A Tax on Education, A Stifling of the Public Mind

George Monbiot has a must read, should be outraged by, article about the costs of accessing peer-reviewed literature:

The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen,Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities’ costs, which are being passed to their students.

the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles.

More importantly, universities are locked into buying their products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can’t publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country – Robert Maxwell – made much of his money through academic publishing.

And then there is, to me, the very most morally scandalous part. All this unpaid work by scholars is then priced out of the range of the average reader:

I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

Read the whole article.

(via 3 Quarks Daily)

Your Thoughts?

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Robert B.


    Dammit, capitalism! Bad dog! No shitting on vital social institutions!

    This is why we can’t have nice things.

  • julian

    Nothing that hasn’t been said but a couple questions.

    Where does the high cost of journals come from? And how feasible would be for scientists to create journals among themselves, cutting out the ‘big names’? Would that erode or have any effect on the standard of papers published?

  • Kiwi Sauce

    It gets worse. I work in a small science organisation, and we have a library which buys some books and access to online bibliographic databases. Even with text access to some journals, most articles I need aren’t included as part of the cost of the bibliographic database (e.g. EBSCO ones like Medline). And when I need a journal article that isn’t available through our subscriptions, my section budget is used. One systematic literature review can easily cost a couple of hundred dollars just in accessing the articles.

    But what really annoys me is the poor quality of journal articles that are published. I am tired of the number of times I have had to read a journal article where the authors used crappy statistics to analyse the data, generalise beyond the data, etc. Given the amount that these journals and articles cost, and the volume of potential article that are rejected (well in excess of the ones that are published) where the hell is the QA in the peer review process?

  • chris

    That is rather disturbing. I can understand them being more expensive than, say, newsstand magazines and the like as I imagine there aren’t any paid advertisements within the pages (I could be wrong, I’ve never had access to any), but those prices seem absurd.

    I had just previously assumed they weren’t commonly available because they were kind of like ‘corporate account only’ retailers, you have to work in the field to really have access.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    But you have to get published by one of these extortionists to stay on tenure track. So there are a lot of mostly stupid articles in most science journals.

    You study botfly mucus and discover that a chemical in botfly mucus cures MRSA and publish it on your website, less chance of tenure. Publish your half-assed paper on extracting botfly proteins,get tenure.

    BTW, I totally think botflies are the future of antibiotics. I do some work in feral cat colony management. I have seen many botflies in feral kittens. How does the botfly hole manage not to get infected by bacteria and provoke an immune response from the kitten which would kill the botfly larva? I think botflies secrete undiscovered antibiotics.

    If botfly larvae made 15 antibiotics, you wouldn’t see much interest in the US. Natural chemicals are hard to patent, and less money without a patent. Scientists in Brazil and South Africa would probably manufacture three or four botfly antibiotics which would be blocked from being imported into the US. My mom would would die a year from now from the MRSA she caught three years ago from her second artificial knee even though those knees have given her the ability to see the world as she wanted to. But no, she must die from the next outbreak.

    I am serious about this botfly stuff. I have written to animal disease specialists at Texas A&M and Human Botfly specialists at UTMB Galveston. You do not want to know about the human botfly. It is the ultimate parasite.

  • drlake

    The prices charged for academic journals are way out of line, as you note. I’d love to see a breakdown of the expenses involved in academic publishing, since I’m surprised that the profit margin is only 36% given the amount of free and almost free labor involved in generating academic articles and books. I’m personally able to get what I need through the university library and inter-library loan, but if I weren’t at a big state university system I can see how access to published research might cause problems.

    I do see an increasing trend towards electronic publishing, which should push costs down. However, the only big online publisher of peer-reviewed research (Berkeley Electronic Press – bepress.com) still charges $300+ for most of its offerings, and as far as I know they aren’t offered through journal services like EBSCO. At the moment, this is a fundamental problem with our educational model and I don’t see any way to fix it as long as academic publishing is dominated by for-profit motives.

  • VeganPhD

    Even I never realized how expensive actual journals are. Ridiculous. At least some sciences (not including chemistry) can make use of http://arxiv.org/ , but this would require citations to include an arxiv link *and* require that the authors make sure the published version gets posted there.

    To answer the obvious, arxiv.org publishes “preprints”, which are submitted to them (usually) at the same time the paper is submitted to a journal. Unlike a journal, there is little review and the preprint is made available within a few days. The author then has to submit their revisions to arxiv when they make them if they want to keep it updated; most do this. However, until a paper is published in a journal it might as well not *officially* exist; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a preprint referenced in a published paper