Via Tim Crane on Twitter, I came across an article by George Monbiot on the economics of academic publishing, regarding journals in particular, with the suggestive (but spot-on) title of 'Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist'. As well said by another tweep, the article "will shock everyone except academics". Indeed, none of it is news to us, and the bottom-line is pretty simple: academic publishers get everybody to work for them for free (authors, peer-reviewers, most of the editing work), and then go on to charge ridiculous amounts of money for journal subscriptions. And yet, we are stuck with them, because the discipline depends crucially on journal publishing. As my husband (who works in the corporate world) once said to me, this is the most profitable business model one could think of, which basically means it's a scam. Quoting from the Monbiot piece;
What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.
We've had discussions on academic publishing here at NewAPPS before, here in particular. Let me quote from that post again:
In fact the primary purpose that journals now serve is selection—this is worth reading, this not, not dissemination of information. As a means of disseminating information, journals and books are obsolete. (David Collander, prominent economist)
This strikes me as true of philosophy as well; for the dissemination of papers, placing them on your university's webpage or your academia.edu site seems to fulfill the disseminating role just fine. Other means of online interaction (blogs, social networks etc.) can definitely contribute as well. But in terms of how people are perceived and evaluated in the profession, journals still play a crucial role, alas.
What, if anything, can we do about the tyranny of academic publishers? Here's an obvious suggestion: so far I've been very 'obedient' and have never put final versions of my papers online (It's always the pre-print version, uncorrected proofs etc.), as required by the copyright transfer agreement. But now I'm thinking that that's not the way to go; and if we all start putting final versions of our papers online, what are they going to do? Are they going to sue everybody, install a special department just to keep track of who has been posting 'their' valuable papers online for free?
Moreover, open access journals should receive all our support. Especially established academics who do not need to 'score points' with 'fancy' publications would do well to contribute to open access journals so as to increase their reputation. If we all do it consistently, the day will come when publishing in a highly regarded open access journal will give you more 'points' than publishing in one of the overpriced journals published commercially.
What some academic publishers charge for journal subscription is a scandal, and while the libraries in Western Europe or North America are still able to pay for it (at the expenses of acquiring other resources such as books), it goes without saying that the vast majority of people in less wealthy places will have no access to this content at all (talk about dissemination!). So there is also an obvious global justice dimension to the whole thing.
I realize that I am not saying anything new here, but I wonder: for how much longer are we just going to subject ourselves to this tyranny?
UPDATE: Tim Crane, who has been involved with the issue of commercial academic publishing for many years, makes a point which deserves to be highlighted: we should distinguish among academic publishers between charities like OUP and CUP and for-profit publishers (no need to mention names explicitly…). The subscription prices vary enormously, as this list compiled by Tim in 2006 shows (source is this post over at Leiter’s):
Mind (OUP): 180 USD
Phil Review: 65 USD
J Phil: 100 USD
PPR: 210 USD
Ethics: between 210 and 300 USD
Philosophy & Public Affairs 152 USD
Nous (Blackwell): 653 USD
Erkenntnis (Springer) 1079 USD
Phil Studies (Springer) 2328 USD
Synthese (Springer) 2517 USD
In the same thread, Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen went a step further and calculated the price per 100 pages, as some of the more expensive journals publish many issues per year:
Mind (OUP): 180 USD. 1214 pages in 2006 = 14.82 USD/100 pages
Phil Review: 65 USD. 555 pages in 2006 = 11.71 USD/100 pages
J Phil: 100 USD. 592 pages in 2006 = 16.89 USD/100 pages
Ethics: between 210 and 300 USD. 825 pages in 2006 = 25.45-36.36 USD/100 pages
Philosophy & Public Affairs 152 USD. 423 pages in 2006 = 35.93 USD/100 pages
Ratio: 627 USD. 504 pages in 2006 = 124.4 USD/100 pages
Philosophical Quarterly: 357 USD. 602 pages in 2006 = 59.30 USD/100 pages
European Journal of Philosophy: 535 USD. 474 pages in 2006 = 112.8 USD/100 pages
PPR: 210 USD. 751 pages in 2006 = 27.96 USD/100 pages (Note: See Ernest Sosa's comment below. This figure is incorrect, as PPR published twice as many pages in 2006.)
Erkenntnis 1079 USD. 869 pages in 2006 = 124.1 USD/100 pages
Phil Studies 2328 USD. 3450 pages in 2006 = 67.47 USD/100 pages
Synthese 2517 USD. 3288 pages in 2006 = 75.55 USD/100 pages
These are data of a few years back, but it all seems to indicate that the situation hasn’t changed much in the meantime.