Serials crisis and corn laws

In characteristically hyperbolic mode, George Monbiot has pronounced on the “serials crisis” in academic publishing. As with most things, Monbiot doesn’t get it. Or at least he fails to appreciate the complexity of the problem, and is reduced instead to scoring cheap rhetorical points.

After a cursory introduction to the issue at hand, Monbiot goes on to pontificate…

“What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.”

And it gets worse. Much worse.

Most non-commercial research is funded from the public purse, but publication of research results does not receive state subsidy. Grant applicants may include in their proposals an amount for the publication of peer-reviewed journal papers, but generally speaking this covers only the cost of a few hundred article reprints for distribution to colleagues. With electronic publishing and PDF self-archiving, reprints are quickly going the way of the papyrus scroll.

Academic journals are privately owned publications, independent of government agencies that foot the bill for research work. Publishing has always been a difficult business area in which to work. Profit margins tend to be tight, unless one is talking about tabloid newspapers and other mass-market rags. Research journals have a much smaller subscriber base, and are expensive to run. Profits must be made, but they are hardly “exorbitant”. Even commercial business-to-business newsletters have subscription rates that can run into the thousands of euros a year. Corporate subscribers are willing to pay such amounts if the value of the information content is sufficiently high. That applies also to academic journals.

The problem is that this business model is failing. An even bigger problem is that alternative publishing models are not yet working well enough to replace the traditional print journal. Open-access publishing is growing apace, but its model is in large part incompatible with the existing research regime. Major structural changes will need to be implemented before Monbiot’s demand that all publicly-funded research results be available to all free of charge can be realised.

Open-access publishing relies on researchers paying for their content to be published. Where the system works, it can be very effective indeed, and it is reasonable to suggest that before long most research will be published electronically in open-access journals. There will still be a number of standard-bearing, subscription-based, interdisciplinary journals, but access costs in these cases can be kept to within reasonable limits by high volume sales. That cannot happen with the more specialised publications.

Monbiot again…

“The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws. Let’s throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us.”

Likening the prevailing academic publishing industry to the corn laws is silly, as is Monbiot’s misrepresenting of the considered if open to criticism position of Research Councils UK, which quite rightly avoids being prescriptive when it comes to the publishing of research results. It is not the business of the state to make such demands of independent scholars. Encouraging the growth of open-access publishing will require a more thoughtful approach than is offered by a newspaper columnist whose primary aim is to draw attention to himself.