Absurd "academic publishing racket" is past its sell-by date

In the Observer, John Naughton unloads both barrels on the "academic publishing racket" in which giant multinational publishers get free, state-subsidized research to publish, use free, state-subsidized labor for peer-review, require assignments of the scholars' copyrights as a condition of publication, then charge astounding sums to the scientists and academics they are "serving" for the right to read the work they're all engaged in producing.

But it's not just the exorbitant subscriptions that stink; it's the intrinsic absurdity of what's involved in the academic publishing racket. Most publishers, after all, have at least to pay for the content they publish. But not Elsevier, Springer et al. Their content is provided free by researchers, most of whose salaries are paid by you and me.

The peer reviewing that ensures quality in these publications is likewise provided gratis by you and me, because the researchers who do it are paid from public money. (One estimate puts the value of UK unpaid peer reviewing at a staggering £165m.) And then the publishers not only assert copyright claims on the content they have acquired for nothing, but charge publicly funded universities monopoly prices to get access to it.

The most astonishing thing about this is not so much that it goes on, but that people have put up with it for so long. Talk to university librarians about extortionist journal subscriptions and mostly all you will get is a pained shrug. The librarians know it's a racket, but they feel powerless to act because if they refused to pay the monopoly rents then their academics – who, after all, are under the cosh of publish-or-perish mandates – would react furiously (and vituperatively).

Which is why the recent initiative by a Cambridge academic, Tim Gowers, is so interesting and important. Professor Gowers is a recipient of the Fields medal, which is the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize, so they don't come more eminent than him. In a memorable blogpost, Gowers announced that henceforth he would not be submitting articles to Elsevier's journals and that he would also be refusing to peer-review articles for them. His post struck a nerve, attracting thousands of readers and commenters and stimulating one of them to set up a campaigning website, The Cost of Knowledge, which enables academics to register their objections to Elsevier. To date, more than 9,000 have done so.

Here's an interesting wrinkle I've encountered in a few places. Many scholars sign work-made-for-hire deals with the universities that employ them. That means that the copyright for the work they produce on the job is vested with their employers -- the universities -- and not the scholars themselves. Yet these scholars routinely enter into publishing contracts with the big journals in which they assign the copyright -- which isn't theirs to bargain with -- to the journals. This means that in a large plurality of cases, the big journals are in violation of the universities' copyright. Technically, the universities could sue the journals for titanic fortunes. Thanks to the "strict liability" standard in copyright, the fact that the journals believed that they had secured the copyright from the correct party is not an effective defense, though technically the journals could try to recoup from the scholars, who by and large don't have a net worth approaching one percent of the liability the publishers face.

Of course, to pursue this line, you'd have to confront the fact that academics are sharecroppers to their employers, and that the works they've published, posted to their websites, licensed for anthologies, etc, aren't theirs, which would have a lot of fallout beyond mere academic publishing circles. But it's still provocative to consider the possibility that the journals (and their enormous, conlgomerated parent companies) might owe something like 40 years' worth of the entire planet's GDP to a bunch of cash-strapped universities.

Academic publishing doesn't add up


    1. Academic books are expensive because they are printed in very small runs (often less than 500 copies).

        1. This outcome is unlikely in the near future, given the conditions I described in my post below.

        2. Printing costs are only a small part of why the price is high, so e-books shouldn’t be much cheaper. Unless you mean that people will just pirate them (which would just make unpirated copies more expensive).

          1.  Surely wide distribution at a trivial cost would result in a few papers making a lot more money than everything distrubuted narrowly at a high cost.

    2. A small amount of the costs can reasonably be accounted for as expenses owing to the labor involved, and expertise necessary, to produce scholarship, which is generally of a degree greater than the labor and expertise needed for trade books. Consider editing etc.: some of this can get quite tricky when it’s multiple languages (as in a humanities text dealing with, say, Hebrew learning in England during the Renaissance) or lots of graphs and figures, etc. I’m not sure that you can reasonably expect the original contributors to produce perfect work, or to make it perfect in the editing process, without help, at least under current publishing models. Crowdsourcing would do a lot to mitigate this: I’m sure the Web can find folks willing to sightread Latin for free; at the very least, it’s theoretically possible.

