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