Beneath The University, The (Digital) Commons

UPDATE (8 September): In the comments, Lee Jones reminds me of the Directory of Open Access Journals, which gives some more info on existing outlets. Monbiot also tweeted details of a petition to make all publicly-funded research available for free within a year of publication, which you should sign (yes, I know it’s just a petition, but start somewhere OK?)

1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and doesn’t give you a key, the lock is not there for your benefit;

2. It’s hard to monetise fame, but it’s impossible to monetise obscurity;

3. Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.

Despite the focus on the artist and her output, Cory Doctorow’s three propositions for understanding copyright against creativity also speak to the products of the university (and both videos are worth watching). In short, the addition of copyright ‘protection’ to your work acts to restrict it, doesn’t actually drive higher resources to artists, and can’t really work in practice, thus requiring extending circles of criminalisation and monitoring. Contemporary copyright is a way of creating an obstacle course, one where the people who put in the work of limiting access are also the ones who you pay down the line for the access. In short, “they have created a problem that they know how to solve, and it works for them”.

In July, Aaron Swartz was charged under US federal hacking laws for downloading more than a few academic articles via MIT. It was about 4.8 million papers, since you ask. Wired reports that the penalty for this may amount to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Worse, there is some evidence that the prosecution is being driven by the state rather than JSTOR alone. He’s due in court this Thursday. After some germination, both George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre have entered the fray with astute and biting pieces on the profitable stupidity of these arrangements and their detrimental impact on the free exchange of knowledge, scientific progress, the public good, etcetera.

The problems of intellectual property and who gets to profit from it are general, but the scandal is in the specificity of different productive spheres. After all, an artist is not like a university lecturer.

In the case of artists, having to pay for their work reflects, if only in part, the costs of their continued existence. If I write a novel, no one pays me for the work days involved in its constitution. If my work gets published, the royalties I receive compensate for that effectively voluntary labour. Doctorow’s point is that many of the apparent safeguards of copyright simply don’t act to secure revenues for artists, but that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be some way to get (some) people to pay for the goods so that the process can continue.

There is no such problem in academia. Academics are not paid for the peer-reviewed articles they write. Peer reviewers are not paid for the quality control which makes such articles valuable in financial and intellectual terms. The editors of journals are paid little, if anything, since being involved in such fora is a mark of professional distinction. At best, publishing is a strange form of displaced compensation and a way to secure employment in the first place, since Departments will (increasingly) seek out those with a roster of papers in lauded titles, and will be more inclined to keep staff who perform well on such measures. But this is an essentially negative security, a minimum standard required of you rather than a system of rewards for publication. A hanging threat, you might say. I have heard of one Department of Politics and International Relations were staff are on disciplinary procedures requiring them to meet a publication quota specified in a signed agreement. Failure to do so is apparently grounds for termination. We should expect that kind of disciplining to become more common if ‘research excellence’ scores retain their industrial power in the academy, but it’s not the kind of ‘payment’ that can be plausible equated with buying a song rather than just downloading it.

The Economist reports that Elsevier generates £724 million a year in profits (an operating margin of 34%) on its 2,000 titles. In 2000, the operating profit for all periodical publishers in the UK was 4.3%. For Elsevier’s Science and Medical journals it was 36.4% and for its wider stable of journals it was 21%. All indications are that these percentages hold true today. These are extraordinary disparities, even before you take into account the difference between the profit margin on a current affairs magazine (content and opinion reproducible across many titles) and, say, a heavily-researched review of effective cancer treatments (one-off and of pressing public interest). The interest for Monbiot and Goldacre is primarily in these medical and science journals, but the situation in social studies seems much the same. Accessing my own 4-page book review in Subjectivity (published by Palgrave-Macmillan) would cost $30. An article from International Organization (the putative premier journal in International Relations) will set you back £20. The latest research from the European Journal of International Relations or Millennium can be accessed at $25 per article. Per day.

None of these monies go to the producers of the work. There are no royalties. Moreover, there can be significant further costs. Journals of lesser repute extract payment from authors for publishing their work, and some hope this will become the new norm. But reputable outlets also levy additional fees. The duplicitously named Sage Choice, for example, gives authors the ‘option’ of making their paper accessible to all. The cost for this service is £1,600 per article. And even this is largely limited to medical and science journals, where the case for immediate access to important results is presumably more persuasive than for the social sciences.

Monbiot focuses primarily on the costs to university libraries and to the public who are in effect excluded from this knowledge. But the case for seeing the current journal system as a means of profiteering is even stronger than that. After all, academics are paid for their research. Despite the degradations visited upon us, jobs still typically include time allocated for research (research expect to result in articles and books). Permanent staff get to take research sabbaticals. In the UK, this research is overwhelmingly paid for by public funds. Even under the new arrangements, research-specific money comes from the general coffers. Which means that citizens pay for academics to produce research, but are then charged rates – rates which can only be described as deterrents to informed public discourse – by private companies who have had the rights to presenting research content transferred to them by academics as a condition of publication. Reports suggest that non-academic access to articles is vanishingly small, and brings in virtually no revenue. In other words, the point is not to meet costs, but to keep people out. And yet the hegemonic complaints of The Hallowed Taxpayer are strangely absent.