      So it’s not all just rampant mystification and price-gouging. Just most of it, lol.

      1.  Almost all the labor you describe here is provided, gratis, to the publishers. The scholarship is paid for by institutions. The jurying is done on a volunteer basis.

        1. Actually, none of that labor is free. I’m talking about factchecking, copyediting, proofreading, rights clearance assistance, etc. Generally, authors’ don’t sign off on their work as editors of that work, at least not at the journals where I’ve worked. A second or third look is needed, and that’s generally left to an editorial type. Scholarship, jurying, etc. are done as you describe. Believe me, tenured humanities professors aren’t going to spend hours playing “hunt the spurious comma.”

          It’s possible, of course, to crowdsource even these remaining things. But I don’t think that’s currently standard editorial practice. 

          1.  What?  Academic journals don’t do “factchecking” – that’s part of what peer reviewers are supposed to do.

            Hmmm… I see you’re talking about humanities, though – my experience is in hard sciences.

      2.  This kind of publishing should be done by non-profits with oversight and public accountability.   They could pay their employees reasonably and still get the (already paid for) information to the public and everyone would be served well.

        Oh wait, this makes too much sense!

        1. Um, there are nonprofit academic publishers. At least, that’s what they put on their websites. 

  1. “40 years’ worth of the entire planet’s GDP”

    That’s patently ridiculous. Academic publishing is not that valuable. For it to be, you’d have to have the equivalent of the entire workforce of the entire world producing nothing but academic papers from 1970 to now, and then have *all* of that output appropriated by these companies. Sorry, but the field is not that big. 40 years worth of the entire economy of the world has not been done in academic publishing.

    1. It could be he was referring to the $150,000 statutory damages per instance for willful copyright infringement.

  2. The article is well written. However, it does create the misleading view that the push against academic publishers is a new thing. As background, it’s worth mentioning that Stephen Harnad at Southampton Uni and others have been writing on the need for Open Access of journal content since the mid 90s.

  3. The Observer article implicitly focuses on the Sciences, but similar rackets exist in the Humanities as well. The problem (in part) is that many senior academics who are in a position to change this closed-access system, the ones who sit on the hiring and promotion committees, are unwilling to do so. The academic maxim is not “publish or perish” but instead “publish in journal XYZ or perish” — and XYZ is nearly always closed-access. Academic jobs are scarce and rare is the young academic who would jeopardize a future career (to the extent one exists) by publishing research in open access journals. Those who secure this material for others risk imprisonment.

    In the Humanities, senior academics are gatekeepers not ‘sharecroppers’.

    1. Except that nobody cares if new works in the humanities stay on the shelf. Scientific publishing is a scam, but science is still a good thing in itself. The humanities, as constituted in today’s universities, are a fraud, both perpretrated on and perpretrated by academics. As you note yourself, academic jobs are scarce and yet we continue to have an oversupply of bright young people deluded into believing this kind of work is important and matters. Meanwhile, the world is not exactly waiting for a new Lacanian analysis of the works of Susan Sontag.

      1. Your example — “a new Lacanian analysis of the works of Susan Sontag” — demonstrates how little you know of the work that takes place in the Humanities disciplines.

      2. I just had a look at what you post on twitter, and you talk about democracy now, the occupy movement, the US spying on its citizens, etc. What you’re proposing is that the general ebb and flow of culture, politics, aesthetics – that you yourself seem interested in – should just go on unexamined by people that are simply ill-mannered enough to analyse such things on a level above that which you’re comfortable with. And because you’re uncomfortable with it, they definitely shouldn’t communicate those ideas to others for money, which obviously needs to be set aside for activities which occur in some mythical culture-free world.
        If you’re unable to imagine even a single mechanism whereby scholarly research into culture has beneficial societal effects, then you really should seek out a place on the planet where such things don’t exist, and so won’t bother you. I certainly won’t be joining you. 

