

I think one reason PLOS get a lighter ride from many on the open access side of the argument is that it’s easier to justify doing free work for something that is transparently good, than it is to justify doing free work for a profit making enterprise, no matter who its shareholders are.




You state:

“Should we also take into account the time the academics donate to peer review? I reckon I spend something like three days a year on reviewing papers. Don’t the journals owe me (or my employer) money?”

Don’t you get a type of reward from participating in the process? Reviewers often get to see work in their field earlier then others. They help to make sure the research being published in their field is of high quality. They assist younger researchers in fine tuning their work & thus give back to their community in a positive manner. Aren’t all of these “doing good?” Why does that only apply to PLoS and other OA organizations?

Hi Adam

I personally don’t get a boost from seeing work in the field earlier than others as (a) It’s often on the arXiV or I’ve heard it at conferences before it gets to a journal and (b) being a conscientious reviewer I turn things round quickly. If that was the payment for reviewing then surely you’d have reviewers sitting on manuscripts for as long as possible, and as we know that never happens (!).

Your other points, I think, would all happen in an ideal world. Unfortunately, as peer review isn’t really recognised as service by, for example, those that give out jobs and fellowships, any positive glow in giving back to the community is outweighed by the fact that it takes time from my own research.

As an aside, for my money, the thing that’s most broken in the journal system is that as a result the best thing I can do for my career is to be a terrible peer reviewer, putting little thought or effort into it. (I don’t do this, but that’s what the system encourages).

I’m not really arguing that PLoS/OA is exempt from any of the above criticisms, just that many people reviewing for them might consider that service to the higher goal of Openness and thus have more warm and fuzzy feelings about having done so than otherwise. PLoS also at least makes some effort to thank its reviewers by name each year.



If service to a higher goal is a reason for peer reviewing articles, then one would think the same would apply to a journal owned by a society to which one belongs. You’re essentially doing volunteer work to financially benefit the society which puts together your annual meeting, provides scholarships for students, puts forth educational efforts, lobbies governments on your behalf, etc.

Of course many (if not most) society-owned journals are published by big corporate publishers. The societies have chosen to partner with them as they offer the greatest levels of support. In punishing/boycotting/refusing to work with the big corporate publishers, one may also be punishing/boycotting/refusing to help scholarly societies.

And thanking reviewers is a fairly common practice for most society journals. Not sure how far in depth they go to naming them, but the top reviewers are usually noted.

Hi Chris, that’s an interesting set of points you raise. Yes your time has an economic value attached to it. The question then is how should this be recompensed.

Ok, Is there a cachet from being asked to review articles submitted to journals? Well depending on the journal, I’d suggest that there could be, so there’s one cost benefit analysis to be done on a per researcher basis. It’s a long time since I was asked to review a scholarly paper, but I do recall being rather pleased when it happened. Clearly this can become onerous and one can certainly end up questioning the time one commits to the process. Good referees tend to be in much demand, so we can see the beginings of a paid for market for good referees.

Should you be paid for it? Well, would this constitute a potential bias or conflict of interest? Or could the accusation be leveled (valid or not). I don’t know the answer to that, but my assumption as to why referees are not not paid is that these are legitimate concerns that act to counter a payment mechanism for refereeing. Now I’m guessing here, but paying for the highest quality referees would be a logical thing to do from a market perspective. Done ‘right’ you could lock high quality refereeing into the whole value of a given journal. But as we know in other areas, shilling for a review of something tends to be counter productive. Paying your employer – that’s an interesting idea but I’m wondering whether the cost to manage the process in a fragmented journal environment within an institution would outweigh any revenue.

You bring up the idea that contributing to PLoS has a better feel to it. I’d guess the same principle would apply to a society journal – your time benefits other members of the society. I bring this up because the organisation I work for got out of the journals business, we couldn’t compete with the ‘big boys’ when it came to offering a good cash flow back to the societies who owned the journals. Society finance directors are hard nosed people! My point is that the cash flows from publishing are not as simple as sometimes presented. Benefits flow back to researchers where society journals exist. As I’m sure you’ve seen, Kent has noted the number of high quality not for profit journals.

Compensating the creator… Hmmm I shall attempt to argue that you are being compensated… OK, researchers use publications in high quality journals (or at least those with high impact factor) in order to leverage more research funding. So, increased funding goes to the researcher with the ‘best’ research output. And there’s the compensation mechanism for journal articles. If you write a book you do get compensated directly, subject to sales etc etc.

Is there a better way to do this? Quite possibly, but the evidence is that OA journals have struggled to be viable economically. They’ve found it much harder than expected with costs that remained stubbornly high. This matters. Arxiv is struggling to survive. What happens if the money runs out? When would somebody turn off the servers?


Just a couple of quick responses to your thoughtful post – these are probably off topic now so with an apology to anyone else still reading…

Given that academics aren’t really motivated (in most cases) by money, one could look to incentivise good peer review by other factors. As a straw-man argument, making peer review public, for example, would allow others to assign credit for good ideas or good behaviour during peer review appropriately. One might hire someone because there was a public track record of insightful comment on other’s work, for example.

You say

researchers use publications in high quality journals (or at least those with high impact factor) in order to leverage more research funding.

and I agree, but why should this be the case for ever? One can certainly imagine other systems for ranking research output – some of the things Mendeley are working on, for example, or citations to the arXiv as Telescoper has argued, or downloads of papers, or some of the ideas around microcitation, or whatever… As someone says above, academia invented the idea that publication in high impact journals is the metric and we could equally change our minds (collectively, which is why it’s hard). Arguing that for-profit journals should exist because they’re the coin of the realm currently feels slightly circular to me.



Personally, I think monetary payment of reviewers is a terrible idea. As David mentions. the potential for bias/COI far outweighs any benefit IMO. Perhaps occasionally paying a well-established reviewer in the field to turn around a much needed review would be an exception, but overall I hate the idea of making it the norm. That’s just me.

Back to Chris:

1. You may not find value in seeing research at an earlier point, but that does not mean others don’t benefit from this. BTW, in your case you validated one of Kent’s earlier points; that many in the field have already seen the research in question.

2. You sound like you’re an excellent reviewer & I’m sure your editors & authors appreciate that. You’re contributing to your research community in a positive manner, Whether or not you feel rewarded by this is up to you, but in the end you DO reap the benefit as well. Don’t you want others who might review your own work to reciprocate in the same manner? Isn’t that a reward? Do unto others and all that.

