Last month I wrote about why academics should publish books with university presses. This is a follow-up post explaining why I think academics should also publish journal articles with university presses. Much of the information in this post is taken from the Paywall documentary which I recommend watching if you are interested.
As a whole, academic publishing is quite phenomenally profitable, making a profit margin of 35-40% which compares with 12% for Toyota and 3% for Walmart. Academic publishing profits are in line with those of the biggest social media companies such as Facebook. What do they have in common, you may ask? People provide content and services for them for free, which they then sell on to advertisers and data purchasers (in the case of Facebook) or academic libraries.
Some single academic journals charge thousands of pounds for a university library subscription, and increase their costs by big percentages each year. These costs have been increasing above inflation for decades, and have contributed to the closure of some American universities. Even the library budgets of wealthy prestigious universities such as the University of California in San Francisco are struggling to make ends meet (and that was pre-pandemic; I understand that more libraries are cancelling more subscriptions now). The publishers of these journals also make it impossible to read their content without access through a subscribing university library, thereby creating the scarcity essential for a commodity to become expensive. And they do these things essentially because they can. The sought-after high impact journals are effectively mini-monopolies. Academics provide and review content for free – and these days may even pay to have their freely provided content, based on publicly funded research, made openly accessible. And this puts yet more money in the publishers’ pockets, because there is no corresponding reduction in subscription charges.
Some universities spend millions of pounds each year on journal subscriptions. This causes higher tuition fees for students, leading to personal sacrifice, debt, and misery, exacerbating social problems of poverty and mental ill-health. It also prevents access to the latest medical information for some doctors and other health workers, and for patients and their carers. This causes more sickness and grief.
Academia is culpable here too because of the emphasis on publishing in high impact journals as part of the research assessment process. This approach to publishing is subject to gaming, nepotism, and fraud, plus it maintains structural inequalities by being more accessible to insiders and professors than to outsiders and early career researchers. Also it wastes people’s time, as high-impact journals are more likely to reject publishable work which then has to be resubmitted elsewhere. The innovative online open access journal PLOS ONE was set up in 2006 to stop the cycle of wasting authors’, editors’ and reviewers’ time at the expense of research and society. We know, now, that open access journal articles get more views and more citations. Surely that constitutes higher impact?
Some influential people think so. In 2013 the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was published. This aims to stop using the “impact factor” as a measure of research quality. At the time of writing, DORA has been signed by over 16,500 individuals, and over 2,000 organisations. These include publishers of all kinds, libraries, learned societies and universities. In 2019 the Netherlands launched a new national system of recognition and reward for researchers based on the DORA principles.
So far, so good. But most journal publishers still charge their authors for open access publication, often a four-figure sum per article, which is a barrier for authors with no access to a budget for such payments. Imagine if the profit made by academic journals was not diverted into shareholders’ dividends but put back into the system, to make study more affordable, support research that could not otherwise be funded, help marginalised writers to publish their work, equalise access to that work. You may say I’m a fantasist. I say look at university presses.
Publishers are vital and in my view some are more vital than others, primarily those that help to democratise information and promote equality of access. This is important because, as you may have noticed, there are big global problems we need to solve. Expertise can exist anywhere in the world. The best minds need access to knowledge – and those minds are not all in academia. Collaboration is essential to solve such problems, including other thinkers and scholars as well as academics. University presses promote these kinds of working practices. And any surplus they make is reinvested into their work rather than disappearing into the pockets of shareholders.
Again, UCL Press is doing well here: all but one of their journals are free to publish in, and the one that isn’t free has a low publication charge. Other university presses offer free publication for some marginalised authors, such as those from countries in the “low human development” category of the UN at Bristol University Press. Cambridge University Press has ‘Read and Publish’ agreements which allow for some articles to be published at no cost to the author, though this is a rather more complex system. Some for-profit publishers also offer waivers for certain groups, such as Elsevier – and so they should – but at present they are in the minority. However, if you have no budget but have written an article which is a good fit for a particular open access or hybrid journal, it is always worth asking the editor whether they can waive the APC; they might say yes. And in general, if you can, please consider publishing your articles in university press journals, because overall they are rather more ethical than other types of publisher.
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