Now I Get It: Academic Publishing Is an Extortion Racket

In case you’re still not really sure what Aaron Swartz did to be targeted by the government until he killed himself, this Chronicle of Higher Education piece is super clear and does a really good job of explaining all that.

Basically: He downloaded articles from JSTOR because he—like many—believed that public-funded information—which most research is!—should be available to the public. And right now it’s not. It’s available to organizations able to pay huge fees for access.

PULLQUOTE 1: “To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action.”

PULLQUOTE 2: “Until academics get their acts together and start using new modes of publication, we need to recognize that actions like Aaron Swartz’s civil disobedience are legitimate. They are attempts to liberate knowledge that rightly belongs to all of us but that has been acquired by academic publishers through tens of thousands of contracts of adhesion and then bottled up and released for exorbitant fees in what functionally amounts to an extortion racket.”


21 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

Oh yeah I already knew this. I had to buy many a shittily photocopied coursepack for most of my university courses, and they were usually like $60-$70. AND BARELY LEGIBLE HALF THE TIME.

jfruh (#161)

Since (I’m pretty sure) virtually no actual academics make money off this racket — like, the people writing the articles don’t get paid, the academics who do the peer review for the journals don’t get paid, and the academics who in many cases do the editing don’t get paid — I have long wondered why people don’t just start seceeding from it altogether and launching online-only peer-reviewed journals, since mostly what the publishers provide is printing and distribution. Are people just nervous that the cultural and professional weight of a published research article — having many of which is necessary for an academic career — won’t hold to something that could be dismissed as “just a blog” or whatever?

rosalou (#1,800)

@jfruh There are open-access journals – at my library we are really trying to market publishing in OA journals. In academia there is some hesitance I think, because of “publish or perish”, journal impact factors, getting “scooped”, etc, etc. There is actually a mandate that any research that gets funding from NIH (medical research) has to be OA after a year. I believe that a new mandate (law?) just went through that is going to extend this to all research that is federally funded.

Open Access is really interesting – especially when you think about access to research outside the US. Researchers in less developed nations can’t afford the database subscriptions that cost thousands of dollars.

@jfruh There is a lot of talk about this actually in library circles and higher education and it is done in a lot of cases. There are some open access journals that have all the same peer review standards that are free online. Unfortunately, the academic system incentivizes publishing in big name publications by award those who do with tenure and accolades and less so those who publish in open access journals, even though it costs them untold amounts. Prestige basically keeps these publishers in business. Why would they change when they can continue to make money from other’s free labor? I have had a few activist professors who only used open access materials for course materials, but I am in a field of information activists. People in other fields don’t necessarily have the same view point.

rosalou (#1,800)

@Punk-assBookJockey Jinx from a fellow book jockey!

@jfruh In addition to what others have said, some open-access journals charge accepted authors to “help defray costs”. For one journal I was looking at, it was nearly $1,000. It’s merely shifting the extortion to the academics. And when you’re in grad school, not only do you not have the money, you’re anxious about your profile, so you’re even less inclined to go open access.

My university’s library is amazing, but it’s public, and I wonder how long it will be before I personally feel access. I know some of my friends at other institutions struggle with this. When I hear about it, I often offer to get the article for them.

@jfruh PLoS One seems to be gaining some traction in the hard sciences/medical field. Having now transitioned from the academic to the practitioner side of a social science field, I can say that we give less than two shits about gated academic articles and are perfectly happy to rely on open-access working papers from places like SSRN, as well as findings from big institutions that publish their own research (e.g. World Bank), for our research needs. So it seems like it would be in academia’s best interest to get away from this ludicrous model (which, as you say, doesn’t benefit anyone engaged in actual research!) at least if they ever want anyone outside the academy to care about their findings.

Since taxpayers finance so much research in the U.S., Congress could probably do something about it (e.g. — if you publish findings of publicly-funded research, you have to release in the public domain) but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

ETA: Hey whaddya know, they DID do that!

@Sunny Schomaker@facebook OA jounrals are not the only kind that charge these kind of fees though. Many traditional journals also chanrge author fees, which seems like a huge slap in the face considering that they charge readers for access, are getting the content for free, and the peer-review for free and even sometimes editing for free.

@stuffisthings I do think that hard sciences and medicine will make the jump to OA more quickly than some other feilds. Practitioners are less subject to the publish or perish pressure. And, at least with medical research, if it is federally funded and so has to be openly accessible online through the national library of medicine after a certain time period.

@jfruh I’m just a mere humanities scholar, but yeah, I need the backing of a serious, peer-reviewed journal or publisher, otherwise I might as well be writing half-baked crap for Slate. (Apologies to anyone who writes good stuff for Slate, but I’ve read enough crap recently to make me grumpy.)

Also, I’ve been offered the option of making my article (for a very reputable publisher) open access, except I would have to pay. Yes, that’s right: as an independent scholar, making less than $40K a year, without any research funding or the like, if I want other people (like me) to be able to access my article, I would have to pay the publisher money. That’s in addition to the copyright & reproduction fees I also have to cover out of my own pocket. (Plus I’m self funding research trips and conference travel at this point, too.) So, sorry, no. The system is totally fucked.

But, hey, at least I do have access to JSTOR…

@jfruh It’s an interesting conundrum! I’m a postdoc in the biomedical sciences and I can’t overstate how many times I’ve heard variations of the following conversation:
Q: How do you feel about open access journals?
A: Oh I feel like making literature widely available is incredibly important! Elsevier is the worst! I am committed to making research accessible to interested taxpayers as well as to those supported by institutions!
Q: Would you submit your next paper to one of the current OA publications?