3. Over the years I’ve had many, many reviewers request documentation certifying that they’ve reviewed for various journals. Their universities & organizations DID recognize their service in the field in some manner & they needed to verify that they’d reviewed for the journal. I wish this was more common. But if it’s not, this is NOT a flaw in publishing (OA or subscription-based) or the peer review system. It is another flaw in the academic system. The same system which reward authors for publishing only in high Impact Factor journals.

4. PLoS is far from the only publisher who makes the effort to thank reviewers. Nearly every publication I’ve been involved with thanks the reviewers by name (when it does not conflict with the blinding process) in print. In addition to this it is very common for reviewers to be acknowledged at annual meetings etc. I just returned from a meeting where reviewers were recognized as “Best Reviewers” & given awards for their services. I’d imagine something like that would be worth mentioning on a CV.

I do not believe the peer review system or publishers encourage reviewers “to be a terrible peer reviewer, putting little thought or effort into it.” Again, these flaws in the system seem to be coming from Academia itself, not publishers and not the peer review system.

Chris–I’m all for alternative metrics for measuring quality and impact of research, but as for your suggestions, I worry that they’re perhaps more flawed as our current system. Downloads tell you about popularity, not quality. If one replaces our currently distributed system (where many of the owners of journals are not-for-profits, academic institutions, and scientific societies) with one singular entity like Mendeley (a privately held for-profit company) or arXiv (a database that’s on shaky financial ground and one that seems to work better for some fields than others), you’re creating an even greater concentration of power than already exists, with less competition to keep prices reasonable.

The ideal system is more likely to be a panel of metrics, with no singular point of failure.

Replying to Kent Anderson reply to me, above. Starting anew because the reply column is getting thin.

PLoS ONE does not take profit out of the publishing but uses it to subsidise the other journals, keeping them Open Access. Sure it could be interesting to compare costs to research if it was all Open Access vs all subscription. Maybe it has been done.

The argument about shareholders as being taxpayers so reducing their profit is like taking money away from taxpayers is weird. Is the reader a share holder and getting the article “for free”? Is that a serious argument? You think that there could be a significant proportion of scientists who are getting dividends so it makes everything effectively free to them?

Who is talking about righteousness or purity here? Profit is OK but are they making too much because they have an effective monopoly? Why can their business model not support a $5 per article rather than $35? Why does a hard copy back issue have to cost $200?

Are you sure PLoS ONE isn’t sitting on surpluses? How do you know?

Profit is OK because it’s shared, in my view. An effective monopoly? To quote Monbiot’s statistic, three publishers control 42% of the market. By my math, 42/3 does not equal 100. Far from it.

Per-article charges are high for a variety of reasons — it’s what the market will bear, with the majority of the market being law firms (patents and law suits) and other b2b players; publishers and editors want to encourage subscription over article purchasing for a variety of reasons (sustainable, predictable cash flows; reaching readers; exposing novel content on a regular basis). Individuals can request articles from authors, many journals have request lines for patients and others with real needs, and libraries can provide articles.

Back issues are a pain in the neck and retrograde in today’s world. Some of the pricing for these is meant to discourage request, especially when all the archives are online. Some of the pricing philosophy is to encourage subscription instead of back-issue cherry picking. As for real costs, there are warehousing costs, overprinting costs, retrieval costs, shipping costs, and so forth. Because thousands of issues are stored and only a few retrieved, those retrieved have to carry the cost for all those stored, so they have to cost a lot more to make back issue storage feasible and sustainable.

According to Yahoo finance Elsevier shareholders made a yield of just 2.3% last year. I’m not a financial analyst, but I think real profits go to the bondholders who financed Elsevier’s journals aggregation program during the past two decades. Richard.

Profit is a slippery concept. By most standards money paid to bondholders is pre-profit. It is an interest payment, albeit flexible, depending on income. If the shareholders got 2.3% then that is the real profit margin. In other words, the cost of these subscriptions is more or less real.

The notion that information should be free is absurd. Information is difficult and expensive to collect, filter and produce. Ironically, I don’t see anyone claiming that full length animations should be free. I guess the problem is that people think that Google is free, or the Internet is free. Neither is true.

The monopoly question was answered by someone else. 42% but they have the majority of the major journals which are essential for all major universities. Like a few airlines may create a monopoly on a few major routes, not the whole world. “what the market can bear” in a free market is reasonable, but is it a free market?

Elsevier is probably about 17% of the market. So even contracting with 1,000+ journals, that’s all the headway they can make. Doesn’t seem very monopolistic to me. Take medicine, for example. They own the Lancet. They don’t own NEJM, JAMA, BMJ, or Annals. All of those are non-profit journals. Big non-profits, but non-profits. Take general science. Nature and Science aren’t Elsevier journals. Elsevier mostly works in the mid-tier of journals, and does a good job of it. I’m not a huge fan, but I’m not a knee-jerk detractor, either. Is it a free market? Considering that most journals published by Elsevier are done so through contracts with non-profit societies who bid their journals out, and the fact that Elsevier is clearly a minority player despite their size, I’d say it’s not full of “predatory overlords.” It’s filled with a lot of small creatures, some of whom confederate for safety and security.

the point is that the have a lot of the essential journals which universities must subscribe to (Lancet for example) – like airline routes they don’t need to own them all to create a distorted market.

I am NOT saying they ARE creating a distorted market – but with very high subscriptions ($100 per issue) and very high per view fees and 3 companies dominating the market there is a valid question. Is it a fair market or not?

Valid question. Harder to answer, especially when some people seem to think “fair” is no market at all.

As an academic librarian with a strong focus on promoting Open Access to scholarly information I found George Monbiot`s opinion piece in the Guardian provocative and engaging. It should serve well as a wakeup call to the general public and formerly disinterested authors of scientific articles in peer reviewed journals. One can say that it is partisan and lacking in nuances but in a short and popular form it places the main issues in perspective.

Your comment on the Scholarly Kitchen is in no way less partisan and reflects the real conflict of interests that exist between readers and librarians on one side and the interests of publishing industry on the other. The viewpoint that scholarly articles have no audience among the general public is based on nothing but conjecture. Well educated general readers certainly have both the motivation and ability to make use much that is published in scientific journals.
Your assertion regarding “rock bottom prices” for journal use are at least misleading, from my own experience I know that these vary greatly and a unit price of well over 10 euros is common for articles from the major commercial journal publishers.

A gradual development towards Open Access publishing is slowly but surely on on the horizon. Journals or more correctly portals such as PLOS One are the wave of the future. High quality journals from traditional publishers both society and commercial with generous editorial resources will undoubtedly remain important . One scenario that seems likely is a state of equilibrium with 80% OA articles in mega-journals and the remaining 20% published in subscription based selective journals.

