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The cost of knowledge is too high, academics say

By David Self Newlin  |  Posted May 2nd, 2012 @ 11:49am


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SALT LAKE CITY — The world depends on scientific and academic research for innovation, which means that the world also largely hinges on how that research gets published and spread around. In recent months, tens of thousands of academics, including many in Utah, and even some big name research funders, are beginning to question that expensive system.

Companies that publish research, like Springer and the increasingly infamous Elsevier, have what several Utah academics call a monopoly over the availability and pricing of their product - a product that is often created by researchers they don't pay and funded with money provided by taxpayers and foundations. The price for access is enormous and rises each year, so much so that universities have trouble keeping up.

"As you can imagine, when library budgets are flat and journal prices are going up by 9 to 10 percent each year, cancellations (of journal subscriptions) are the inevitable result," said Rick Anderson, acting dean of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Anderson estimates that BYU, the U. and USU, Utah's three big research schools, collectively spend about $20 million each year on academic journals. The cost is millions more when the rest of the state's schools are added.

Harvard University, the wealthiest research institution in the world, issued a memo April 17 saying that the cost of journal subscriptions is too high to bear even for them.

"Harvard's annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscriptioncosts and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands," the memo said.

Access to journals and papers are vital for researchers, who need to know what work has already been done on a subject and how it can affect their work. Many academics are also required to publish several times a year in order to keep their jobs and gain tenure, giving a yet another advantage to publishers.

"…The bottom line is that when you have monopoly control of a high-demand commodity, you can charge whatever you want for it — so they do," Anderson said.

How the system works

It all starts with research: A scientist or academic decides to work on a particular topic. Government grants or private foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation or Wellcome often pay the cost of research. Once that's done, researchers write up their work and send it out to journals in their field for consideration.

Editorial boards at a journal, usually chosen by the publisher, contact unpaid experts in their field to review the work, offer advice and decide what gets accepted. Copyrights to the work are usually signed over to the journal's publisher, and researchers are not paid if they get accepted.

Once the journal with the researchers' papers is published, it costs for access, sometimes quite a lot — up to tens of thousands of dollars for a single year's subscription. Libraries are the biggest buyers.

Publishers often "bundle" journals together, so that prestigious, high-demand journals have to be bought together with other, less important journals. Sometimes they are forced to do so or have no access at all, and sometimes these bundles come with significant discounts compared to purchasing individually.

Because publishers retain copyrights, and because researchers are required to publish frequently and need access to other research, they can and do charge very high prices and make a lot of money doing so.

"Journal publishers like Elsevier and Springer routinely dig 30 percent or more profits on the unremunerated writing and refereeing of academics obliged to fulfill publishing quotas in the name brand journals for retention, promotion, and tenure," said University of Utah physics graduate student Justin Findlay. "The journals then charge the same academics and their universities unrealistic subscription fees for this work." The Guardian reports reports similar numbers. Though Findlay has not yet published, he'll soon have to enter that world if he wants to find a tenure- track job in his field, quantum cosmology, which makes these figures all the more personal for him.

"It is a basic knowledge that should be constrained by no artificial toll," he said.

Journals do have costs, however, because they pay editorial boards, and they often add material like graphics and illustrations to better represent results. There are also old- fashioned printing and editing costs.

Despite its role as a lightening rod for criticism, Elsevier claims that its prices are lower than most, and that bundling actually helps.

"Elsevier allows you to buy articles at the level of the individual article, to buy a single journal, any combination of any number of journals and everything we have," Dr. Nick Fowler, director of global academic relations at Elsevier told the Guardian. "There are benefits that come from taking more, which is a very standard practice, but that doesn't mean you don't have the choice (not to) — but then you can't expect a discount."

Elsevier and other publishers have promised to talk with academics about the issue, but without many more specifics details.

What's being done about it?

In January, a British mathematician, fed up with the current model, published an angry blog calling for academics to boycott Elsevier, one of the biggest publishers, by refusing to submit papers or do editorial work for journals it publishes. Within a matter of days, a website was set up where academics could pledge to boycott Elsevier: Over 10,000 have signed up so far. Many called it the "academic spring," playing off the "Arab Spring" that saw revolutions happen throughout the Arab world in 2011.

Dozens of Utah academics have signed it, including Findlay, who studies quantum cosmology. "Personally, I plan on only publishing under (creative commons) licensing or directly into the public domain. I sure as heck am not going to submit my work and livelihood to either Elsevier or Springer."

Findlay and many others support open-access journals that are free to everyone, often after a certain period of time where access is paid. Both the U. and USU were among the first universities in the U.S. to sign the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, which encourages academics and institutions to make research available as widely and cheaply as possible.

Research funded through the National Institute of Health has to be made available publicly within a short period of time, and well-respected open-access journals already exist, such as those published by the Public Library of Science and arxiv.org.

But open access comes at a cost, often shifting the burden onto the researchers themselves, who may have to pay to publish their work.

"Ultimately, I'm not sure there's an ideal model," Anderson said. "Every model involves costs, and the costs will inevitably get distributed in ways that work better for some parts of the system and worse for others."

It's too early to tell what effect boycotts like the one against Elsevier will have, but Findlay thinks it will eventually move toward the open-access model.

"Basically, the (Internet makes) journals irrelevant. Elsevier and Springer et al are clinging to their antiquated business models as ignorantly and desperately as possible," he said. "It's only a matter of time."

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