The US system is largely privatised, but here too there is a disjuncture. Students incur debts to pay for tuition (and for the infrastructure of a university). Academics paid with those fees produce research which they seek to publish in journals. Those journals then levy prices far above cost on libraries at the same institutions, who are now buying back work produced by their own staff. Of course, the students get to access that work and more, but the minute they finish their degree this knowledge is formally closed to them. I don’t know how the university press set-up used to work with respect to journals, or the extent to which journal income subsidises less profitable book series, but it’s hard to believe that in the age of open access there aren’t cheaper, nay more efficient, ways to popularise research. That much seems born out by the trend of journal costs, which have escalated massively in a period where producing and disseminating work has gotten cheaper. The average annual increase in journal costs for research libraries was 7.6% between 1986 and 2005. Expenditures on serials increased by 302% while the numbers of journals purchased increased at only 1.9% a year.

Few of us seem to have any real grasp of the details. What profits are we helping to generate and for who? Fewer still are making any effort to examine their own practices. What we do have is an interest in a range of subsidiary problems, from the pressures and errors of peer-review, editor workloads, and various claims of bad practice. Understandably enough, these evoke the daily detritus of academic life and its attendant gripes, and in some particular cases require significant attention and discussion. But we lack a generalised understanding of the publishing ecosystem, a system on which the whole intellectual and political economy of academia depends. Nor does there seem to be any determined movement towards changing what journals do and how they do it (although hopefully the confluence of Monbiot and Goldacre and Swartz will put this on a few more academic radars). Individual scholars consider open access projects, and there are now a few journals published on a similar model, like the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies. Inevitably these innovations depend on personal dedication-cum-charisma, voluntary labour and small, dedicated readerships. Favours and personal networks can take you surprisingly far, but it’s hard to imagine such projects thriving against institutional competitors and without the kind of patronage necessary to, say, get yourself listed on the crucial tabulated metrics of value (note, with an ironic chuckle, that the ranking for gated academic journals is itself gated).

Other outlets, like Collapse, appear to have secured invested and intelligent readerships while crossing the privatised thresholds to academic knowledge in another way. Texts are assembled under an editorial eye, pdfs and hard-copies produced, and considerable effort put into cohesion and attractiveness. And then you buy the whole thing in hardened physical form for the same amount you might pay for 24 hours of access to a mainstream publisher’s pdf. You know, like if you were buying a book or something. I don’t know if Collapse and its ilk are peer-reviewed, but since peer review is free anyway, there’s no reason why such a model couldn’t work for a journal of econometrics, population studies, or military history. The barrier is that most central of academic commodities: prestige.

There seem to be two plausible paths for change here. First, prominent journals must go open access. In a system where the high-profile, career-defining goods are locked up behind a paywall, small fry open access competitors are easy to tolerate. Academics themselves may even read and approve of them in significant quantities. But so long as the journals which charge for access are also the ones on which your faculty place depends, that’s where you’re going to send your papers, even if that means that less people read them and you have fewer rights to your own work. There’s a possible, if slightly tenuous [1], associated problem that the most innovative and important work is sent to the gated journals, while rejected manuscripts trickle down to open access outlets.

Second, less dramatically, we could extend the patches of access that exist. For example, through some kind of über-openaccess journal that feeds off the best work published in others. This would reverse the potential dynamic of the most valuable work pooling in the hardest to reach places. Published, say, once a month online (and in on-demand printed hard copies), it would collate articles from the full spectrum of journals in IR and associated fields (obviously there could be more than one such journal for the different aspects of academic inquiry). Editors of existent journals would send their favoured candidate articles in for selection. By featuring in the über-journal, you would strengthen your journal’s reputation without surrendering too much (pay-walled) content. An alternative variant would have each journal opening up large parts of its catalogue, split between virtually all content published more than 3-5 years ago and some 25% of more recent material.

A tiny concession to public intellectual life, to be sure. There are more thorough-going solutions. A competition commission into journals, as Monbiot suggests. An escalating programme of academic activism, in which the most regressive publishers are marginalised or boycotted (for peer-review or submission). A concerted effort from academics themselves to set up their own prominent journals which could both undercut existing journals and offer some payment for reviewers and Editors on a non-profit basis. Forward-looking collaboration between Departments on similar grounds. The compulsory placement of all publicly-funded research into a single, open access repository (another cracking Monbiot suggestion), and not in pre-publication form either.

But the signs are that academics are too timid, and the interests of finance too settled, for all that agitation. But then, that’s kind of up to us isn’t it?