Projections currently predict OA will reach its plateau at 20% of the market, the opposite of your conjecture. As for expense, hiding expense for OA in tax dollars and unfunded research (to make way for publication charges) is disingenuous. Librarians and publishers have been working to align, and there are librarians who are publishers, so your lines of affinity are not as clear as you might think. As for educated readers needing access to the scientific literature, at best it’s a double-edged sword in most cases. Knowing the literature and the profession puts a single article into a context that nearly all general readers lack. One of the dangers of the “article economy” is precisely this — over-reliance on a single article as a definitive representation of the state of research or knowledge, when in fact it is speculative, incremental, or perhaps just plain wrong. PLoS ONE exploits the article economy concept to the hilt, publishing the majority of papers it receives because it is a service to authors, not a service to readers. And while there is much hand-wringing over the general reader, I defy you to identify one successful initiative (out of the hundreds that have been tried). Every attempt I know of to bring science to the public — either by increasing access to articles, synthesizing findings, or summarizing trends — has failed. That’s the reality behind this speculation that the public has some latent need we only need to unleash. There is no evidence of that, and a lot of abandoned attempts.

Kent, You’re distorting my reply and trying to reduce it to a reductio ad absurdum. I’ve already said that usage measures are meaningful for evaluation purposes. I was responding to this statement in your post (and similar ones by publishers who point to cost-per-use as a measure of the ‘great deal’ that site licenses represent):

>scholarly publishers have found a way, in partnership with libraries, to make >information available at prices Murdoch would never contemplate — because >they’re amazingly low on a per-use basis. Yes, site licenses make most >resources available per-use for pennies on the dollar

Of course if usage is low or declines, we say ‘what’s up with that?’ But the obverse is not necessarily true, especially if increasing usage is an across-the-board phenomenon, which in general it tends to be. Usage increases every year because there is more content online, because more content is exposed to search engines, because Google Scholar exists, because there are new tools such as link resolvers, bulk and/or federated searching and data mining tools, because people treat online availability like a file cabinet, etc. I was trying to make a very specific point: usage is not the same as affordability, and low cost-per-use does not mean that site licenses are cheap or affordable.

I knew I was being absurd (engaging in reductio ad absurdum), which I pointed out. I wanted to do that to show that you’re talking about a budget problem, not a cost-per-use problem. I think one of the big challenges facing institutions is that their faculty is using more information resources, yet administrators view this as a “library budget problem” and not a “funding of faculty” problem. Librarians have been trying to make this clear to administrators for years, but it’s been an uphill battle. That’s too bad.

I am an academic and have on occasions been invited to talk to associations of publishers. I post on and it doesn’t take a genius to work out who I am – but for those whose can’t I am Peter Murray-Rust and I don’t hide it.

I have been blogging for some weeks on what is wrong with scholarly publishing (read back over the last month) and have been critical of academics as well as publishers. Academics are the real problem. If they got their act together and cared about disseminating information rather than the (almost meaningless) “impact”, then current publishing would change and rapidly and for the better. (How, for example, can you have “impact” when most people except academics cannot read the output?)

But I endorse all Monbiot’s cricism of publishers and add more. Publishers treat readers as second-class creatures. I have found it impossible to have a dialogue with most publishers – when I write to them, they ignore me. Indeed most publishers do not have any service for readers to interact with them. Publishers do not use the term “reader”, it is “end-user” which actually means purchasing officer

As a recent example we have two independent examples of publishers who charge over 30 USD to read an EIGHT-WORD paper ( ) . The content simply tells us that an earlier paper has been withdrawn. I am sure this is general over closed access publishers – it’s too much trouble to make this information free.

That is a stunningly clear example of how callously publishers treat readers. If you wish to reply I shall copy it on my blog

Peter Murray-Rust

Since you’ve been “blogging for some weeks” on scholarly publishing topics, I’ll assume you are open to learning a bit more. I’ve been working in this area for 20+ years, and I’m open to learning more, so I think it’s a fair assumption. Let me respond to your points.

Academics and researchers want to advance their careers and their fields. They are usually highly specialized. There are very few with the ability or interest in translating research to the general public, and those who do tend to pay a high price in academia — less chance for career advancement, a lower status, etc. I agree that academic incentives have strayed too far away from teaching and too far toward research funding, but that’s a trend that’s going to be very hard to reverse — academic centers depend on research grants, bank on high-profile faculty to attract more of the same, and build centers on research reputation. To blame individual actors within this system is probably a little unfair. After all, you work at an academic center that probably exists in large part because it embraced these trends. In fact, your center is funded by Unilever, from what I can see, so attracting corporate underwriting was critical to its existence. Unilever is likely hoping for research output that will have impact for their future earnings primarily. Their “impact” measure follows corporate priorities.

Publishers do not treat readers “as second-class creatures,” to use your words. I don’t know which publishers you’re writing to, or what you’re saying, but many publishers have added commenting features to their sites to improve dialog with readers. I’m guessing that your letters to publishers are complaints about their policies and practices, and since the publications they’re putting out are focused on research topics and not controversies in publishing, I wouldn’t expect them to publish them to their readers, most of whom I’ve found couldn’t care less (they have access, they know good content costs money to create, and they aren’t all worked up over it). But I am surprised you haven’t received any responses privately. As for which terms publishers use for readers, I think you’re inferring too much from contract language or terms of service. The difficulty of referring to readers as “readers” comes in precisely because “reader” is passive, and most publishers are hoping that they’ll be more active through precisely the type of commenting and feedback mechanisms you’re hoping for. So, in terms of service, they can’t be just “readers” but have to be termed “end-user” because they may also be contributing content, downloading data sets, using social tools, and so forth. “End-user” most definitely does not mean purchasing officer.

Your last complaint (about publisher who charge $30 for a correction notice) gets to the challenge of running a complex platform, and speaks to the naive hopes of those wishing for a single repository run on a cheap server (to this point, your blog kept going down while I was writing this reply). To the end-user, each article generally has the same paywall features, even if it’s a short correction notice. Most publishers try to publish the word count or a preview of the article, or label things correctly, to minimize the chance of someone paying just for some short piece of content. Some do this better than others. Also, usually access to these are tied to access to the full article, so what looks like just access to a correction can also provide access to the full article. The overall goal is to give the reader interested in that content the full picture — correction plus original material. You may want to look at the algorithm or wording more closely. I can’t view what you’re pointing at because your blog is down. And, as we all know, time is the most precious commodity of them all.