  4. I agree with the general POV of the article–as well as this post–as few academicians are going to defend the publishing industry. However, it’s useful to know exactly how much money from public institutions is actually from public funds. Most large public universities conducting top tier research rely on only a fraction of public dollars. Take the U of W – Madison for example. Only 17% comes from public money (Source: 
    http://www.uwalumni.com/?sectionpath=1&pageid=20143 )

    And what % of THAT is actually restricted funding (set aside for specific purposes)? 

    The fact is, many of these institutions have had to insulate their budgets from a pendulum-like political processes that would slash their budgets based on the whimsy of elected officials.

    1. Quoting US statistics is a bit parochial, no? Especially when the article mentioned comes from a UK newspaper. I don’t have time to dig for the comparable numbers for here in Canada but I’d take a wager it’s north of 80% easy.

      1. So a UK paper can’t get the stats right? Anyway, Canada is a different story entirely. For the US, it’s a sad story I’m afraid. The argument that US public research should be free to the American public is a sound one–that’s not what I’m arguing. It’s just that taxpayer money only funds a fraction of public universities and a fraction of that trickles down into research. 

        1. Universities may not be principally paid for by public dollars, but much of the research is, so the argument still applies.  

          Taxpayer money does fund a significant portion of this research directly in the form of research grants and investment from the NSF, DOD/DARPA, military, CDC and countless other government sources.    

          Most of those sources do not encumber their grants with an open access requirement, or even copyright restrictions save in the military field where certain classes of work become classified.  

  5. In my former field of physics, taking into account the hours laboured, I don’t know of a single professor who made anything more than minimum wage for writing a textbook.

    1. That makes for a series of interesting questions.  Some of these may be simply due to my ignorance of academia.

      Is there a tenure requirement that someone write one or more textbooks?  I was aware of the aggressive journal publication requirements, but have a number of tenured acquaintances that have ( to my knowledge, anyway )never written a text book. 

      If there is no tenure track requirement, and it actually costs them money, why do it?  Or at a minimum, why not collaborate across the largest pool of colleagues possible to minimize the negative economic consequence of producing a ( presumably ) better or more useful text?  ( I economic terms, time spent writing a text book is time not spent writing grant proposals, or doing research work that *does* pay, so the difference in “less than minimum wage” and their research rate is money lost ).  

      If textbook authoring is so difficult and time consuming and unprofitable, why are they so consistently updated with new editions?  

      The economist in me says that because, once the first edition is written, subsequent updates are extremely economically efficient ( in terms of hours worked to income derived ), as each update kills the secondary market, and forces an entirely new captive audience to buy the book anew, multiplying his hourly rate by at least 1.5-1.7 for each subsequent edition, significantly more if the number of students requiring the text increased for each edition and the new edition contains little new material ( as often seems to be the case ). 

      –added question–

      If textbook authorship is instead driven by non-economic factors – a labor of love or professional duty to advance the field – then why go through a traditional publisher at all unless it is for primary or secondary school students? ( in these markets, selection committees cannot be relied upon to have sufficient command of the material to make sound judgements, so the vetting of an established publisher has value )

      Ebook and even vanity/on demand publishing can be had at a fraction of the cost of a textbook publisher, on more favorable terms, and in less time. These channels do not preclude peer review, and the buying audience – other experts in your same subject matter – are more than qualified to judge the caliber of your work.

      My partner actually had a print management professor that composed a text book on binding and finishing from professional articles he had written across his career, and part of the class grade was binding and finishing their own textbook. To this day, he regards it as one of the most valuable and useful educational experiences of his entire career, and he still uses it for reference on occasion.

      This does not begin to touch on the academic text book publishers, but it doesn’t really have to. I find it exceedingly unlikely that they ended up making minimum wage over the life of their books unless they were substandard, or there were significant other non-economic factors that motivated them. In the face of non-economic factors, then whether or not they are being exploited by their publishers becomes a completely different question.