Markovaa (#1,509)

I think there are several things to think about here:
1. What we are protesting?
2. How to protest it?
3. Who is affected?
4. How we can change?

Right of the bat, I will say that I am approaching this with bias as the daughter of a humanities academic.

OK, now that that is over with, I agree that it is reasonable that if an author receives public funding for their research that their research be made to the public. In the age of the internet, this would not be that difficult to accomplish. Perhaps adding an archive section the the NEH/NEA/NSF/ETC. would be enough.

However, I question the basic assumption that almost all research is funded by the taxpayers. Some research IS funded by grants but some research is funded by private foundations or benefactors that can attach extra strings to the money. Additionally, some academics do their research on their own time. Can you blame them for wanting to get some money out of publishing their research?

Third, I have never had a problem accessing this kind of information before. (I know that comes off as incredibly privileged and kind of a jerk-y thing to say but its true). In high school, I was able to access jstor and other databases by going to the local university library and looking things up on their computers. I didn’t need to show ID, prove where I lived, etc. I walked in and sat down at a computer. Let me add, that this was not a fancy university either, this was probably a third tier state university. I know that not everyone lives in towns with a university library but could we use this model to evolve to something a little more fair? Perhaps a generous discount for public libraries?

jfruh (#161)

@Franny part of the problem is that the people doing the “research” (like your parent(s)!) are not getting paid by these journals. It’s not like the situation with, say, music. Their compensation comes in the form of academic prestige that you get from being published, and the question is whether that prestige necessarily requires for-profit, non-disseminated-to-all-who-ask journals. (I would say it doesn’t.)

@Franny Academics rarely get paid by journals, and when they do it’s a token amount. Neither do editors and peer reviewers typically get paid. Basically, the only people “making money” in this system are the journals, the academic publishing companies, and the online networks that host their content. Which seems like a pretty silly system when you think about it.

IIRC correctly my university — a big land grant state university that conducted a lot of research — paid something like $19 million a year for online & offline journal subscriptions in the early 2000s. Multiplied across, what, 3,000 universities, that’s a lot of money!

As others have mentioned, academic journals rarely pay for articles, and what’s more, they do not always allow the authors to retain copyrights.
And a lot of universities do require that you show ID or have a password, for this exact reason, and publishers enforce it. Your neighborhood university librarian does not want to prevent you from accessing journal articles, but since the online access is provided through publisher platforms, there are actually limits on how many users are licensed to access them. It’s changed a lot in recent years because it has gotten so expensive and information is increasingly available online instead of in the stacks. It’s pretty rare to be able to access these databases without passwords anymore.
And there is really no incentive for these publishers to change their model. They already have different pricing teirs for different kinds of libraries and different sizes of libraries, but that doesn’t always make it more affordable. The only incentive for them to change will be to challenge their model with a lower priced competition, such as open access models or even other models that are not 100% free.

jfruh (#161)

Thanks for the answers all! I guess I’m curious to know: academics being smart people, why (in @MollyculreTheory’s case) will universities still not think highly of these OA journals when it comes to hiring? (The pay-to-play ones seem egregious, but they aren’t all like that, yes?) Is it just that this info hasn’t percolated up to the senior people doing the hiring? Are OA journals genuinely not as good?

Crabtree (#774)

@jfruh It’s at every single level that academics don’t believe they are as good. New hires don’t want to take the risk and lots of the old guard has a very strict mentality about what counts. Lots of Canadian universities have started their own open access repositories where they get pre-publication material (which the writers have the copyright to) and have created their own database of their academics work. The copyright issues are daunting though so there is usually a librarian in charge of it.j

@jfruh And it’s not just OA, although that’s part of it. I’ve been to more than one panel on publishing in the field, and I’ve heard senior scholars (who have served on both editorial boards and search committees) say that the profile of the journal counts.

I also wonder how the increasing adjunctization of faculty will interact with the academic publishing model. However, many “teaching” institutions are looking for faculty with research profiles, so I’m not sure there will be an increase in opting out of the process.

deepomega (#22)

@jfruh I think your problem is “academics being smart people.” Not being snarky – the assumption that “being in academia” translates to “makes wise decisions with their long-term interests in mind” is a leap!

Or, put another way, academics are subject to market pressures just as much as non-academics, and if doing something will hurt them in the short term they will probably not do it.

jfruh (#161)

@deepomega I mean, sure! I do get this. I guess I’m wondering if it’s a situation where most people are like MollyculeTheory, where they see the problems and think good things about OA in theory but know the power structure is stacked against them and it’s a matter of nobody wants to jump first, or if it’s really just a bunch of younger/crankier people who think this and the bulk of academics genuinely don’t give it much thought beyond “Oh, this journal I’ve heard of is obviously better.”

sintaxis (#2,363)

@jfruh “Are people just nervous that the cultural and professional weight of a published research article — having many of which is necessary for an academic career — won’t hold to something that could be dismissed as “just a blog” or whatever?”

in my experience, yes. but it’s also a lay-persons problem as well. i published in a peer-reviewed journal (OA, digital only, creative commons license) when i was an undergrad and lay people kept asking me when they could get a print copy. then when they’d find out it was online it wasn’t “really published” in their minds.

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