Time for academics to withdraw free labour

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Jack is a sheep farmer. He gets some government subsidies,
and also works long hours to keep his sheep happy and healthy. When his beasts
are ready for slaughter, he offers them to an abattoir. The abattoir is very
choosy and may reject Jack’s sheep, which is a disaster for him, as there is no
other route to the market. If he is lucky the abattoir will accept the animals,
slaughter them and sell them, at a large profit, to the supermarket. Jack does
not see any of this money. The populace struggle to afford the price of meat,
but the government has no control over this. When Jack feels like a nice piece
of lamb, he buys it from the supermarket. Meanwhile, Jack provides his services
for free as an inspector of other farmers’ animals.

Crazy story, right? But that’s the model that academic
publishing follows. Academics work their butts off to get research funding,
often from government. They then do the research and write up and submit it for
publication. They run the gauntlet of picky reviewers and editors to get the
work accepted for publication. Once it is published, it appears in a journal
which is sold on to academic institutions for large profits. Post publication,
the academic often has to pay a cost equivalent to several hardback books to
get a formatted electronic copy of the article. Meanwhile, the journals justify
this by arguing they have extensive costs. But in fact, it is the academic
community that does the bulk of the work for free, acting as editors and peer
reviewers. Increasingly, they are expected also to do copy editing and graphic
, tasks that were previously undertaken by professional journal

It has taken many years for the torpid academic community to
wake up to this ludicrous situation, but things are slowly starting to change. In
some fields, academics are starting to take things into their own hands and cut
commercial publishers out of the loop
, but this still the exception rather
than the rule. A more widely adopted innovation has been Open Access
publishing. On the one hand, electronic publishing has made it possible for
journal papers to be posted online and made freely accessible. On the other,
major funders, notably NIH in the USA
and the Wellcome Trust in the UK,
have insisted that researchers whom they fund must make their published work
Open Access. Obviously, something has to give: the publishers are not going to
do their work for nothing. But the system does work, with a combination of new
journals that are Open Access from the start, and older ones agreeing to make selected
articles Open Access, in both cases for a fee. In general, the funders agree to
pay the charge.

This week, however, a story broke suggesting that the
traditional publishers are trying to fight back and force NIH to backtrack on
its Open Access policy. Things hotted up with this post from Michael Eisen
who noted that one major publisher, Elsevier, has been lobbying a NY
Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, to persuade her to support a bill that would
limit Open Access publishing. Harvard
University gave a detailed
response to the bill, which can be found here.

I want my response to this story to go beyond just
tut-tutting and shaking my head.  Academics do have some power here. We provide
the articles for Elsevier journals, and we do a lot of unpaid work reviewing
and editing for them. None of us wants to restrict our opportunities for
publishing, but these days there are a lot of outlets available. When deciding
where to submit a paper, I suspect that most academics, like me, take little
notice of who the publisher of a journal is. I focus more on whether the
journal has a good
, my prior experience of publication lags, and whether Open Access is
available. But as from now, I shall include publisher in the criteria I adopt,
and avoid Elsevier as far as I can. Also, if asked to review for a journal,
I’ll check if it is in the Elsevier stable, using this handy
, and if so, I’ll explain why I’m not prepared to review. I suggest
that if you are as annoyed as I am by this story, you do likewise, and refuse
to engage with Elsevier journals.

Addendum, 10th January 2012

Some people on Twitter have asked if people should be paid
for the work they do as author/editor/reviewer. Definitely not. It would just make matters
worse, because publishers would factor in these costs and charge even more for

No, I just want a change in the model whereby publishers
make enormous and undeserved profits from academics. There are various ways
this could be done.

1. The publishers could charge less: currently if you try
and download a single journal article, you are charged around £20, even though
the production costs are minimal.

2. Retain the current model but remove commercial publishers
from the loop, with publication of research limited to learned societies,
universities, funders.

3. Retain the current model but make all journals Open
Access, with the funder or university paying a one-off publication fee.

4. More radically, move to a system such as arxiv, which I
discussed here

On the whole, academics are an interesting bunch. We’re not
all that interested in money, but we are skilled and can produce things of
commercial value. It’s a golden opportunity for someone who does want to make
money to step in a make a profit. Publishers like Elsevier would have been fine
if they hadn’t been so greedy and had charged modest sums for their product.
Instead, they pushed costs as high as the market could bear, making
huge profits
, while at the same time giving authors less and less.
(Copy-editors have become an endangered species). Instead of facilitating
scientific communication, they have put obstacles in the way. But part of the blame
lies with the academic community, who have been far too passive. We should have tackled this years ago before it got out of hand.