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Business and academic journal publishing: open source and the role of libraries

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The article linked in below, by Glenn McGuigan and Robert Russell, published in the Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 9 [3], 2008, addresses a core structural problem within academic publishing from a librarians' perspective, namely that universities simply cannot afford the escalating prices of academic journals - without hugely raising fees, which of course has now happened in the UK. This has been a ticking bomb for those of us 'fortunate' enough to have been in the position of managing large budgets in universities. But as the article says, with the despair of weary and devoted librarians: because change is required does not mean it will happen. What I says is that this is one reason CrimeTalk was created, although of course we are not an 'academic' publisher in the usual sense and we do also aim to provide a service for criminal justice practitioners, the media, politics-linked people and the general public.

The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing

It is extraordinary that Elsevier's profit margin at the turn of this century was around 35%, compared to around 5% for periodical publishers generally. They were a good investment, but that really is way over the top.Their defence to US university libraries was thin as the article states:

"Academic journal publishers operate on a for-profit basis and their major incentive is to maintain or increase profit margins.  They justify their price increases for a variety of reasons.  In a letter sent to academic librarians and posted on their Web site, Elsevier justifies the steady price increases because of an increase in articles per issue; the increase of electronic usage; and the increased costs of maintaining the electronic infrastructure...

While the authors grant these points, it is clear that the publishers maintain a high profit margin while academic libraries operate under increasing financial duress.  It is the contention of the authors that price increases and high profit margins are more explainable by the bargaining power wielded by publishers rather than by cost pressure or because of high value-added activities on the part of the publishers."

Academic publishing is dominated by a 'big three', the authors claim: Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. I myself have published critical stuff, as 'a Cambridge don' and therefore as 'normal science', with two of those but these big academic publishers were still definitely a reason for forming CrimeTalk in more ways than one:

  1. they tend to want lowest-common-denominator content to secure large markets;
  2. they do not take many creative chances for the same reason;
  3. they pay authors poorly for books and not at all for articles [editors get little more I can assure you], giving out a fraction of their profits, and claim that this is 'normal';
  4. their marketing is lazy and limited, focussing upon a docile, captive, market of obedient academics;
  5. they expect a regular-as-clockwork turnover of new research and ideas that is simply not there, with the result that there is a 'dumbing down' of academic journals.

Of course, many academics are thoroughly compliant with this process, raising but a murmur of resistance every now again through the conservative columns of organs like the Times Higher Educational Supplement. Why? Well, in a nutshell, it is easy to meet research audit requirements, which are not demanding but are 'reliable', if there are 'reliable', known, constant, undemanding and welcoming publication outlets. As long as no one complains that academic journal output is often compliant mush with little new or incisive content, and if everyone maintains the collective delusion that this is 'science', this is how 'science' works and this is what 'scientific publishing' looks like, then everyone can play the game to their advantage. This may be less so in the natural sciences, where there may be more 'proofs' and more 'right and wrong', but in the social sciences it is a recipe for the regular recycling of old rope.

As McGuigan and Russell observe: "There is no more striking evidence of the power of the large academic publishers than the fact that two of the most important inputs to the production of a journal – the articles themselves and editorial review – are provided virtually free of charge to the publishers." Librarians fare little better, being squeezed by both the academics and the publishers. The consequence is this:

"The bargaining power of the academic libraries in the current business model is also quite weak.  Acting as agents for their faculty, the libraries simply have little choice regarding what journals they can acquire.  Since the publishers have been able to differentiate their product lines both on the basis of academic specialization and reputation, academic libraries cannot substitute one journal for another and meet the specialized needs of faculty scholars and other patrons.  The bargaining power of the publishers is illustrated by the practice of “bundling” packages of journals for sale to the library, thereby constraining the ability of libraries to choose which journals they wish to acquire.

All these factors combine to ensure that demand for academic journals is inelastic.  Inelastic demand explains how publishers can persistently increase the price of journals with little resistance on the part of either faculty or the academic library.  Although journal publishers may seem to add little value through what they do, they have a great deal of bargaining power because of their position in the current business model.  It is apparent that the universities have not been able to leverage either the value-added services of faculty authors and editors nor the bargaining power of the faculty consumer.  It would seem that the publisher’s role as an intermediary, controlling the flow of knowledge between producer and consumer, gives them the power to charge what the market will bear.  Publishers are able to expropriate the value-added by authors (copyrights adhere to the publisher and not the author) while university libraries are unable to create bargaining power as buyers of the journals.  The result of the current industry structure is increasing prices and high margins for the large, for-profit journal publishers."