  6. Just in case any of you non-academics are wondering why you should give a shit: literally every link in this chain is paid for in part or in whole by your tax dollars.  You are paying for academics to do research, which is great.  But then you are paying absolutely insane fees for that research to be published in journals that you can’t even access!  For a non-academic to buy access to a single journal article is often on the order of $30, despite the fact that you, as a taxpayer, have funded the entire enterprise to begin with.  It’s not fair to taxpayers, it’s not good for science, and it’s not even remotely clear that it adds any substantial value to the  process.  

    1.  Actually, within the past 48 hours I have thrice tried to reference papers published by friends of mine in the 1980s and 90s, and each time ended up on jstor… where I left in disgust after being informed that the price would be $45 American.  If they’d charged 99 cents, I would have paid, and then I’d have linked them as well.

  7. The question I have asked but not seen answered is what are junior faculty members to do? Tim Gowers and his colleagues can easily boycott Elsevier. Gowers can publish anywhere he wants to or just dump his papers on ArXiv and it will make no difference. Junior faculty on the tenure track need to publish in peer-reviewed journals, a huge proportion of which are published by Elsevier or Springer, especially in mathematics. Joining a boycott just isn’t an option, much as they may support the ends of free and open publication. (They are also expected to contribute their labor as reviewers.)

    1. People like Michael Eisen have attempted to debunk the common “knowledge” that you can’t get a good position/tenure without having published in supposed “prestige” journals. A more practical complaint is that in collaborative research most authors don’t have a choice in where the paper goes — that’s normally up to the senior author, and being older, many of these are skeptical of journals that haven’t been around since before electric lighting was common.

      1.  Aren’t you the same guy that’s always posting here on BoingBoing about how something isn’t really science unless it’s been published in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”?  And then you go on to dismiss any journal that disagrees with you as not “reputable”?  I seem to recall a darkly hilarious discussion about eugenics, where you took the absurd position that eugenics was never a darling of mainstream American science…

        1. There are plenty of open access journals that are peer reviewed. I happen to be an academic editor on two of them. I’m talking about the “common wisdom” that if you don’t publish in closed access journals like Cell or Nature your career is screwed. 

          As for the eugenics question, my point was that quite early on, actual *geneticists* realized that the goal of eliminating supposed undesirable traits by controlling who could reproduce or not was impossible as there would be many carriers that wouldn’t display the trait yet could pass it on. I’m just tired of people blaming geneticists for eugenics when it general it was non-scientists who were the actual proponents of it.

          1.  I’ve heard your circular reasoning before, and am well aware of how willingly you misrepresent history.  No need to run the loop again.

  8. I’ve worked for a number of STM publishers on the IT side, and while much about the industry is, indeed, ludicrous, that end of the equation is always glossed over. It’s certainly not ‘free’ to just throw everything up online – that’s me making sure the metadata makes sense and that the paper is findable – and that’s not even getting into the IT infrastructure (which is often terrible). I have major issues with the way various places I’ve worked run their businesses, but open access (so far) is not free either – it’s still pay to play, you simply shift the cost to the author, rather than the reader. Both approaches need serious rethinks.

    1. But at least Open Access online publishers, like Pl0s One for example, charge the author the cost of publishing rather than sinking the costs in subscriptions. Since it is generally the same institutions paying in either case (does anyone actually buy articles at the generally ridiculous single issue price?) the for-profit publishers create an artificial situation where it is cheaper for the author and his department to publish in a closed-access journal… even though their institution ends up paying for it through library subscriptions.
      This is particularly harmful because it means that scientific institutions are subsidizing a system that ensures that scientific work is available to the smallest number of people possible.

    2. Free is relative.  The access fees the publishers charge are not based on any unavoidable degree of overhead or direct costs.  The costs that they bear above and beyond any other publisher are primarily the research costs, and the peer review costs – and they pay for neither.

