Putting a price on knowledge: the high cost of academic journals

Does the cost of academic journals stymie learning? Flickr/the.Firebottle

The phrase ‘publish or perish’ is familiar to all academics, who face enormous pressure to have their work featured in the top academic journals. Career progression, job security and pay rises can depend on getting a by-line in the ‘right’ journal.

Journals do society a great service by seeking out, editing, improving upon and publishing the top scholarly work, thereby contributing to the global pool of knowledge.

But some publishers charge academics high ‘article processing fees’, obtain the copyright license for the resulting article and then bill academic institutions thousands of dollars for subscriptions so they can access their own researcher’s work.

Frustration with the current system has prompted one protester to post more than 18,000 journal articles to the illegal file sharing site The Pirate Bay.

Several academic institutions have developed open access models, where scholarly work is kept on databases that can be accessed for free. Working with some publishers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made many hundreds of articles available on its DSpace@MIT database.

In this Q+A, Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne outlines some of the issues in this debate.

What concerns you, if anything, about the way the academic journal system works at present? What are the benefits versus the downsides?

I’m not sure how widespread is the practice of making authors pay to make submissions or get reviewed for publication. It does not happen in any of the social science and humanities journals I know – I am on 15 editorial boards.

It is a perversion of the process – intellectual merit and originality should be the only basis for inclusion. It happens in part because in some disciplines the most authoritative knowledge is centred on a very small number of journals.

This can be quite conservatising, marginalising ‘off the wall’ innovations which often have to come from outside the most prestigious journals and sometimes happen in the open source / open access publishing world.

Of course, the system of payment for reviews and so on favours established scholar-researchers (who get their institutions to pay all costs) and disadvantages young scholars in richer countries who lack ‘pull’ inside the universities, and disadvantages all institutions and people in the developing countries.

The high cost of journal subscriptions also disadvantages institutions and people in the developing world – given the importance of knowledge in economic development and cultural power, unequal access to worldwide knowledge as published in journals is a primary factor in reproducing global inequalities.

What can be done to tackle those problems?

Firstly, foreign aid for research and education should extend to programs for sharing journal subscriptions.

Secondly, a serious problem is the centralisation of the formal disciplinary journals in a small number of major publishing companies, for whom turning the circulation of knowledge into a mini-economy with artificial scarcity and cost barriers makes good sense as a business model.

However it is a bad model for cultural circulation. As Joseph Stiglitz pointed out, knowledge is a global public good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable once the moment of first discovery is passed.

The widest possible availability is a optimising condition of both knowledge formation itself and of the innovation economy. Any barriers to publishing and receiving are artificial – knowledge is naturally ‘open source’ and flows freely. So vigorous participation in open source or open access publishing is the major antidote to the high cost journal regimes.

One advantage that open source publishing has is immediacy – there is usually a long lag time for publication in the major journals. Two or three year delays are common.

How well are universities coping with the cost of journal subscriptions?

Few universities can afford to maintain the full set of minimum necessary journals to be able to provide research infrastructure on a comprehensive basis. Indeed, even the strongest Australian university libraries are forced to do without material they need to hold.

In New Zealand the problem is significantly worse, and in major universities in such countries as Indonesia, Philippines or Vietnam there is simply no possibility of providing even the most minimum set of necessary journals.

What do you think of the open access models developing here and overseas?

That’s the way to go, but open access publishing should be in two forms - (1) papers validated by a journal board and review process, (2) anything goes publishing. And the two forms need to be carefully distinguished.