Academic publishing is full of problems; lets get them right.

I can’t quite tell whether this piece from The Atlantic is meant to be editorial or news (it’s okay if it’s both, or neither – I’m not picky about traditional delineations like that.) It’s pretty opinion-y, and it’s an opinion that I very much share – academic publishing has some very broken economics that need fixing. I appreciate anyone bringing attention to the issue – a large portion of my job is open access education and advocacy – and I absolutely agree with author Laura McKenna’s basic point that this cycle broken, and that it’s largely a result of “stubborn tradition”.

But McKenna is really wrong about a bunch of specifics, and there are a lot of people out there (with a lot of money), who want to shape the narrative around the economics of academic publishing in a really different direction. This article is in a fairly high-profile and general interest publication, but it’s so factually incorrect in so many different ways that it invites ridicule to the whole position. So, some responses, starting from the top:

  • “I searched for an article about autism on JSTOR, the online database of academic journals.”

    JSTOR is not “the online database of academic articles” – McKenna does acknowledge later that there are other databases, so this isn’t a complete factual error, but I think this phrasing may reflect the root of several of McKenna’s other errors.

    Most large academic libraries subscribe to hundreds of databases of academic articles. This is itself an artifact of the broken economics of scholarly publishing – especially how badly these databases interrelate and interoperate! If you want to do an exhaustive search in a subject area, it’s likely you’ll have to look in at least a couple of different electronic locations. It can be frustrating and time-consuming (though hey, before this stuff, researchers were working with bound, paper indexes. Just sayin’.)

    A lot of people, including many faculty members, have difficulty navigating this maze of subscription databases. Sometimes they choose to spend most of their research time in a single database or with a single access vendor. It’s not a great plan for any in-depth research projects, but it’s an okay approach for a first- or second-year
    undergraduate assignment. It’s also not a bad approach for a quick first-pass at a research topic, but for the author’s particular topic of autism, I’d suggest, perhaps, PubMedCentral as a resource that might provide richer, more on-topic, and (thanks to a policy of the National Institutes of Health) freely available full-text articles.

    JSTOR provides access to a whole lot of articles from a whole lot of
    journals – in some fields, the majority of relevant journals
    (though not always the most recent content) are available through JSTOR – so JSTOR is a pretty popular choice for people
    who narrow their research focus to one interface. But a distressingly large number of people actually hold the mistaken belief that there is literally only one way to find academic articles – and again because of its broad content, a lot of people think this of JSTOR. This misunderstanding may be due to limited outreach from their library, or it may be because a lot of people don’t really pay attention to what librarians try to talk to them about. While I’d like to say that most of these people are undergraduates, that’s not true – most undergraduates who hold this belief have learned it from an instructor.

    Oh, um. That was just the first sentence of the article? Eep. Moving on.

  • “…for the most part, only individuals with a college ID card can read
    academic journal articles.  Everyone else, including journalists,
    non-affiliated scholars, think tanks and curious individuals, must pay a
    substantial fee per article, if the articles are available at all.”

    Most public research universities offer access to most of their
    subscription content to anyone who walks in the door and sits down at one of the computers in the library. You can also often get access to an article via interlibrary loan, by asking at a public library that then requests a copy from an academic library. At the University of Minnesota, access to nonaffiliated users who are physically present in the library and use for interlibrary loan are big points of negotiation in our subscription contracts.

    A few vendors will
    sell us this kind of access, and some others try not to, which I think are both pretty nasty moves on their
    parts. We will pay for the public to have access, and they don’t want to sell. That totally is because they would prefer to have people pay for their own individual access, as McKenna notes, or not offer public access at all.

    Access for people who are not affiliated with colleges or universities IS a big problem – and getting bigger all the time as more and more resources (articles, books, other media) are available only under licenses which restrict public access or interlibrary loan. But there are still options and alternatives.

  • “…research is funded by national grants and subsidized through the
    university. The professor is given travel money and “release time” to
    conduct the research.”
    “Faculty are given course release time to edit the journal and a small
    stipend. The university provides offices and work-study students to help
    with the secretarial work.”

    It is totally true that universities underwrite the labor costs of
    faculty in the writing and review process. However, a faculty member in many disciplines and at many schools is extremely lucky if she gets travel money or release time for research, or a
    stipend to edit a journal, or any support from student workers funded by the university.

    That is, not only do universities underwrite the labor costs of academic writing and review, most faculty members do so out of their own pockets. Academic publishers’ profits are subsidized by the authors and editors themselves, and by federal grants, foundation grants, a million other kinds of grants, as well as by universities.

  • “Academic journals are housed at universities and are subsidized by the university…”

    Relatively few academic journals are housed at universities. Most are
    run through scholarly societies, and until recently many societies were,
    more or less, publishers. Sometimes a university underwrites the costs of a society publisher, but that’s not very common. Over the last decade or two, increasingly,
    societies outsource publishing of their journals to commercial academic
    publishers – most of whom are, again, not affiliated with universities.

  • “the journal editor […] sends it to a for-profit publisher.”

    A small number of for-profit publishers are increasingly consolidating in the field of academic publishing, but some academic publishers, especially small scholarly societies, are still non-profit.

    The major for-profit publishers do make ridiculous profits. Like, 32-42% profits.