I read a couple. If he’s “very well respected in the science publishing community,” I’ve never heard of him. So, I guess fame is relative. His diatribes are pretty much the same stuff you get elsewhere within the OA filter bubble, nothing that unusual — lots of idealistic statements, a lot of naivete about things, a lot of loose “feel good” rhetoric, and the classic stuff about “disruption” without the disciplined thinking about what disruption is (its intellectual pedigree, its actual mechanisms, and its ultimate effect, which is less radical than most believe). Academics responsible for their own publishing? Blinded peer-review and third-party objective ranking emerged because this couldn’t be trusted, and if anything, a blogger who gets his professional funding from Unilever is someone whose work I want vetted by a disinterested third-party. I’m sure he’s a great chemist, but that doesn’t mean I’d trust him to create a valid, credible, trustworthy, and sustainable alternative to the current successful and reliable academic publishing industry.

Just because you haven’t hear of Peter Murray-Rust doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some great insights? “Academics responsible for their own publishing?” Yes. Academics need to take back scholarly publishing — they wouldn’t gouge the academic libraries near as much as some of the for-profit publishers.

Librarians and academics are already scholarly publishers. You’re wrong to think otherwise. People with PhDs, physicians, and former professors run some of the largest publishing operations. The state of the world you envision already exists, and you aren’t happy with it. Where does that leave you?

As for Peter Murray-Rust’s insights, like I said, they seem pretty commonplace and of a piece with many others’. I don’t find them particularly insightful or actionable.

For what it’s worth, making retraction notices freely accessible is standard practice for most publishers. Browsing through Retraction Watch will give you a good sampling, and the first half dozen links I clicked on brought me to full text retraction notices from a variety of publishers with no fees. However, as Kent points out, journals are complicated enterprises and sometimes human error happens, as it did in this case. The authors behind Retraction Watch took the time to contact the publisher in question, rather than assuming this was a deliberate act, and it was quickly corrected. Did you at any point notify the editors of the journal before reaching your conclusion?

It should perhaps also be noted that the journal in question here is self-published by the American Chemical Society, a not-for-profit organization. Presumably, any profits gouged from the research community are used for activities to support that same community.

This is a big debate, I’ll leave most of it to others (this time) but I’d like to comment on the concept of monopoly.

The point about scientific journals is that they are natural monopolies, in that they cannot be substituted for each other – if you have access to the one, it doesn’t reduce your wish to have access to others. Unlike e.g. beer, there is no limit to much access you want to have. This allows publishers to reap superprofits – profits that, in this case, are vastly higher than can be achieved in functioning, competitive markets. This remarkable profits of firms like Elsevier are a clear sign that the market for scientific journals isn’t working as it should.

The market for OA journals is much closer to a competitive market, readers have free access and authors, who are the ones having to buy the journals’ services (e.g. audience, layout, copy-editing, peer review etc.) have to choose one journal to buy from. Price can be a factor in deciding which journal to choose.

Your model for monopoly is symmetrical — i.e., authors can only choose one journal in which to publish, so OA is also a natural monopoly. In fact, I’d argue it is moreso because OA’s main value is to publish an author’s work. That can occur in something like PLoS ONE, which at least unofficially has proponents who brag about it being the “largest journal in the world.” That language hints at the natural monopoly an OA repository can have on securing value for authors. So, I disagree with your point that OA journals are in a more competitive market. It’s at least as naturally monopolistic as you claim subscription journals to be (I don’t agree with that, either — actually, the non-substitutability of content works against monopolization).

I think you have both of these backwards.

I believe my use of the term monopoly to be much more in line with how economists use the word (and it is an economist’s term) than your use is. And, to be honest, I believe – after reading your reply – you to be the one who have gotten thing backwards. (Regarding this point, that is.)

One of the characteristics of a monopoly is the lack of viable substitute goods – contrary to your statement that non-substitutability of content works against monopolization. This is how Toll Access publishing works, TA journals are bought by readers who cannot say that “I’ll read journal A instead of journal B” because there is no common content between the two journals. Journal A is the only supplier of the content in Journal A – and that is what a monopoly is – one single seller of a particular commodity, in this case specific content.

As authors in an OA market – and OA is bought by authors – we are faced with a number of different journals that are near substitutes as they offer us the same services – peer review, copyediting, audience (which overlaps that of other similar journals) – but at different prices. This is, actually, a competitive market. (OA publishers probably will be looking for mechanisms for making it less so, in order to increase profitst – but that’s another story.) That you end up choosing one journal for your article doesn’t make it a monopoly, just as your choosing a particular brand of car or toothpaste doesn’t make that a monopoly.

Nope, you’re wrong. A monopoly exists when there is only one supplier (or one dominant supplier) of a good, not when that good isn’t substitutable. Lack of substitutability is one way a supplier can exert a monopoly, but they have to control the market first. This market has hundreds of players. A review article in Nature can substitute for a whole bunch of research from Science and other journals. Journals jump from house to house, editors change journals, and so forth. Who is the monopolist? Elsevier? Wolters-Kluwer? Springer? Macmillan? ACS? AMA? AAAS? AIP? SAGE? OUP? ACP? AAFM? AHA? FASEB? CUP? Mayo? MIT Press?

My point about OA publishers is that they’re already exhibiting tendencies toward monopolizing authors. PLoS ONE isn’t “the largest journal in the world” for no reason. There are huge incentives to publishing more papers in the OA model. Bigger is better to an even greater degree than in subscription publishing. OA inherently drifts toward monopoly, but in a new way that requires a new type of vigilance.

As authors in the subscription market, you can also choose where you publish. There is no difference between OA and subscription journals in this regard. Want to punish Elsevier? Don’t submit your papers to one of their journals. Want to favor a non-profit publisher? Submit to independent non-profit journals.

Posting a reply to Chris Lintott’s point above: (

I don’t think your points are off topic at all. In fact I think in many ways they are getting right to the heart of the matter. In the community of scholars who have embraced modern communcation methods, I see a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are with respect to the acadmenic process; the methods of attracting funding; the single influence metric of the impact factor; the anonymous nature of peer review; the belief that a better way to do this whole scholarly communication thing is out there, somewhere.

At the risk of looking like I want to pass the buck, I’d argue that none of these issues originate with the publisher (note: I’m not assigning balme either). But we are players in the system, and therefore we have a role and a responsibility.

