Academic Publishing

In my years as a lecturer at the California Maritime Academy (CMA)1, my activity in reading research papers slowed to a crawl.  There is no formal expectation of research for lecturers, but the more proximate cause is simply that teaching course loads are very high for lecturers, and there was scant time that could be spent on research.  Now, however, I am a new assistant professor, which means that research is expected, and I have some time to spend on doing it. The first step, after several years away from intensive research, is to re-familiarize myself with the state of the art in my research subspecialties. To do that, I need to read research papers. A lot of them. And that’s where I encountered a scourge that I had no significant prior experience with: the paywall.

I was certainly familiar with the concept, and I had encountered some while reading various publications online like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but I hadn’t experienced the paywalls of academic publishing.  When I was a grad student, the University of Oregon was (and is) large enough and well-funded enough that pretty much all the journals I wanted to read were available with just a few clicks as long as I was on campus.  I could cast a wide net, sift through dozens of articles looking for information, find or not find what I was looking for, and continue onward having never left my desk or paying a penny.  It was an efficient and gloriously simple way to conduct research.

When I first started reading papers (or trying to read papers) at CMA, I knew that I wasn’t sitting within the walls of a major research institution, but I thought that I’d try doing the same thing I did at University of Oregon.  It did not go well.  A conversation with our librarians later, I learned: (1) online access for physics journals is very poor, and this is because CMA only has a few physicists, and most of those physicists have affiliations at larger schools through which they can get their access2, (2) I can read any article I like (there’s the California State University (CSU) system advantage!), but I need to order it via a sort of digital interlibrary loan, which takes between 0.5 and several days to fulfill, and (3) there are journals that are available CSU system-wide, but their number has been dwindling because the budget for them is flat, and the cost of the journals has been going up.

All this provided everything I need to know to go about my research.  Sure, it’s a pain in the ass compared to a few clicks for instant access, but I can get the papers I need.  However, the situation got me thinking about academic journal publishing.  Why can’t libraries afford more journals?  Why are journals so expensive?  What if I didn’t have an academic job, but felt like trying to read about or do some research on my own time?  Why, when most research papers are produced by researchers paid by public institutions and funded by grants from public institutions, is there a paywall at all?  My inquiring mind wanted to know.

As with most things in this world, it turned out a lot of people had been doing a lot of thinking about this issue prior to my interest in it.  After reading for a while, I’ve formed some opinions, but I’ll save those for later.  First, some facts and figures.

  • Most journals do not require a submission fee, which means that anyone can submit their manuscript. Yay! Journal editors spend some of their time culling the herd of submissions before sending out the remaining ones for peer review.
  • Most journals get most of their money from subscriber fees, and most subscribers are institutions like libraries, not individuals. This is the ‘traditional’ model of funding academic journal publishing. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can buy individual articles for something in the neighborhood of $30(!).  Publishers add value in various ways.  Reputable ones have excellent editors who filter out submissions that don’t fit the scope or pedigree of the journal and coordinate the all-important peer review process.  There are reproduction and distribution costs for journals that still have a print presence rather than online only.  Online publications must host the material, archive it, and index it so that readers can find it easily.
  • More recently, so-called ‘open-access’ journals have begun to grow in popularity. In this model, when a paper is accepted for publication, a fee is paid by the writer of the paper to publish it.  The paper is then free to read for anyone in perpetuity.  The fee is relatively large, typically $1k – $3k.
  • Lastly, the Internet exists, so there is a very low barrier to simply ‘self-publishing’ a paper on one’s own webpage or posting it on something like arXiv3. Everyone can read it, and you don’t have to pay to publish it.  However, there are issues here.  First and foremost for someone like myself is that this sort of publishing holds almost no weight when it comes to tenure and promotion. Research publications need to appear in academic journals if you want to stick around. And unfortunately, you usually can’t publish your paper on your webpage and then submit it to a traditional journal as well. Some simply discourage it, but others, particularly the ‘name’ journals, will not publish it if you also self-publish.

