samedi, 19 août 2017

(English) A Dive Into the World of Academic Publishing

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End of May, researchers from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project on the editorial and commercial history of the world’s oldest-surviving scholarly journal published a briefing paper on ‘untangling academic publishing’, which presents ‘a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research’. See also this op-ed on the paper in the Guardian by one of the co-authors, Stephen Curry (@Stephen_Curry), Professor of structural biology at Imperial College London. In this op-ed Professor Curry denounces the profit margins of publishers, such as Elsevier, which are well in excess of 30%. So, it should come as no surprise that this was met with retaliation from Elsevier’s side.

The paper explain that “the list of publications became the standard way of demonstrating disciplinary expertise” (p. 6), and consider the emergence of commercial publishers as one of the most dramatic changes in academic publishing (p. 9):

« One of the most dramatic changes in academic publishing since 1945 has been the emergence of commercial firms that were able to become highly profitable. This was due in part to the growth of academic research and the relatively generous funding available for the expanding university library sector: there was more research to be published, but also more institutions able to purchase it. But it was also due, critically, to the adoption of new publishing strategies associated with new players in the academic journal publishing market led by British and Dutch firms, most notably Pergamon Press and Elsevier. These strategies were subsequently imitated by the older commercial firms (…) »

The result is that today « just four large commercial firms each publish more than 2,000 journals: Springer Nature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis« , and according to the paper « this ‘oligopoly’ of big commercial firms has most influence in the social sciences, where they publish 70% of articles globally« . The authors note that “their profitability has become so reliable that they are regarded as sound investments” (p. 10).

The authors « wonder why academics continue to give their labour – as authors, referees and editors – to publishing firms that do not, in fact, circulate knowledge widely and affordably » (p. 17), and points out the tension between the financial motivations of publishers and the voluntary contributions of academics, as it explains that:

  • “(…) academics generally do not expect to make money from their research publications, and have traditionally been relaxed about asserting copyright. Most willingly sign the copyright transfer forms that have been required by many journal publishers since at least the 1990s. This clear proof of ownership enables publishers to control and monetise the digital rights to research, including re-use” (p. 16)
  • “The co-option of peer review by profit-oriented publishers now sits in tension with the perception of individual academics, who (despite complaints about the rising burden) remain largely committed to the traditional vision of refereeing and editorial work as a voluntary service to the wider academic, or disciplinary, community.” (p. 12)

The authors consider that academics have “a lack of detailed understanding (…) of the historical and economic forces at play in academic publishing; and in the success with which big publishers have learned how to make themselves apparently indispensable to the academic prestige economy” (p. 17).

The paper highlights that « between 1993 and 2014, total UK HEI [higher education institutions] library expenditure on journals rose from £47m to £180m per year, an increase of 280%, in comparison, the RPI [Retail Prices Index] increased by 82% » (p. 13), whilst « online publishing enables research to be distributed globally, rapidly and cheaply » (p. 15). The authors explain that editorial and typesetting costs remain for publishers, but “the costs of paper, ink, binding, packing and shipping have been replaced by the cost of running a digital platform. It offers cheaper marketing and promotional opportunities, and the marginal costs (the cost of producing an extra unit) diminish at scale virtually to zero” (p. 15).

The paper also explains that the academic publishing market is unlike other markets (p. 14).

« Academic publishing does not, however, function as a free market. Unlike most commercial goods, academic journals and books are each unique and cannot be substituted by cheaper alternatives. Thus, university libraries and their readers cannot choose between equivalent goods; and they have little or no bargaining power because publishers are under no competitive pressure from rivals with cheaper goods. For as long as there was money in library budgets, publishers had been relatively free to create new journals, expand existing ones or increase prices, secure in the knowledge that any university which wished its academics to have access to the latest research would continue its subscription. »

The authors point out the adverse effect of this development, namely that « library funding has not – and cannot – keep pace with the continually-increasing numbers of journals and books needed to contain the new discoveries and observations of the global research community », and add that (p. 14):

« Moreover, the rising prices of books and journals has exacerbated inequalities in access between academics at different institutions. Those fortunate enough to work at universities with endowed wealth or substantial success at winning research grants have far better access than those elsewhere (and the wider public has even less access). »

Based on their findings the authors give recommendations to, amongst others, the UK government and its research agencies, university leaders, and academics. One of them being to not transfer copyright to publishers, as they suggest that:

  • « University leaders should introduce measures (…) to ensure that the copyright in academic work is retained by its creator, rather than being transferred in toto to third-party organisations. This is an appropriate rebalancing that will allow researchers to assume greater responsibility in the dissemination of the fruits of their work. »
  • « Academics should not sign copyright transfer forms that would give ownership to a profit-oriented publisher if a licence to publish can be granted instead. »

Herman Rucic is Senior Policy Manager in the secretariat of the Copyright 4 Creativity (C4C) coalition. He is Senior Policy Manager at N-square Consulting since September 2010.