      If their printing, indexing, hosting, binding and distribution costs are really that high, then it is because of a failure of the business to remain current with technology and industry norms, NOT because the process is properly, or inherently expensive.  Further, open access provisions do not necessarily require that such things be completely free to all comers, or in all formats.  

      Having worked extensively in both printing and as a web monkey, I can tell you for certain that the “costs” associated with producing a PDF from a preflight press file are nearly non-existent, and such a file would meet any of the open access standards in effect today. Ebooks may carry additional overhead, I’ve not dealt with them – but since an open access work has no reason to carry DRM, it really shouldn’t be any more complex than distilling a pdf.  

      In terms of hosting and search, there is the cost to set up a decent CMS, but once set up, the additional overhead of updating and maintaining it would be at most 1-2 employees – and only that if the volume was tremendously high. Once installed and configured, the patching, management and administration a properly implemented CMS should add only trivial overhead to your existing maintenance developers and sys admins.

    3. Two points: 1. paid open access shifts the cost from reader to *funder* of authors, not simply to authors. Very few authors actually pay out of pocket; it’s coming from grants and from universities. This is at least better than putting the onus on libraries, which have little bargaining power against the rapacious cost increases. Universities and large gov’t granting agencies won’t stand for bearing huge increases in publication fees & have the power to negotiate. 2. the other option for open access is university electronic repositories. These aren’t free, either (the university still has to pay staff to check and input metadata, install and babysit fussy open-source repository software, etc…), and they’re still in early stages, but MIT’s has had millions of downloads since it began less than a decade ago. Quite a few US universities (Including MIT, Harvard, Duke, U. Michigan) have recently created open access mandates, in which the author grants the university first rights to publish pre-print manuscripts, and requires authors to add a rider to that effect to publishing contracts.

  9. This involves the whole absurdity of the cost of education and the publishing business.  Is having to wade through so much junk that is not worth reading part of the cost.  And this especially applies to children  who have no idea what is junk yet.

    If you Google “science education” “science fiction” 1959

    You will find “Science fiction as a factor in science education” from 50 years ago.  It talked about accurate scientific principles used in science fiction stories for children decades ago.  So why do we have so much enthusiasm for Star Wars after all of these years.  Rite of Passage from 1968 by Alexei Panshin is better then Hunger Games.It seems or education system is not pointing kids at worthwhile material even though now we have all of this talk about STEM.  So is it just economical to keep people ignorant so they have to pay through the nose to obtain some knowledge.That was the background issue of Rite of Passage.

  10. You have to make it economical for academics to publish in more open venues, for instance I didn’t want to pay the 2k to Open Access my journal paper when I could post a hacked up version on my homepage.

    A. it has to be worth it for me not to publish in a closed venue. If my colleagues read it or it is ranked high (aka I get points) then yeah screw open access.

    B. I don’t pay library fees, so I don’t know the cost of IEEE/ACM/Elsevier/Wiley. I have access to them so I’m not affected.

    SO the only time I am affected by openaccess is when I’m asked for money to open access my own work. Thus maybe you can see why adoption of open access is slow going, and the boycott is economically ineffective.

    Summary: We’re lazy, make it easy, make it worth our while, and publishing in top tier venues is more valuable to us than open access.

    1.  Most open access journals do not charge authors; many (most? all?) that do will wave fees if the author has no funds allocated for this kind of expense.

      Even the largest libraries can’t afford everything. Sooner or later it will break down completely and then “not affected” won’t be so common.