[1] Tenuous because it assumes that “accepted by high-ranking journal” is roughly synonymous with “high quality and/or innovative”. It’s entirely possible than the hierarchy of journals more closely reflects the oddities of academic circle-jerks, hegemonic ideas of correct assumptions and methods, etcetera, than it does genuine qualities, whatever you may think that consists of. But consider a system not unlike ours, in which a decent scholar with a reasonable level of self-awareness finishes a paper that they consider their most important work to date. They may have no particular affection for the top-ranking journals, but they also want their work recognised and read within the immediate academic community, and that’s a good way to go. And beyond those benefits, there’s also an immediate cache involved in the positive associations, regardless of underlying quality. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to see how gated journals could monopolise innovative research, even if their general high profile was not fully deserved.

4 thoughts on “Beneath The University, The (Digital) Commons

  1. Good points here. Two quick responses. First, the Monbiot critique and your own needs extending to cover book publishing which is just as big a scam as journal publishing. Second, there is more experimentation taking place than you may be aware of, though admittedly it remains limited in scope. The most impressive so far is Open Book Publishing (OBP,, a company set up by Cambridge academics. It provides all the normal functions of an academic press: peer review, editing, production, etc. But everything it publishes is available in e-format for free; paperbacks are something like £5 and hardbacks £10. This small operation exposes the gargantuan profits being made by publishing houses and reveals that the same can be done for next to nothing. Likewise there are increasing numbers of open-access journals set up by experienced academics which don’t simply rely on personal networks like the Journal of Globalization Studies – see for a list.

    Since academic publishers are so obviously parasites who add virtually no value to the production process, and since this is well known by anyone who works in the academy, the real question to be asked is: why does the situation persist? A very large part of the answer must be to do with prestige. I would like to publish with OBP, but I can’t afford my first book to come out with an unknown publisher. Others would simply look down their noses at open-access outlets and crave the kudos attached to publishing with OUP, the top journals (owned by private companies), etc. OBP is trying to overcome this by having big names publish with them, e.g. Amartya Sen. Hopefully this will work, but I also think the problem is one of collective action. If academics got together and decided to boycott for-profit journals permanently or in order to force access costs down, they could easily win. Without their labour the whole system would quickly collapse. They don’t, and they aren’t likely to, for a number of reasons – none of which are particularly flattering. The bottom line is that the system persists because the most ambitious among us keep it going and academics are too individuated, competitive and hierarchical.


    • Thanks Lee for a number of good points – and I will update the post with some info on DOAJ, and with a petition that I believe now exists (I know, I know, but it’s a start). I should also have mentioned re-press, who published Nick et al.’s book on speculative realism, although they only do philosophy.

      It makes perfect sense to me that the con would stretch to books too, although there also seems to be the idea floating around that many minor academic books are very costly because they shift in such tiny numbers. On the one hand, I can completely believe that. On the other, surely print-on-demand models that now seem to charge £10-20 per text show that the big publishers could change their practices. I mentioned this in an earlier post, where a rather shoddily-edited Routledge text of less than 200 pages was retailing for £80 (hbk). By contrast, Nick’s The Speculative Turn is 440 pages and costs £16 (pbk), despite being freely available online too. Now, I’m sure there are some issues with royalties (I understand that for some open access presses, there is no payment to authors at all), but then the people I know who’ve published with academic-style presses often receive cheques for single figure sums, so (again) it’s not money going to the academics that drives costs.

      It’s good to know about more open access journals, but it rather reinforces my point. The increasing numbers of such outlets don’t appear to have much effect on the overall publication ecosystem. Why? Plausibly three reasons: a) late entry disadvantage (the major fora are established and prestigious, and no one’s going to follow the detail of hundreds of journals in their field); b) the quality is more variable (some open access journals are bound to publish quality stuff, but there’s also the possibility that they have less cash on the production end – not being part of larger publishing conglomerates – and so do less impressive and less consistent work for authors); c) open access journals don’t count for careers, because they’re not on the Journal Citations Index.

      To my mind, the major impact comes from a) and c). Indeed, I would expect that existing expertise and economies of scale make the major publishing houses (CUP, Elsevier, Sage, etc.) useful primarily as ways of securing and maintaining ranking in REF-style exercises, which in turn leads to research cash flows to Departments. Whatever the combination of those factors, that still means that open access journals remain a tolerable complement to the current system, rather than a viable alternative to it.

      Take the significant number of IR-like journals listed by DOAJ (my search returned 41 results). I’ve heard of hardly any of them (and many are not in English). Now imagine if five of the top 20 IR journals (by 2010 JCR index) went open access (let’s say World Politics, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Review of International Studies, Security Dialogue and International Affairs). The effect, I think, would be transformative. Scholars of quality who wanted their work more widely read would cluster towards those journals, increasing their quality, prestige and citations and so putting pressure on the others to change their practices. It would also immediately remove any stigma. That’s the scale of things that I think is necessary to change things within current bounds of funding and academic prestige, although I agree it’s not going to happen from mass academic direct action (a sadly pathetic and laughable idea).


  2. Pingback: Bookmarks 03/16/2012 « Cairene's Nilometer

  3. Pingback: On Rejecting Journals | The Disorder Of Things

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