Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons

David, my erstwhile ‘parasitic overlord’ from when I was co-editing Millennium, points me to some posts by Kent Anderson of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who defends the industry on a number of grounds from Monbiot’s polemic against the journal racket. The comments threads on both pieces are populated by academics who agree with Monbiot and by publishing industry colleagues who agree with Anderson (and who alternate between dismissing and being personally offended by the original Monbiot column). The core counter-argument is that this anti-corporate, out of touch, ‘wannabe-academic’ day dreaming is old hat, and stands up no better now than it did when it was demolished at some unspecified point in the past.

Most crucially, Monbiot’s central exhibit (that companies consistently make 30-40% margins on the distribution of work already paid for by the public purse) is almost entirely passed over. Anderson coyly suggests that maybe publisher margins are that high, but maybe they’re not. Despite working rather closer to the heart of matters financial than do the rest of us, he provides no settling of accounts either way. In any case, however much it costs, and however much publishers make, it’s good value, apparently by definitional fiat. Since libraries keep paying the money, and since academics keep submitting papers, it is ‘idealism’ (remember that?) to complain about the current balance of power.

This is the familiar circular logic of neoliberal reason: privatised arrangements are beneficial because they will make the system more efficient and less costly. But if the rate of profit does not fall in line with the expectations of open competition, then it must mean that the rates charged are true equilibrium prices. Nevertheless, complainants citing high margins are referred to the benefits of privatised arrangements and assured that competition will bring prices down. Even though £200 million each year, or 10% of all research funding distributed by HEFCE (the academic funding council for England), ends up being spent on journal and database access by academic libraries. [1]

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