An alternative system has to be stable (over greater than a 10-15 yr lifespan – how long?). It has to feedback reputation and quality metrics in a globally recognised manner. It has to do so in a more efficient manner, in the economic sense, than the current system. While we are at it, it should enable discovery within the system (not relying perhaps on 3rd party external systems with business models that in no way predispose them to make any long term commitments to discoverablity of this kind of material – ie Google and the rest). It should also have an economic model that works for all areas of scholarly work and that also reflects the risk of investing a sum of money in the publication of a piece of content. There is a cost to do this. There is no such thing as free, and those who think there is, are simply missing the location of the particular cross subsidy powering the free consumption of the content. This isn’t cheap. Just take a look at the costs of the information companies out there and see what they spend on infrastructure (and power!).

It should also solve a current problem – more and more research outputs. In a time of constantly squeezed research funding, I can only assume that the constant increase in research is due to scholars chasing impact via minimum publishable units in order to secure further funding.

The current models, do not tick all of the boxes in my opinion.

PLoS up until now has relied on funding ($13 million initially and more since I think) in order to sustain itself. This year, I think it may have income in excess of outgoings? It’s various metrics look interesting, but it’s early days there. I’m more a fan of Johan Bollens work (project MESUR and similar efforts), but that’s just me.

ArXiv is struggling to cover its costs. This is important, because it’s the example used to demonstrate alternative methods of dissemination. I’d observe this – Everyone likes to use it. Nobody like to pay. currently there is no economic incentive to pay so ArXiv is relying on altruism. I’m a biologist by training, altruism follows the curve of abundance and scarcity.

Mendeley. very interesting indeed! But… Venture Capital funding. Those boys will want their money back with a healthy profit on top. That’s Mendeley’s problem. Start ups always have high ideals. 80% of them do not make it. Also, Mendeley are very keen to say that they are not not a publisher. Which given that one can easily see how an organic information distribution system based on their platform could spring up, makes me wonder what their system is in a hypothetical world without the feedstock of peer reviewed journal articles as they currently exist.

Personally I’m in no way against OA. I’m not convinced it’s a better long term solution. At the moment. But you are right, that could all change.

(And a reply to comment from Adam Etkin and David Crotty up above)

I agree with much of what you say – in particular, I want to emphasise that I wasn’t advocating seriously paying reviewers, but rather brought that point up to suggest that a cost per user analysis which doesn’t take into account the inputs is likely one-sided.

I also concede the point that there isn’t, right now, a metric that works as well as citation index or the variations upon it, despite the latters many, many flaws which need not detain us here. However, I think it’s here that the argument in defense of journals get lost. Adam says, correctly, that “flaws in the system seem to be coming from Academia itself, not publishers”, and that’s probably fair comment – it’s Academia (capital A) that has decided to put such weight on current metrics.

In this sense then, yes, academia is currently receiving a valuable service from the journals. To base a defence of an industry on a use that (a) is in the control of others, (b) that could, without huge overhead, switch to a different system very rapidly, and (c) which many, including me, think is fundamentally flawed even if an alternative has yet to appear, seems pretty weak to me.

Thanks again for the comments

First, this line of reasoning is based on the idea that the sole service journals provide is “designation”. But that’s not the case, as journals exist for a variety of functions (for a great explanation of what exactly journals offer, see Michael Clarke’s piece from last year).

For the designation part of things, there is no better metric currently offered, so a rapid switch without huge overhead is not a trivial process. There’s no centralized group that determines criteria for all funding agencies, for all career advancement decisions at all types of institutions. You’d have to come up with something that works better, it would have to do so in a clear and obvious manner, then you’d need enormous efforts to overcome institutional inertia.

If one thinks of academic publishers as serving their customers’ needs, then they’re no different than most other industries in that those needs are in the control of others. If those needs change, expect to see publishers adapt to serve the new needs (the rapid growth of open access offerings from traditional publishers should serve as an example).

The article you linked too claims three main benefits for journals today – validation through peer review, designation (of good researchers), and filtration.

In a world in which we read papers, usually via a search engine or direct link, I don’t think I accept that journals are useful in filtering what I should read. I certainly don’t know anyone who would read an issue of, say, the Astrophysical Journal, as a substitute for searching for relevant papers in the arXiv or across many journals.

Aren’t peer review and designation essentially the same thing? I think I may be missing some subtlety here, for which apologies – but how do you make out that a rapid shift to another metric wouldn’t be possible? For example, imagine that everyone in particle physics decides to use SPIRES hits to assess the publication record of applicants, as some do already. The change is instant, isn’t it?

Let me try and preempt one response. Mention of the arXiv seems to trigger the assertion that arXiv doesn’t have stable funding, which is fair enough. But look at the numbers – it seems the total running cost of the arXiv in 2012 is $500,000 ( For comparison, my own University has paid more than that in penalties on top of bulk subscription deals in a single year (

Given those numbers, can you really assert that if an arXiv like system satisfactorily performed the function of designation it wouldn’t be embraced and funded by universities?

Well unfortunately, the answer seems to be that universities are not embracing and funding. I guess at some point the 25 that do might question the benefit being meted out to competing institutions by their funding. You can read the tensions in the article you’ve cited above. And arXiv seems to be a special case. I’m not aware of an equivalent in either biology or chemistry, let alone the social sciences or humanities. Anybody care to correct me?

It seems hard for everyone to decide to change suddenly. The reasons for this are covered by the concept of the tragedy of the commons – it’s a collective action problem. Your branch of the sciences has perhaps the greatest number of elements stacked up in its favor ( repository, multiple author papers common, sharing of telescope time, large collaborative groups, what else?) but yet, change hasn’t happened. Yet.

400,000 in penalty fees for switching from print to electronic… Wow. I’m guessing there must be some nuance to the deals that were struck, but I can see why that would lead to a certain fridigity towards the publisher in question. And publishers in general no doubt.

Readers vs Authors… Almost seems like two completely different groups of people. Authors want the best possible journal for funding. Readers are casting the net wider in order to keep up to speed.

I think all of this collalesces around the question of “what is value” and how is that recognised and rewarded. But what’s quote about democracy… Everyone agrees About it being the worst form of government, except for all the other methods that have been tried. 🙂

I’ll say this, the gaming of impact factor in order to secure funding isn’t serving anybodys interests.

Perhaps some misconceptions in the terminology from Michael’s article.

Validation–does the data back up the conclusions? Is this believable? Has someone with expertise taken a look at this and okayed it?

