How to print money

How much are academic journals worth? The following table gives some indication of dollar costs and how they have changed over a 5 year period.

LC Classification Average
Anthropology $389 $543 40%
Chemistry $2799 $3690 32%
Engineering $1530 $2047 34%
History $183 $263 44%
Philosophy and Religion $205 $281 37%
Political Science $365 $539 48%

Reproduced from

That’s a hefty increase. Did producing academic journals become over 30% more expensive in that period? No. In fact the cost of producing journals should be much less than it used to be. Many journals are no longer physically printed and so there is a reduction in manufacturing and distribution costs. The typesetting of papers is increasingly done by authors using desktop tools (such as the absolutely fabulous Latex). The people who write the papers are not paid. The people who review the papers are not paid. The editors of the respective journals are not paid. There will be some paid staff at the journal to coordinate, undertake aspects of typesetting and proof reading. Important jobs but ones that do not command very high salaries. So just were is all this extra money going to?

Meet Erik Engstrom. He’s the chief executive officer of academic publisher Reed Elselvier which owns a large number of academic journals. Erik’s salary last year was  £3million. Not too shabby. But then Reed Elselvier does have quite a bit of money available to splash out on executive renumeration. Last year it reported revenue of £6billion and profits of £1.6billion. Unfortunately this largess doesn’t extend to the rest of Reed Elselvier’s workforce. Like most companies, the gap between those at the very top and those at the very bottom is very, very large. But Reed Elselvier, along with other academic publishers, take this disparity to its final conclusion in that they don’t pay a penny to most of the people who work for it. In fact, in the topsy turvy world of academic publishing, Reed Elselvier often gets to actually charge the people who make is products.

I’m not making it up. It really is the case that the people that make the products that Reed Elselvier sells often have to pay Reed Elselvier rather than the other way round. And then, if they want to then use these products they have to buy them back either by paying for them personally, or working for an institution that pays Reed Elselvier for the privilege of using the products that their own members of staff created. How on Earth did this situation arise and how is it maintained?

The paper chase

One of my main jobs as an academic is to publish papers in academic journals. Publications are a type of academic currency. They are a measure of your worth and standing within the community. Publish or perish. Whether or not I get a new job and whether I advance in my current job will be largely dependent on my publication record. In this respect there are two important measures of my academic worth.

First is citation count. This is the number of other papers that mention mine. The underlying assumption is that there is a wisdom of the crowd in that if lots of other papers reference my papers then I must be having some sort of impact (impact – please remember that word). As an example, here are the papers that cite one of my papers that was published in 2010. It hasn’t been completely ignored since publication and has had some sort of impact. But to put that into context here is the most cited paper ever (currently at 228,532 citations). I clearly have some work to do.

Second is where a paper is published. There are some pretty obscure journals out there. Obscurity can come with a number in terms of impact factor (there’s that word again). If the impact of each of my papers can be measured by how many other papers link to it with citations, then each journal’s impact can be measured by the total number of citation links to papers that it publishes. The impact factor of a journal is a badge that is worn proudly. Getting a paper published in one of the very top impact factor journals (Nature, Science, PNAS, Cell) can significantly improve your CV.

At the moment I, along with all other academics that work for universities and other organisations that receive funding from the government, are preparing for the next round of funding assessments. It’s called the REF. Competition for central government funds is very fierce. How does University A make the case that it deserves a nice fat slice of this pie? By demonstrating the impact of its research.  Which it does by presenting its best research which is very frequently the papers that have a high number of citations and are published in the high impact factor journals. My university will in effect present a portfolio of research that will be assessed and graded by a number of subject-specific panels (the trouble this causes for people who do research that doesn’t fit into neat subject boundaries is another matter…). Being selected for the REF is important.

So I have strong incentive to publish highly cited papers in journals that have high impact factor and that are read by the sorts of academics who would be interested in my paper and so would be more likely to cite it when they write their own papers. My university has a strong incentive for its academics to publish highly cited papers in high impact journals because it makes a stronger case for impact (there is talk of reducing the significance of journal impact factor for this REF but I’m somewhat skeptical about that).

We have an inelastic product. Increasing the cost of a journal will not decrease the number of copies sold because the customers (mainly universities) have strong incentives to support the journal and their employees’ attempts to get published in them. The three big academic publishers of Reed Elselvier, Springer and Wiley own over 40% of all academic journals. In many cases they have bought up what were previously quite small, not-for-profit journals and significantly increased the subscription costs. Not because the product being sold is any better, but because they can. In total UK universities currently pay around £200million each year for subscriptions to academic journals. As an example of a research intensive university, Imperial shells out nearly £4million annually.

Pay per view

Perhaps the crowning irony is that the people who ultimately pay for this research can’t even access it. Much of the research that is published in these journals is funded by the UK taxpayer because the people who did the research work for a public university that receives its money from central government. Yet the average UK taxpayer will not be able to see it. Try for yourself. Have a look at my publications and see which ones you can download. Or rather which ones you can download for free. Reed Elselvier will be happy to charge you £50 for a single download of one of my papers. Dear reader I hope you are not terribly scandalised if I tell you that I don’t think any of my papers are worth £50. They should be free. Along with pretty much everything else that is published in academic journals. The fact that they are not, is largely due to the rent-seeking behaviour of large and very profitable companies.

But, you may ask still trying to make sense out of this mess, what about all this open access activity? Aren’t publishers increasing the number of articles that are available at no cost? They are. And they are charging for it. Recently I was looking to publish a paper in a journal and was gratified to learn that an open access option was available. My paper (assuming it passed peer review and was eventually published) would be freely available to anyone who want it. All the journal required in return was a little over £1200 from me. If I were to baulk at handing over that amount of cash I should, presumably, consider the costs associated with publishing my paper and appreciate the harsh reality that if journals simply gave away large numbers of the papers they publish, then very soon there would be no financial incentive to publish journals. Perhaps this argument would have more force if it came from a company that is not currently making profits in excess of £1billion pounds and has a history of hiking up journal costs, bundling up less desirable journals with more prestigious titles to increase revenue and undertaking legal action to stop universities disclosing the details of their journal subscriptions.

One way this patently absurd situation is going to be resolved is by individual academics only publishing in journals that charge a fair price and are fully committed to open access. There’s a lot of theory about how easy or hard that is going to be. Right now we can make a start by simply not reviewing, editing or submitting to any journals owned by Reed Elselvier. There needs to be some rebalancing of the costs of production and the  prices charged and that will be a painful process. Telling other academics that you are doing this will help change the dynamics of the game and (hopefully) bring a faster resolution. You can sign a petition at which was inspired by Timothy Gowers call to boycott of Elselvier in January 2012.

Oh, and if you really do want to read one of my paper for free, then first check out the Southampton Eprints server. I would recommend everyone put versions of their papers somewhere online for free download. If nothing else it seems to irritate some of the larger publishers and in this topsy turvy world that is often the only reliable indicator of which way is up.

1 thought on “How to print money

  1. It’s like ‘Hollister’ for academics. Expensive, but clearly makes you look better than someone who doesn’t have it. Fashion is just so worth it.

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