So, what do I think about all this? Well, I think that most journals are too expensive for the value they add.  Costs for subscriptions have gone up at about triple the rate of inflation for decades.  Journals have mostly gone online, which should reduce costs associated with reproduction, printing, and distribution. The peer review process, though coordinated by the journals’ editors4, is done by the writer’s peers (other researchers) who aren’t paid.  Copy editing is mostly done by the writer and in the peer review process, not by editors.  Even typesetting is mostly automated. The cost run-up, at least for most journals, seems entirely disproportionate.  And although the  open-access journal model is, I think, overall a better system, there is still a significant barrier to publishing, albeit now it is on the writers’ side of the equation.  Not everyone has a couple thousand dollars to get an article published.

All this doesn’t even address the following: if the reviewers aren’t paid and are often employees of public institutions, and the research that led to the paper is funded, quite often, by public dollars, how is it fair that Joe Q. Public (or me) can’t read anything but the abstract if the paper goes into a traditional journal?  Adding insult to injury, commercial, for-profit publishers’ margins are around 25%, so they are profiting handsomely while not writing the content or reviewing the content or funding the content5.

Justifiably, there are some who look at all this and want to burn it down6. Two individuals of note in this category are Aaron Swartz and Alexandra Elbakyan.  A relatively famous computer programmer, Aaron Swartz engaged in political advocacy for freedom of information, and subsequently more dramatic ‘freeing’ of public records and academic journal articles from behind paywalls.  His most dramatic stunt, using an MIT guest account to download hundreds of thousands of articles from JSTOR7, got him in significant legal trouble, and he tragically committed suicide while free on bail.  Alexandra Elbakyan started Sci-Hub in 2011, a website that provides access to millions of scientific articles that are normally locked behind a paywall.  Predictably, commercial publishers were not pleased, and one of the largest, Elsevier, filed suit against her and managed to win a judgment against her that resulted in sci-hub.org being shut down.  Also predictably, since the material is primarily hosted abroad and the internet is a big place, Sci-Hub is still up and running at other domain names.

Despite my own frustrations with the system as it stands, I don’t think that simply ignoring the law is the correct way to proceed8.  There has been progress, both in terms of publishing models and in policy.  Though open-access publishing models are currently expensive for writers, there are programs for writers with demonstrated financial difficulties, and universities or granting agencies will often pick up this publication cost.  Open-access journals represent greater than 10% of published articles, and that proportion is growing.  Many universities are adopting some flavor of open-access policy, in which their professors’ papers are published in a free repository after (typically) a year-long embargo.  On the other end, granting organizations are starting to demand the same sort of thing – the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (among others) – currently require that papers that relied on funding from them be open-access after a year-long embargo.  Academic libraries, the predominant subscribers to various academic journals, are pushing back more and more on journal subscription costs, motivated by flat purchasing budgets and massive run-ups in subscription costs.  In addition to all this, the publish-or-perish nature of gaining tenure for academic researchers, a major source of fuel for the articles going into all these academic journals, is being subjected to some scrutiny9.

These are all encouraging developments, but a great deal is left to be done. Researchers, no matter their financial means, should be able to read about the current state of their field.  Researchers, no matter their financial means, should be able to publish their work if it is of high quality.  This is currently not the case, and only by examining the whole picture – the article writer, the expectations of the writer’s employer, the cost structure of publishing, the motivations of the publisher, and methods by which the articles are disseminated – will meaningful progress be made.  For me, other than talking about it here, I’ll start by publishing my stuff in open-access journals.  Fingers crossed that CMA will want to pick up the publishing fee!

1 Known by many other names, which is confusing even to people who work there like me.  The most recent offical name is California State University – Maritime Academy.  Cal Maritime is another, more common usage.

2 Which doesn’t help me.  Blerg.

3 arXiv is an awesome pre-print archive (read the ‘X’ as the greek letter it resembles to get the cleverness of the name) that is free and run by Cornell.  It’s a physics and math thing for the most part, and is not a peer-reviewed journal, though a lot of eyeballs see the papers there.

4 Though even this coordination is mostly done through an automated online system for the referees.

5 There are partial exceptions to this, but not many.  Also, the editors of many journals do review the article, but not anywhere near the extent of the unpaid peer reviewers.



7 A massive online journal article archiving and indexing service that requires a subscription to view its contents.

8 Though it’s certainly convenient until you get caught.

9 Well, at least a little.  Check out this article for instance.  I particularly enjoy this quote: “…lamenting that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge — bricks — and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole.  In time, he worried, brick making would become an end in itself.”

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