July 24, 2012
U.S. News Looks At Academic Publishing Costs
U.S. News editor Simon Owens has an article about the current state of academic publishing and the high cost of subscribing to available content, particularly in the scientific fields. The crisis is exemplified by the Harvard Libraries telling faculty that the cost of subscribing to their research journals is “unsustainable.” Prices rise for the captive academic customers and a few publishers make a tidy profit despite the economics of publishing these journals.
We in academic law libraries may see the side effects of this crisis indirectly. If our libraries contribute to the cost of some of these subscriptions, then our costs rise as well. I think it’s true for most law faculties to spend more time researching and writing about social science issues rather than pure law. I find myself using Academic Search Premier, Wiley, Elsevier, JSTOR, and other databases way more than I use Lexis or Westlaw. The latter have become document delivery sources rather than to research a legal issue. Such is the state of faculty research.
Then there is the question of what to do about the cost of law reviews. Hein Online is such a stable and affordable source for current and archival law reviews that it seems less and less compelling to keep bound volumes on the shelf. Of course, this view only works provided some predatory publisher or conglomerate doesn’t purchase Hein and upsets that stability. I guess that is always a possibility even if unlikely. But I digress.
Harvard’s message to its scholars is to ask that they consider publishing in open source publications. The problem with that is careers are made on prestigious citations. Open source journals haven’t necessarily reached that status in the academic world. That’s not to say that there isn’t support for the idea. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) publishes more and more content as time progresses.
Two other issues affect the reasonable availability of open access articles. One is the peer review process many commercial publications use which is to leverage the expertise of the scientific community for the editorial work. Note that these reviewers do not get paid for their activity. At the same time, they do get access to the journals for their own publications.
The second reflects the attempts by the publishers to keep government funded research from any type of free access. The latest withdrawn example, the Research Works Act, would have stopped government agencies and the National Institutes of Health in particular from creating repositories of research articles based on public funding. Some publishers and scholars opposed to these repositories suggest the taxpaying public wouldn’t understand the highly technical content of these articles. My response to the argument is that scholars pay taxes. In any event, why shouldn’t scholars build on publicly funded research without having to pay (or pay a lot) for the privilege?
One alternative suggested by Fred Dylla, executive director at the American Institute of Physics, is for agencies to list papers generated from their grants and then link the public to sources where papers could be downloaded for a small fee. He said there are around 40 publishers using a rental model for one-off downloads with the price similar to that of a cup of coffee. I’m not so sure about that. So far the rental accesses I’ve seen seem more around the price of a coffee urn than a cup. Then again, that 30-40% profit margin must be maintained.
Owens does a nice job of examining the economics of the academic publishing industry. It’s well worth a read. And the best part is that U.S. News hasn’t placed it behind a pay wall. [MG]