Information Wants to be Free, But Academic Publications Do Not

The first scientific journal: Philosophical Transactions, volume 1.
The first scientific journal: Philosophical Transactions, volume 1. Optick Glasses and Pendulum-watches [1].

It costs $76,140 for a one-year subscription to the collection of IEEE technology journals. $58,645 for online-only access.

That’s a bit steep for most people, which is why individual articles can be downloaded for $33 apiece.

What a racket. But what are you gonna do, drive to the public library and check out the latest issue of IEEE Transactions on Information Theory? Good luck with that. Academic publishing is a for-profit enterprise, and there is very much profit.

A few years ago, Harvard University notably whined about the high price of journal subscriptions. Come on, no one feels sorry for you Harvard. Slightly more sympathetic are the international universities that don’t have Harvard’s bankroll and can’t afford $3.75 million in subscription fees. Publishers sometimes negotiate a discounted price for the lesser-endowed.

Wait a minute. I’ve published articles in scientific journals. I’ve reviewed articles for scientific journals. Not only was I never paid a dime, I had to pay a processing fee for my papers to go into print!

Do the publishers even do anything?

They provide prestige. The purpose of academic publication is first and foremost to benefit the author. We can wax poetic about the communication of research and advancement of knowledge, but the real assumption is that nobody reads academic papers. If academics thought otherwise, they would actually try to make the papers readable. Skip the journal processing fees and post the work to a blog.

Publications are status symbols. The first rule of academic publishing is that you always submit your paper to the most prestigious journal that might accept it. It’s like applying to college. The right publications lead to research grants and faculty positions and tenure.

And just like universities, scientific journals have rankings. One widely-used metric is the impact factor, a measure of how frequently an average paper in a given journal is cited each year. Nature, the highest-impact scientific publication in the world, rejects over 90% of paper submissions.

High-impact publications can charge a lot for subscriptions, because universities want their scholars to stay on top of impactful research.

Open-access publications do exist. Most journals allow authors to archive their papers in public repositories (“green open-access“) after an embargo period [2]. These repositories are funded by donations. One example is arXiv for things related to mathematics and physics.

There is also “gold open-access,” where authors submit papers directly to an open-access journal, complete with open-access peer review. These journals make money by charging authors a processing fee upon acceptance. The Public Library of Science is a gold open-access publisher.

The open-access business model is inherently flawed. Revenue comes from the authors, so in order to be sustainable the publications must accept a lot of papers. When publications accept a lot of papers, the exclusivity is gone.

Academic publishing (all of academia, really) is rooted in exclusivity. The first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, was created in 1665 by the Royal Society. The Society was an elite group of physicians and philosophers who established the concepts of scientific priority and peer review. It still exists today as a coterie of fellows, and Philosophical Transactions is still in circulation.

An 1862 engraving of the Royal Society fellowship of eminent scientists
An 1862 engraving of the Royal Society fellowship of eminent scientists

It’s unlikely that open-access journals could attain the same level of prestige as private publications. Here, I just uploaded this terrible blog post to SSRN, an open-access repository for the social sciences [3]. I am now published alongside Nobel laureate Eugene Fama [4]. That felt way too easy.

Even the peer-reviewed open-access journals will have a tough time competing with private publishers, the largest of whom had over a century to build prestige and impact.

Nature, Issue 1. Nov 4, 1869. (click for full page)
Nature, Issue 1. Nov 4, 1869. (click for full page)

Most of the criticism about academic publishing comes from outside of academia. First of all, academics themselves have no idea how much a journal subscription costs because they receive access through their university. More importantly, they want to preserve the scarcity of their status symbols.

I worked hard to create peer-approved papers. I have an Erdős number of 4. Building a publication record is not supposed to be easy!

Academia is getting more competitive, not less. There are far more unemployed PhD students than exist faculty positions, and far more hungry PIs than available research funding. The protectionism will only grow stronger.

As long as academics care about gaining respect in the field, they will submit their work to the highest-ranked journals. And as long as the most impactful papers appear in prestigious journals, for-profit publications will remain a staple in university libraries. Academic publishing isn’t broken; academia is.

Appendix A
Useful note: Sci-Hub.io is a site for pirated academic papers. It downloads journal papers by attempting credentials from various universities. I am glad this service exists.

References
1. Philosophical Transactions (1665) 1, no. 1.
2. Suber, Peter. Open Access. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012.
3. Ou, Elaine, Information Wants to be Free, But Academic Publications Do Not (February 17, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2732821
4. Fama, Eugene F. and French, Kenneth R., A Five-Factor Asset Pricing Model (September 2014). Fama-Miller Working Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2287202

2 thoughts on “Information Wants to be Free, But Academic Publications Do Not

  1. The two arguments you make against open-access being sustainable and able to compete on prestige with closed access are both flawed; Since as you pointed out there are not a lot of costs associated with publishing a paper since academics do the hard stuff for free, and since those costs scale pretty closely with the number of papers published, there’s no reason an open-access journal can’t be selective and sustainable.

    That’s how it’s played out, too: the selective/peer reviewed PLoS journals have seen their impact factors grow meteorically (med is like 14 now? bio is 11?)

    1. If that’s true, that’s great news. I’ve been out of academia for a few years so maybe the negative bias against open-access has lessened.

      It does vary greatly by field. In Computer Science, there are no open-access peer-reviewed journals with impact factor above 3. I don’t think there are any open-access alternatives to the IEEE collection at all.

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