The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Information wants to be free. Congress wants it to be held for ransom.


January 11, 2012

It’s bad form to criticize other
disciplines’ journals based solely
on titles, but Annals of Tourism Research?
This is the sort of thing libraries
spend their budgets on?

Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is trying to end taxpayer access to publicly-funded research. The article is worth reading, not least because it is the only time that you’ll ever see the term “powerful publishing cartels” in this age of disruptive new-media innovation.

And yet the academic publishing market really is different, as one UC-Berkeley professor argued last year. When Nature tried to extort a 400% subscription fee increase from the University of California system, there was very little to do except engage the nuclear option–that is, threaten to boycott the journals entirely. Academics, whose lives are shaped by publishing in journals, are at the mercy of those journals’ publishers. In such negotiating positions, it’s unsurprising that publishers have managed to steadily increase their yield from universities that–as you may have heard!–are otherwise struggling to get by.

In the long term, the disjuncture between stagnant or shrinking university resources and increasing fees for access will lead to a rather severe readjustment. The same thing will happen to the plethora of new journals that is happening to the plethora of newly-minted Ph.D.s. That is, they will starve, wither, and — well, only the journals will die. The Ph.D.s will move on to jobs in industry. (I hope.)

What could help, of course, would be a far-sighted policy that would guarantee that the fruits of taxpayer-funded research would be available to taxpayers. This utopian dream is easily oversold. Let’s be frank: the general public doesn’t particularly care or directly benefit from research. The indirect benefits are pretty good, but no single journal article is likely to matter much to the public, which is simply unable to read and evaluate the articles unless they get their union card earn their doctorate. But it’s reprehensible that universities, which even if “private” are tax-supported by their nonprofit status, are given federal money to produce research which is then given to private publishers which, in turn, take quite a bit of money from universities to let them see that research in slightly better-formatted versions.

The good news is that the publishing house Elsevier has managed to rent their very own congressperson for, apparently, only a couple of thousand dollars in campaign contributions. At this point, even academics can scrape together a few shillings and find a senator or two to champion our cause. But please: let’s stick to the small-state legislators. Their campaigns are cheaper and some of us have a pay freeze.

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