Academic Publishers: Making Murdoch Look Good

It’s no big secret that the scientific journal system, originally created to share scientific information, now operates mainly by restricting access to that information. The spring, in “Free Science, One Paper at a Time,” I wrote about what that walled garden feels like from the inside, as evolutionary biologist and extremophile microbiolgist Jonathan Eisen tried to free his father’s papers. Today, in the Guardian, George Monbiot has a spirited rant on what those garden walls look like from the outside. He’s not pulling any punches:

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.

As Monbiot notes, the companies charging these fees are making splendid returns; Elsevier, for instance, is ringing up operating profits of 36% at a time when libraries as well as individual subscribers need to cut back on costs. Both the Guardian story and mine describe the sort of constraints this poses on researchers and the flow of scientific information.

Monbiot is rightly irked that the UK government is doing so little to make publicly financed research results available to the public. (The US, by requiring open access to such papers within 6 months of publication, does a bit better.) I see more room for hope than Monbiot appears to — some signs that pressure from libraries and open-access publishers like PLOS are changing things. Conceivably I’m overly optimistic; it’s happened before. And of course Monbiot means to rant, has good reason to do so, and rants effectively. The issue is far from academic: The worst constraints sharply slow the free sharing of scientific information, even among researchers. And with science driving both our economies and our efforts to improve health and curb nasty diseases, that concerns everyone.

Update 8/30/11, 12:10 pm EDT: Noah Gray, an editor at Nature, has published (in personal capacity) a sharp Google Plus post that a) argues that Monbiot overstates or glosses the case in a few instances (I agree) and b) lists some reasons why Nature Publishing Group is usually not mentioned in articles like Monbiot’s or mine. I largely agree with that argument too. His post is full of extremely helpful context and caveats. (Disclosure: I sometimes write for Nature and have friends there, as well as at open-access publisher PLOS.)

PS: This one’s so fat it almost seems unfair; then again, not. Via Retraction Watch, a one-sentence retraction (i.e., notice that an article has been retracted) that costs $32. That’s right: $32 to read a sentence that says an article is no longer available. You can’t make this stuff up:

A completely unhelpful retraction notice appears in the September issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution for “Investigating the Role of Natural Selection on Coding Sequence Evolution in Salmonids Through NGS Data Mining,” a paper first published in March.

Here’s the entire notice for the paper — which has been removed completely from the journal’s site, we should mention:

“This article has been permanently retracted from publication by the authors.”

Reading the entirety of that unhelpful notice, by the way, will set you back $32 if you’re not a subscriber. Otherwise, you will learn only that “This article has…”

Has what? Cooties? Been given an award? Too many references? Come on, Oxford University Press. We know times are tough. But you can’t make the whole sentence free?

Get the whole thing at Retraction Watch.


Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Free Science, One Paper at a Time

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