25 January 2011

More Clarifications: On Academic Publishing

So my position on Elsevier also requires some clarification.

on the one hand you say it is in the nature of a private firm to maximise its profits, but at the same time you say that if they don't decide to make no profit at all they should be nationalised?

Ian Thorpe also discussed a number of different business/revenue models:

Journals are not “free” to produce of course. Producing them costs money, whether it’s to organize the peer review process, for editing, layout, printing, distribution, advertising, web design, subscription management and so on.

Well firstly I refuse to believe that the costs for online-only access are (or at least should be) that high. Look at this blog! It costs me nothing absolutely nothing to publish. With the exception of $10 for the domain name.

But let me start again – informati0n basically has most of the properties of a textbook public good, which kind of suggests that it should be publicly funded and made freely available to all. Public funding could co-exist with the existing publishing companies through some sort of contractual arrangement. I don’t buy the arguments for establishing new journals, reputations are too difficult to acquire. Rather, governments should tell publishers that they will now be publishing things online for free, and then maybe give them some compensation for it, but then as the costs are so low they could basically afford to just do that bit for free and cross-subsidize the slightly loss-making online versions by selling physical copies to libraries. And yeah sure, let them stick some advertising on it too, the basic point is that they should be compelled to allow free online access.

And finally whilst it is of course completely logically understandable when profit-maximising firms happen to behave utterly disgustingly in the valid pursuit of profits, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pour scorn on them.

Is that any better/clearer?


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the clarifications. Will add an update on my blog. I guess my main point is that while I totally agree that research should be free, I'm not sure what the moat viable economic model is to produce it. If the market could find a way to make it reliably free then maybe it would be preferable to public funding.

A colleague suggested to me that part of the solution might be for those who want to publish (and/or the organizations that employ them)should refuse to publish with those journals who won't share their content for free. Maybe there is a possibility to mobilize people around a campaign for this.

As for pouring scorn - while I respect that the profit motive is an important driver of human progress, I'm all in favour of pouring scorn over its excesses and those that are responsible for them.

Lee said...

The trouble with some kind of researcher-led campaign is you'd be asking medical researchers to boycott the Lancet, economists to boycott basically all of the most prestigious journals, it would be some feat to pull that off.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that would be a hard sell. Maybe governments and large aid agencies and foundations could all mandate that any research they support be open access. That might be a start, although it would leave a lot out.

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