McGuigan and Russell go on to discuss buyers' consortia, the classic response to squeezed economic situations like these, and there is more happening over there in the US than here probably. Since they wrote their article, things have moved on and today many more are aware of the strategic advantage of web-based publishing - although for reasons highlighted above, this solution is not being driven by academics or the big three academic publishers. Indeed, to spend the time creating CrimeTalk, I had to ditch a contract with one of thee big three, after earlier quitting academia in disgust and being retired or unemployed. McGuigan and Russell put it this way:

"The fixed costs for establishing a Web-based publishing capability are less than those for printing paper journals and the variable cost of an electronic publication is virtually zero once the original article has been posted on the web.  Just as the internet has helped to decouple traditional supply chains in global markets, a move to electronic, Web-based journal publishing and distribution would loosen the ties that bind academic libraries to the for-profit publishers.  In order for this strategy to be successful, however, academic libraries must be well on their way toward establishing the electronic library-of-the-future.  Without significant electronic and online capabilities, this strategy will not work."

I have to agree with their conclusion:

"A more radical initiative for the academic libraries would be to strongly support the open access (OA) movement for disseminating scholarly works via the internet.  Basically, the open access movement provides “peer-reviewed journals whose content is made freely available on the internet upon publication for use by anyone anywhere for any purpose as long as the authors are properly acknowledged” (Information Access Alliance, 2008).  Open access journals are supported by a variety of organizations to include academic institutions, scholarly societies and government agencies.  Costs of the electronic journals are paid in a variety of ways ranging from “author pays” models to subsidies from sponsoring institutions.

A major player within the OA movement has been the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an alliance of universities and research libraries.  SPARC’s goals are to reduce the cost of scholarly journals by providing lower cost or free, non-commercial, peer-reviewed scholarly journals.  According to SPARC, it is their intent to create “publisher partnerships and advisory services --- to demonstrate alternatives which rely on different business models than traditional journals and promote competition for authors and buyers.  SPARC’s goal is to stimulate expansion of the non-profit sector’s share of overall scholarly publishing activity...”

The expansion of online OA publishing for academic journals could have enormous long-term consequences for the academic publishing industry.  Just as the emergence of WIKIs and blogs greatly expanded opportunities for social and political commentary, the production and distribution of scientific knowledge could be greatly enhanced by the emergence of online OA journals.  Not only would publication of scholarly articles be facilitated, but opportunities for serving on editorial boards would also be greatly expanded.  The broader opportunities for publishing and editorial review offered by OA journals could contribute to the end of the Babylonian priesthoods that characterize the editorial review boards of too many of the most prestigious academic journals and lead to a flowering of innovation and knowledge creation among academic researchers. [my emphasis; CS]".

SPARC's website can be found at

And, remember, CrimeTalk is free! We also use open source web software too, and all our contributors, and myself, work for free. But is this right? And is it sustainable? My own view is that one fine day quality article publishing in the social sciences could and should be paid for.

If libraries paid fees direct to web-based, public-oriented, open-source author-publishers such as CrimeTalk, cutting out the 'scientific journal'-owning big companies oriented towards profit, we could pay authors for the first time. That would mean library bills for journals could be hugely reduced, students would use Kindles and iPads etc, as they are doing in the USA, and authors will be rewarded for quality work, and, if our CrimeTalk philosophy was widespread [of aiming for plain language writing], scholarship would be much more open to public scrutiny. This is assuming university libraries are not first contracted out to the private sector, such as the present 'big three' academic journal publishers [would you be shocked? If it can happen to prisons....]. The problem is: why would libraries support web-based scholarly entities when they are free to access? Unfortunately, there is a most un-virtuous circle involving money! Once you exit the monetized circuit your virtue is ensured, as is your impoverishment.

We can easily ensure an article is peer-reviewed, if an author wants that. Peer review, however, does not mean the article has by necessity to be boring, jargonistic and impenetrable except to the trusted few; nor does it ensure wisdom, truth or value. Peer review can in practice be a means to preserve the status quo of what is acceptable to say as science, and thus not rock the boat of convention, and that is very true within criminology and criminal justice studies. Peer review could however be a creative process whereby we aim to reach a 'best possible knowledge' for now on that topic.

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