  • “The publisher is key, because he needs money to print and distribute the
    journal for its tiny community of readers. To make that money, the
    publisher sells the rights to an academic search engine company, like

    I don’t even know where to start. JSTOR isn’t a search engine, and it’s not a company. JSTOR is non-profit, and it’s basically an archive of published content. Some academic publishers let JSTOR digitize and provide access to old articles, and some let JSTOR provide access to new articles (though usually after a time-delay) in
    parallel to a separate publisher site. There may in fact be money changing hands, and there certainly is some licensing of distribution rights, but it doesn’t work like this.

    Non-profit and small independent publishers do need money to distribute their journals – fewer and fewer put anything in print, but publishing online and maintaining online access is not costless. However, they usually get that money from society membership fees, charging libraries for access to the articles, or by letting a big for-profit publisher charge for access and kick back some money to the small publisher. They do not usually get that money by selling anything, rights included, to JSTOR.

  • “Having bought the rights to the academic research, JSTOR digitizes the
    material and sells the content back to the university libraries.”

    The publishers usually retain ownership of the rights, even when the content is available in JSTOR. Also, JSTOR doesn’t routinely digitize new or recent content because, like everyone else in modern publishing, they usually work from the electronic originals.

  • “To recoup their costs of leasing the information from the publishers,
    the academic search engines use a subscription model to restrict the
    content to those who can pay the hefty price tag.”

    JSTOR is a non-profit. A lot of their charges go back to maintaining the services they already host, developing new services, and digitizing new old stuff.

    For-profit academic publishers do set up hefty price tags, and place restrictions on subscription content, but it’s for profit, not cost-recovery. Some small publishers charge libraries subscription fees on a cost-recovery basis.

  • “To get access to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR — only one
    of the many databases and collections of information — university
    libraries must pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that.”

    This may be true (though lots of libraries have weird individual or consortial negotiated pricing schemes) but OMG it is cheap compared to some single journal titles from commercial publishers. The average yearly subscription cost for single journals in some disciplines is over $4,000.

  • “The challenge is finding a way to get research on the web by bypassing
    the publisher/JSTOR nexus. If academic journals skipped that needless
    step of providing a print version of their journals, they could stop
    this cycle. They could simply upload the papers to a website and take the publishers out of the process.”

    I think I’ve pretty much fully addressed the misconception of a “publisher/JSTOR nexus”, but wanted to point out that continuing to provide print access is not the thing that’s hanging up this dysfunctional cycle. Online-only access carries plenty of costs of its own. The non-profit open access publisher PLoS charges a publication fee of couple thousand dollars an article to underwrite only some of their costs. Many institutions or grants underwrite open access publishing fees or even whole open access publications, though. In the long-run, the costs are much lower to institutions than when subsidizing commercial profits.

    Several disciplines have managed to bypass the broken academic publishing economy through a
    great resource called the arXiv – or through other new models of academic distribution. But lots of academic authors don’t adopt the online-distribution, review-after-publication model
    – or any of the other models that have already been developed or are developing for non-print academic discourse – because they’re caught up in peer review and tenure systems that
    are stuck in the early 20th century.

There are things JSTOR does that I do have issues with. I wish it was doing more to provide more open access to the public domain materials it holds, for example. The JSTOR independent researcher program has all kinds of problems. But JSTOR is, for the most part, a pretty good element of the existing landscape, and certainly not the central problem McKenna makes it out to be.

The broken economics of academic publishing are not as simple as
they look when you first become aware of the problem, and the details do
matter. I agree that breaking out of traditional publishing models is necessary to any fix. I am very glad that many people are already working very hard on a number of promising approaches to reform in this system, and a number of alternatives to traditional models are already available.

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  1. Hey, thanks for pointing out the inaccuracies in the original article — it’s a shame that there were so many simplifications.

    I suspect that the article would’ve worked better as an account of what it takes for the average citizen to get access to research results. Judging by the comments on the original article, there are many of us who’ve had issues. Like Laura McKenna, a Ph.D., we’re folks who are familiar with campus environments and comfortable with research libraries, yet we still find it difficult to navigate the various barriers to entry. I see that as a kind of wake-up call.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Kevin. I very much agree that access to research articles is unreasonably difficult, even for those who are affiliated with a research institution – much less for those who are not! The U of M Libraries recently filed information with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asking them to expand the NIH public access mandates to all federally funded research –

      Believe me, folks in libraries and many others in higher ed are very, very awake to the problems of research access for individuals at our institutions and for the public. We’ve been working on this stuff for years, and are really happy that others are getting passionate about the issues as well. McKenna brought welcome attention to the issue; I simply think the cause of reform in academic publishing would have been better served if she’d checked with JSTOR itself, or with publishing reform advocates, before running the article as written, or if she had, as you suggest, written a more personal piece about the frustrations of trying to research what is obviously an important topic for her and for many others.

  2. I guess I was spooked by the fierce comments on the original article by self-identifying faculty members — most seemed to suggest that (a) there was no reason for non-academics to want to access scholarly work, and (b) even if they did want this access, it was easy enough for anyone to get to a decent research library.

    Had I read the comments more closely, I would’ve noticed that the self-identifying librarians were instead saying, “Yeah, this is a big problem.” We appreciate y’all! Hopefully the open access folks will win out.

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