Filtering–this is done through a variety of means. First, journals filter out the garbage, the loonies, the incomplete, the stuff that’s of extremely low quality, providing you with a time-savings. The grouping of articles in journals for a specific field does provide a mechanism for keeping up with that particular field (like you, I think most readers have given up on browsing and just rely on their personalized searches, though electronic table of content emailing services remain popular, so perhaps there are still those who skim a TOC). Furthermore, journals in a field form a hierarchy over time. The journal in which a paper is published provides a quality signal for the reader. Most researchers that I know place a higher priority on reading articles in the top journals in their field than in journals they consider to be of low quality, landing spots for papers that weren’t good enough to get published elsewhere.

Designation–relies on those same quality signals, and allows those without detailed knowledge of a given field (institutional administration, funding agencies) to get a sense of the quality of a given researcher’s work.

Peer review plays a role in all three of these functions.

I don’t see an immediate shift to a new metric for measuring impact for a couple of reasons:
1) There are those who are favored by the current system who would not be favored by the new system. They are likely to fight against the change, slowing the pace regardless of the outcome.

2) Not sure where you work, but when was the last time your department made a unanimous decision about anything? When was the last time every department at your institution fully agreed on something and quickly adopted it? Now spread that to all institutions, all funding agencies and all other interested parties. It’s a huge and diverse group, with a vast span of differing priorities, so no matter the obvious utility of a new metric, the entrenched system will take time to change.

I tend to live in the world of life sciences and medicine, so I’m not intimately familiar with arXiv, but from what I’ve been told, it’s very popular with some branches of physics and almost entirely ignored by other branches. I’ve also been told that if a paper stands a chance of being published somewhere like Nature or Science, it is not deposited in arXiv. That this is still the case when arXiv is more than 20 years old should perhaps serve as an example of how difficult it is to unite a field or implement change.

So far, bulk repositories like arXiv have failed to provide the sorts of filtering and signaling that journals provide (likely the main reason why institutional repositories are so rarely used). Where things like post-publication review have worked well are all places with strong (and expensive) editorial offices driving the process. I do think something like arXiv would be gladly accepted if it could serve researcher needs as well as journals, but I’m not sure how it would work, nor how expensive it would be.

One further question: if you live in a world where you read all of your papers via Google search or direct link, then why do you need arXiv at all? What function is served by grouping them all together on one server?

It seems that math must have ruled the decision to incur 400,000 pounds of penalty fees to abandon print. Avoiding the penalties was easy. Incurring them must have saved more than 400,000 pounds somehow (buildings to store them, shelving work, long-term archiving, etc.).

If you have an algorithm or search strategy that finds, in arXiv, all and only those articles accepted by Astrophysical Journal, we would all like to see it. Those articles cover many different topics, and the rejected articles cover the same topics, so it cannot be done semantically.

The point is that the primary function of the journal system (not just this journal or that one) is to sort articles by community and importance. That is what we are paying for. This is a complex and sophisticated communication system which is not going to be replaced by a database.

Does anybody have any stats on how many journals offer the choice of open access publishing, even if they are subscription journals. I know some do and the costs I have come across vary from $1500 to €2000.

This is not a high cost compared the the average amount of a project grant that may lead to the publciation of 3-10 papers. If the majority of journals offer this capability then it is something that the grant awading bodies and researchers themselves can adress – in that sense there could be said to be some competition. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the publishers if the majority began taking up the open access option

Certainly, some of Mr. Monbiot’s statements are off key, as you point out the primary reasons for higher tuition is not the price of academic journals, but it does mean that libraries have fewer dollars to buy fewer academic journals for their patrons to use, and, as Monbiot (through the Economist) points out, 65% of all library acquisitions in the UK goes to journals. For some libraries, this means 90% or more, and often, books get very short shrift, while other journals cannot be bought.

This is a lot of money for any institution, and times being as they are, the current situation simply cannot continue any longer. Here is a graph that goes only through 2007: I am sure it is even worse now.

The simple fact is, scholarly communication is changing as we speak. It absolutely has to, and the amount of money we apply to it must go down. Librarians have been preaching about this for a long time, but now, their predictions are coming true.

I can understand the academic publishers wanting to keep as much control as possible since they have been making loads of money out of the current situation for a long, long time. Therefore, they will continue to preach about how vital they are in the publication system, while they do less and less for authors (who often have to supply camera-ready copy, and they normally even have to get their own permissions for images!) while the amount the journals charge goes up and up.

And yet, it is the scholars who are really in control of all of this–not the publishers, and once they fully understand this, that is when times will become truly interesting. Unfortunately, it will probably take a new generation to get rid of this idea that “I have to publish in certain, prestigious publications”, which is really all that scholarly publishers have left.

If tuition is going up, and utilization of information resources is going up more slowly, one has to wonder why there is a budget crisis in libraries. Where is the extra money going? What is more important? Nice buildings? Salaries?

That graph you point to is problematic. Centralizing purchasing at the library doesn’t mean institutions spent this much more overall. There was a centralization act occurring.

And, again, why would OA be cheaper in aggregate? It hasn’t demonstrated anything of the sort.

You really think libraries are having a budget crisis because salaries are too high? Really?


My question is, Where is all the extra tuition and all the extra fees going within the institution? If it’s not salaries for professors, administrators, and staff, is it for buildings, IT, or sports? There is a float there, and it’s obviously not going to the library, despite increased needs.

Where is the extra money going? What a strange question. As the graph shows, the publishers have been raising their prices for scholarly journals at a much higher rate than monographs for decades now and the extra money is going to those publishers. While monographs have gone up 87%, serials have gone up 340%. The CPI was 89% during that time.

Therefore, there is no extra money. The way libraries have paid for this has been by raiding the budget for books, not staffing positions and other “creative accounting” methods, and I don’t know what they will have to do in the future. Where your claim about centralization originates from is beyond me. This graph shows expenditures for journals as opposed to monographs and the general CPI. This rate clearly cannot be sustained.

Therefore, it is only logical that libraries and scholars should reconsider matters in this new environment to ensure that they can do their work. After all, that is the idea of this entire affair: the idea is for society and scholars to get their work done, not so that publishers can continue to get paid.

There is extra money. You’re comparing percentage increases without taking into account the base from which each started. Universities have increased tuition and fees by 375% during this time, from a higher base. Assume tuition and fees started at $10,000 per student, and you have 20,000 students. The college president has a $200,000,000 income stream. That’s increased 375%, or 3.75 times, so is now about $750,000,000, for a net increase of $550,000,000 at this hypothetical institution. Meanwhile, the library budget started at $1,700,000, let’s assume for the sake of argument, with $1,000,000 designated for journals. Costs for journals have increased by 340%, so the journals budget is now somewhere just north of $3,400,000. The library has $2,400,000 more to spend on journals, while the overall institution has $550,000,000 more. That’s the extra money I’m talking about.

