Last Monday (2011-08-29) in the Guardian, George Monbiot wrote a critique on academic publishers. He was shocked that this branch of the industry seems to fairing rather well in the current economic crisis (dip 2 and counting). Elsevier had an operating profit margin of 36% and charges a university library over $20,000 for Biochimica et Biophysica Acta. More surprisingly, Elsevier’s operating profit margin now is the same as it was in 1998. It is not these actual numbers that are the biggest problem (although the subscription money is decimating libraries’ budgets and thus the service they can provide). It is where they get the money from.
In short, researchers pay to publish in journals, where their peers perform quality control for these journals for free, and subsequently the journals demand money from everyone who would like to read these articles that passed the quality control.
The money the researchers use to pay for this (directly for their publication or indirectly through their institutions library to read their colleagues’ work) comes from their grants. Most of these grants come from public sources, such as the NIH and NFS grants. For individual and less fortunate universities (especially smaller and foreign ones) have to pay per individual article. How much do Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, NPG, etc. charge per article? Between $20-$42! There are exceptions such as Open Access journals (PLoS, BioMed Central, etc) or other forms of free pre-print (non peer-reviewed) sharing such as arXiv, but as the most prestigious journals: Nature, Science and Cell are not Open Access. The hard labor done by researchers with public money remains hidden behind corporate pay-walls. Why would companies be allowed to make so much money from public funds, while the People cannot access what they already paid for through taxes? It is not that these publishers are adding something to the acquired knowledge, as they ask the same people who write the article to review their colleagues work for free. Or so Monbiot argues.
Apparently Monbiot hit a nerve as this article went viral in the blogosphere. Below you can find some of the links to several responses to Monbiot’s article.
Some of the responses: WEIT. Gigaom. Noah Gray. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Also, Jonathan Eisen, a UC Davis professor is trying to make his dad’s publications freely available, but he also encounters these very same problems.
Edit 1: SciELO (Open Access papers available)
Edit 2: A second article in the Guardian on academic publishers by Ben Goldacre.