    2.  The fact that academics don’t know what the library pays for journal subscriptions is well-known by librarians. In fact, that’s the basis for shifting the burden of payment to the author/funder, to avoid precisely that moral hazard. Believe me, librarians are working their kiesters off to make OA easier for the laziest of the lazy. It just takes a while to get everyone rowing at the same time and in the same direction. The trouble spots: 1. every journal has a different policy regarding copyright. If we’re going to help lazybones professors put their pre-prints in publicly available electronic repositories, we’ll need either a) unambiguous language inserted forcibly into all publishing contracts giving universities first rights or b) a whonking big updated database of publishers’ contract language regarding repositories. 2. Prof’s don’t know, for the most part, how close this system is to collapse, and just how thoroughly publishers have libraries over a barrel. 3. Tenure and promotion review policies that are based almost exclusively on impact factor are basically a sop to Elsevier and other big publishers. If T & P review policies were also to include download counts of repository articles or other measures of dissemination & influence, tenure-track publishing behavior would broaden into open access.

    3. Ummmm, allocate money for that expense in your grant request?  Problem solved.    You spend no un-budgeted money, and still get to feel all warm and fuzzy for contributing to the betterment of humanity and the sum total of human knowledge available to those of us who live and work OUTSIDE the hallowed halls of academia.  

      As for a “top tier venue”, I’m a bit confused.  Are you saying that your colleagues don’t read open access journals?  Are you somehow prevented from “getting points” because of it?  Is your field really so archaic that articles don’t get read unless they are in the dead tree version in the faculty bathroom?  

      I’m being sarcastic, but I would like to understand how it is that you would get fewer or lower quality readers because of it.  Are reputable open access journals exempt from peer review?  Is there some misperception ( or accurate perception ) that they contain lower quality research?  How, exactly, does a smaller audience for your work benefit you in any way other than “Published in XX journal” on your CV at conferences?

  11. It’s a shame that this broken system is just taken for granted, when in fact it’s pretty simple to do something about it.  Case in point: in 2001, the editors of Machine Learning realized that the Internet made old publishers redundant.  So, they resigned their posts and created their own journal–the Journal of Machine Learning Research, which I believe is now the top journal in the field.  

  12. Many commenters have already mentioned the rise of so called Open Access Journals like PLoS etc. However, loop is already closed. In order to procress with academic career or indeed to retain a job, i.e. to continue to receive public money, an average scientst needs to produce a certain number of publications in peer reviewed journals. This is the only method of evaluation of scientific contributions employed by administration in most universities in most countries. Increasingly, the choice of acceptable journals is limited by lists (established by each individual country). These lists are dominated with ‘respected’ jornals with high ‘impact factors’, formula which disproportionaly favors already established journals, making it almost impossible to start a new Ope Access Journal in certain research areas. The simple reason being that no one would submit papers to it as they will not get any points for doing so, thus making the effort a waste of time. A handfull of Open Access Journals makes it through into these lists, but majority is still good old IEEE/ACM/Elsevier/Wiley clicque. In era of budget cuts when so many research jobs are on chopping block, no one dares risk to disturb the status quo.

    1. It’s true that the trinity of Science/Nature/Cell (all closed access) has the highest impact factors, but the typical closed access journal doesn’t really have that high of an impact factor. The linked article mentions Elsevier’s “Tetrahedron” as being supposedly a highly ranked journal, yet apparently it only has an an impact factor of 3.011. Even PLoS ONE, an open access journal sometimes unfairly stereotyped as an “anything goes” journal (its policy is to publish sound science regardless of perceived novelty or importance), has an impact factor of 4.3.

    2.  The thing to do is get tenure and review policies changed so that impact factor isn’t the sole measure of effectiveness of dissemination. Because it’s actually a pretty crappy measure of that anyway, and adding other measures (such as download counts) would both do a better job measuring influence AND support such things as depositing to university electronic repositories.

  13. I can’t speak for the UK, but in the US at least, professors do not sign work-for-hire agreements regarding their original research scholarship.  Some other researchers or writers may, depending on their positions in a research institute or administration or wherever, but the people we tend to think of when we say “scholars” (professors and graduate students), do not.

  14. Like that crazy guy on television dressed in money who can sell you information on how to get money from the government though free government grants. He gets all his info FREE from the government, he’s selling you ‘access’ to free information and publications that you have access to too. 