Of course, these numbers are hypothetical. I’d love someone to provide some actual numbers.

Considering university finance without considering support from the state when the two are inextricably linked (to take a random example, seems completely ridiculous.

Show us one major institution anywhere that has trebled its income in the last five years, and I’ll print out this thread and eat it.

With a more realistic framework, you may just be dining on an awfully long comment thread. You can’t frame a library budget (which is a slice of a university’s budget) with the university’s budget. Monbiot mangles this completely. A university of any major size only needs a slight increase in its tuition and fees to cover increased information acquisition needs and the related fees. Let’s take the University of Pennsylvania. Between 2005 and 2009, tuition and fees grew $150 million (from $550 million to $700 million). They don’t need to triple their income from tuition and fees to cover increases in library budgets, not by a long shot. The bases are completely out of scale. The library is a small subset of the university. Tripling a $5 million budget over 25 years still means a net change in cash needs of $10 million. U of Penn increased its revenues just from tuition and fees by $150 million in just 5 years. Total revenues at the same time increased by over $1 billion.

Would you like ketchup with that?

This is a fascinating question, far more so than the Monbiot issue. My conjecture is that a lot of University administrators figure that libraries are becoming obsolete so the budgets are frozen or cut, or just not growing as fast as the institutional income stream, while journal cost growth is matching the income stream. The library community seems to talk a lot about becoming obsolete (as do the publishers, for that matter), so this may well be the general perception.

You are taking a lot for granted. For me, I’ll grant that tuition and fees have gone up 375% as you say, yet it does not follow that budgets for libraries have gone up the same amount, and within the library’s budget, that the amounts toward acquisitions have gone up that same amount. It turns out that this is not true, e.g. I am sure that the numbers are much worse today after the economic bubble burst.

Besides, we should not be diverted by side issues. The real issue is not how much money universities and libraries have, the issue is: there has been a crisis in serials pricing where prices for academic serials have gone up much in excess of the CPI. Librarians have talked about it for decades but have worked to shield researchers from its effects as much as possible. Perhaps they shouldn’t have, but that is beside the point now.

The fruits of these higher prices have gone neither to the authors of the serial articles nor to the peer reviewers, but to the publishers and their shareholders. Added into this, as Monbiot quoted from no one less than Deutsche Bank: “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process.” That is quite a damning statement.

The serials pricing trends we have seen for all this time can no longer be sustained. The gravy train is over. This is simple fact. Still, researchers need to be able to share their discoveries and new ways must be found.

We are at the very beginnings of OA and there are many bugs to be worked out. There will be disruptions and problems as these new methods are found, but it is clear that the old ways are broken and those new methods must be found. I think publishers could be a very important part of those new ways if they want, but they cannot figure on charging the ruinous prices they have become accustomed to. Those days are really over.

I never said library budgets have gone up commensurate with university revenues. Quite the opposite — I wonder why library budgets have not kept pace with information resource utilization when overall institution revenues have increased so dramatically, and on a dollar basis, have provided more than enough revenues to cover these demands multiple times over. I think librarians have shielded administrators from this fact, which is partly what has led to the supposed crisis.

Think about it this way — if you had a weekly stipend of $10 out of a household budget of $1,000, and over 25 years you needed your stipend to reach $30, would it be unreasonable to expect that extra $20 if your household budget had increased to $3,750? This is not a side issue, but a central issue.

The comparison to CPI isn’t helpful. Higher education is a unique market. Tuition and fees have increased much faster than CPI. R&D funding has increased by more than this amount over the past 25 years. So, if tuition and fees are up, research funding is up — how can you say academics haven’t benefited?

OA is another type of funding. It hides much of its costs behind the scenes, in inflated research grants, side budgets at universities, and so forth. And it’s likely part of the same micro-economy of academia, so its prices will increase plenty as well.

The fruits of these higher prices have gone neither to the authors of the serial articles nor to the peer reviewers, but to the publishers and their shareholders.

This statement ignores the many journals owned by research societies, academic institutions and other third parties (some published independently, most done in partnership with a publisher, many of whom are not-for-profit and owned by academic institutions). The fruits go to many places beyond just shareholders, including funding society activities, scholarships and research.

So, you basically say that the general public is too stupid to understand the scientific content of scientific journals, and the only ones who matter are the scientists who can truly understand the content of the articles. You said “It’s for specialists, or better, subspecialists.” I beg to differ. There are many lay-people in all disciplines who are blocked from research because they don’t subscribe to the journal, and they don’t have the means to pay $30-40/article for all the research needed in a topic. This talk by Lawrence Lessig at CERN is just one example of many to provide a counter example,

Anecdotes are not data. Lessig’s main complaints are about rights-granting, not payment schemes per se. I tend to agree with him on these points — it is silly to block access to a table because someone has some concern about the table being emailed around or something; it’s crazy that the theme song of a famous TV show has to change when it’s put on DVD because of a rights issue. That said, most of the examples about public access come from the medical space, and medical publishers are usually quite helpful when it comes to patients’ needs. My journals, for instance, have a way for patients to request free copies of articles. It’s hardly ever used. So you can get on your high horse about it, but the fact and reality remain that science is becoming more jargon-filled, more subspecialized, harder for even its practitioners to understand and talk about, and so forth. The public needs different solutions than access. There’s too much information. It’s without context. Studies from 5 years ago need to be updated, where they fit explained, the nuances of letters to the editor, corrections, and retractions factored in, etc. I’m not saying the general public is stupid, I’m saying they’re not scientists or physicians. Would I represent myself in court? No, I’m not a trained lawyer. I’m not stupid, but I’m not trained in the law. Would I benefit from reading about how to build a bridge? No, I’ll never be given permission to build a bridge, because that takes a lot of training, experience, and certification. I’m probably smart enough to do it. This isn’t about intelligence.

Indeed, intelligence has nothing to do with it. It is part of the logic of science that it becomes every more specialized. Here is a simple model that shows why:

Most research proceeds by delving into more detail. At every new level of detail new things are discovered, which require new words to talk about, so jargon grows apace. In fact in an active field it may grow exponentially.

