The scandal of academic journal profits

[I thought I had posted this last Monday! Obviously I forgot to hit the right button.]

The scandal of research journal profits seems to be gaining visibility in the world outside academia with articles in the press and a government working group.

The proposed solutions seem to miss an important point which I’ll come to later. First, what is the problem? Well, governments throughout the world pay researchers in universities to do fundamental research. This can take numerous forms, either the money is paid to the university in general money or to specific researchers to do specific research via bodies such as EPSRC.

Once the research is done and new results have been found, the researchers put these in a paper and send it to a journal. The editor of the journal sends the paper to an anonymous referee who assesses the paper (are the results new? Are they worthy of publication? and so on). If accepted, the paper is published in the journal. Researchers who want to read the paper can do so by consulting a copy from their university library (online or in hard copy).

The problem becomes apparent when you follow the money. The tax payers give money to the researcher. The researcher gives the results to a company to publish. The editor and the referees are not paid to edit and referee – generally academics work for free on those. The libraries get money from the taxpayers to buy the journal (often at a very high price).

So what is happening is that tax payer ends up paying twice for the same research. We researchers do the research, give it away and then buy it back. Obviously something is wrong here. This is compounded by the fact that the publishing companies do very little work. In maths we typeset our own papers and do the refereeing and editing for free and no-one is paid royalties or a fee. So for the publishing companies the profits come via “easy money”.

One solution is to publish in “open journals”. EPSRC has suggested that any research that it funds should appear in an open access journal. I am an associate editor of just such a journal. The Journal of Singularities is free to all, there are no subscription charges. This seems an ideal solution. It means that taxpayers don’t pay twice and members of the public can access results. (The cost for a single article varies depending on journal but it would not be surprising to see $30.)

The problem of the open access model of funding is that it forgets about publications by bodies such as the London Mathematical Society (LMS). The LMS does not use money from its journals to give profits to shareholders. The money is fed back into the mathematical community. I have benefited from grant money from the LMS: I attend the Yorkshire and Durham Geometry Days and organize Singularities Days using their small networks scheme and I’ve had money from the society to spend on conferences in Differential Geometry and for a postgraduate conference.

It is likely that this source of money will disappear or be substantially reduced if the LMS cannot make money from journals. Any proposal for publishing papers should take this into account. This can’t just be solved by the government giving compensatory money to the LMS since if it did, then strings would be attached. One of the great things about the LMS grants is that the forms to fill in are short and rules are applied with a light touch. Basically, the LMS trusts us to spend the money wisely. I have never heard of any abuse of the system.

The government’s working group will report next spring. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to submit evidence. In the meantime you may like to read an interesting article in the Guardian: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist. (See for a version with footnotes.)

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