  15. All I can say, being the self-centered lazy person that I am, that this annoys the crap out of me when I go on one of my googling binges about some disease or psychological condition (I think it’s fun). I always run into a wall because eventually the information requires a paid subscription. And as I’m no academic or medical professional I just sit there swearing at my screen.

  16. “Here’s an interesting wrinkle I’ve encountered in a few places. Many scholars sign work-made-for-hire deals with the universities that employ them.”

    I don’t know where you’ve seen that. I’ve worked at four institutions and never had to sign away copyright.

    They are, however, very interested in patents. Because that means money and publications don’t.

  17. Indeed, this whole piece hinges on the statement “Many scholars sign work-made-for-hire deals with the universities that employ them” which is not substantiated by any fact or data, or even anecdotal evidence.

    It _is_ true that generally, any intellectual output created by the employee of an organization that is a product of his job and created on the boss’ time, is deemed the intellectual property of the organization rather than of the employee. But to my knowledge that is more grounded in common law than in legislation or employment agreements (which hardly ever touch the subject), and I would argue that a judge would not necessarily consider an academic researcher to be subject to the same copyright considerations as a corporate employee. After all, a researcher is often paid out of project-specific grants provided by another funding agency than the university itself, and that makes it a different type of work relationship.

  18. Academic publishers, particularly journal publishers, are not really in the business of publishing, ironically enough. The business they are in is one of furthering scientific careers. The communication of scientific results can easily take place without the publishers or journals (see arXiv.org, for instance). But survival in the academic ‘ego-system’ is very hard without the formal publication in  journals, preferably those with high ‘impact factors’. The key to change is in the hands of the scientific community and its subculture and mores. The ‘publishers’ (they should be called ‘formalisers’ of scientific literature) are just picking up the money that the scientific community throws in front of them.

  19. Academic publishing is far worse than the trades, and both have to worry these days. Peer Review digital sites are becoming more popular, and shall gain cache after a time.

    I watched hardcover & paperback prices steadily rise through the ’80s & ’90s. Inflation, production costs, editorial salaries all had a play to this. Now digital takes away quite a bit of that — even editorial salaries, if authors chose to hire from outside the establishment. Meanwhile, the authors have finally gotten their chance to make money off of their work. I’m not talking about the blockbuster darlings of fiction & nonfiction. The vast majority of writers get a miserly contract from the traditional publishers, and then get zero marketing/ promotional help for their books. No wonder these don’t sell well.

    Book prices now and in the future, as digital products, will move up and down depending on the value readers place on their favorite authors’ new or backlisted books. Hurray for the writers! Meanwhile, the book publishers are basically getting what they deserve, for all their greediness (treating writers as employees and oftentimes far worse) and for their poor business acumen.

    Mark Beyer
    Author of “The Village Wit”
    and “What Beauty” (June 2012)
    blogs at http://www.bibliogrind.com

  20. This from Harvard seems relevant here:


    We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

  21. I’m an academic at the Open University in the UK. I’ve just checked my contract. The copyright for the works I produce as course material belongs to the university, and in that sense follows the sharecropper model. The OU (which is primarily distance-learning) makes most of the its money from providing these course materials (and the tuition and assessment connected with them) to students, so that’s fair enough. 

    However, the contract explicitly states that the copyright in academic works (in the sense of books, journal articles and the like) belong to the individual academics as authors and not the university. 

    Perhaps other institutions vary (and the OU is, for the most part, a very good employer), but here’s an example of an institution for whom copyright matters a great deal but doesn’t apply it to research works.

  22. Back in the 1980s I sought a publisher for some workshop proceedings. My own university, despite owning a major publishing house and hosting the workshop, declined to publish the proceedings as it thought they would not be profitable. By contrast, Springer Verlag accepted the proceedings, sight unseen, and continues to publish for this workshop some two decades later.

    They took a risk so I don’t begrudge them a profit.

    When estimating publishers’ profits don’t forget to take into account the many conferences and workshops that are subsidised by this business model.

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