However, if the number of researchers does not grow exponentially then this growth has to be offset by dying fields (something no one seems to want to study). In that case the number of people who understand a given research area may be relatively constant. Thus it is the case that generally only a few people can really understand any given research article while it is relatively new and that is because they are close specialists.

The corollary, as Kent points out, is that knowledge diffusion does not occur simply by having more people read the original articles. It is far more complex than that.

There is a countervailing case however, and this is where people in many different specialties use the same math (Monte Carlo, say), methods or basic concepts. Then there is a real need for rapid diffusion from field to field. See my

You noted – “librarians are intelligent players in the scholarly space who, working with publishers, have secured excellent, sustainable deals for their constituencies to resources that are almost all online now.” Yes, I agree that librarians are intelligent, but we don’t exactly have sustainable deals. This is not a sustainable situation! That is why so many libraries are reconsidering the “Big Deal” such as because they are not sustainable. The 36% profit margin by Elsevier is good for their investors, but that is not sustainable for the libraries.

Not sustainable, yet it’s noted that Elsevier’s margins have been high for decades. Which is it? Or are you going to short Elsevier stock now?

The serials crisis has been around for decades. It seems sustainable, too.

This is like saying “we’ve had global warming for years. If it was a crisis, we would have done something about it by now, so clearly it’s not a crisis.”

Earlier you say libraries have abetted the situation by shielding their institutions (and we have – our entire purpose is to serve those who use our libraries, so we have a hard time saying “no, that’s far too expensive, suck it up.” We also don’t have alumni breathing down admins’ neck demanding more funds for the library instead of a better coach). The trouble is all of the levers for change are unconnected. Faculty feel they have to publish more, like it or not. The cost to the library is a separate thing. Journal prices go up and libraries scramble, but they aren’t the ones who ultimately decide what’s needed, their users are. We end up with less money for books every year (though often books are far more durable and accessible to more of our users than journal articles) not because we prefer journals, but because it’s a lot easier to not buy a book than to negotiate canceling a journal. (Besides, sharing books is easier – well, those that are in print.) Meanwhile independent researchers and researchers at institutions that are not among the few that can afford massive amounts of access to journal literature are more and more often running into barriers. Yet, they are supposed to be productive scholars….

So what are we supposed to do? How can this possibly be sustainable? Now that we are hacking away at journals and buying one article at a time, I’m not sure what the next crisis will bring. We’re I can’t help but picture the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting he’s invincible as his arms and legs are hacked off.

Only it’s libraries that are being reduced and yet we’re supposed somehow to … I dunno, stick around and pretend we’re still whole. I think I’m down to no arms and one leg ….

Barbara, I couldn’t have said it any better. Kent, you are hiding your head in the sand. Wake up and smell the coffee.

… except for that stray “we’re” I left lying about when I was distracted. But thanks, Joe.

[Replying to two comments.]

My point is that there’s been a failure at some level to tell an easily told story — information is more important to researchers, who are more important to university funding and prestige, and these researchers are using more information than ever, and they are relying on the library more than ever to pay for what they need. I don’t think (per the comment below) that I’ve been the one burying my head in the sand.

If there’s supply and demand, the question is budget. You’re saying the supply is growing and the demand is growing.

Is that coffee you’re smelling?

The whole point of the Monbiot article lies in the acres of text above this one, and on the Guardian’s website. This is classic journalism to deliberately stir things up, and you have to admit he has done a pretty good job and should increase the innovation Publishers have shown to make as much academic research available as possible while ensuring a long-term sustainable business.

I think Monbiot’s rant reeked of old ideas and old issues. Publishers have been innovating forever, and will continue to do so. One point of this post was to remind people how much change and innovation has occurred just in the past decade. I especially like the fact that OA advocates still take on a “marginalized” attitude when OA is just about as mainstream as any publishing business model.

“The fact is that librarians are intelligent players in the scholarly space who, working with publishers, have secured excellent, sustainable deals for their constituencies to resources that are almost all online now”

Wow I don’t know how it is sustainable when our 2012 budget is going to be held at 2% below 2011 and our online journal package goes up 8%. I don’t disagree that we are getting a great deal because our usage stats indicate that we pay about $1.57 per full text download. BUT that doesn’t mean that our library’s budget can handle an 8% increase in the total package cost bringing it from $158,000 a year to $170,000 a year. I realize we are getting a deal for the full text articles, but with budget cuts we can’t even afford the current deal we getting now for next year.

That’s a budget problem. What’s your university’s total revenue projection for the coming year? Up or down? By what %?

Yes it is a budget problem but that is the problem that all medical libraries face. Hospitals are buckling down in the face of the economy, some may be making money some are not. Bed censuses are down, medicare reimbursement is changing, They like many businesses are holding onto money but not spending it.
The library does not generate revenue in their eyes. It doesn’t collect tuition, nobody is going to school for the library like they do for certain programs. It doesn’t take x-rays nor have methods to charge patients whose doctors used it services. To many it is an expense and in these times you cut expenses.
That is the way it is.That is what we are trying to explain to publishers, universities and hospitals don’t equate their revenue with us. There is no “profit sharing” of the total revenue among departments. Departments that obviously bring in revenue are supported, those that support those don’t obviously have a revenue stream are cut and many are closed.

A note: Peter Coles (aka, the Telescoper), while accusing me of invective, basically threatens scholarly publishers in this post (“. . . next in line after the bankers”). This is exactly the kind of reckless rhetoric that doesn’t help anything. In addition to being offensive, irresponsible, and inappropriate, Coles and others like him can’t have it both ways. That is, you can’t complain about invective here and threaten to round us up there.

Really, you should be ashamed, Peter. Argue the ideas; don’t threaten people.

I have added the following comment to my reblog of your post:

For the benefit of the entirely humourless amongst you, let me stress that I am not advocating armed revolution, summary execution or any other form of violence against the academic publishing industry. This line is what we in my country call “a joke”.

I trust that clarifies the situation.

Implicitly, you did. The rhetoric you used draws up images of genocide and persecution, pitchforks and torches, revenge and violence. It’s not much, but it’s more than you needed to do, and I’ve become pretty intolerant of threatening rhetoric, even in small doses. There are other ways to get your point across. Resorting to the rhetoric of hooligans and mobs was unnecessary and incendiary, even if used briefly. Why throw a lit match at someone? And then, when called on it, pretend you didn’t do it? Man up, Peter. You didn’t need to say what you said, and it was vaguely threatening. I would be impressed if you accepted that you went too far.

It’s a bad joke. It dredges up images of genocide and persecution, hilarious topics that help people rationally discuss options and ideas. Well played!

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