It's long been thought that academia provides a refuge from the sordid world of business. But when a Nobel Prize-winning academic says that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t publish, you know something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Laureate Peter Higgs (the physicist of Higgs boson fame) toldThe Guardian: “Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough.”
The whole point of publishing is to share knowledge. But academic publishers don’t seem to have received that memo. For the past several decades, publishers like Reed Elsevier, John Wiley and Springer, who got in on a good gig early, have propped up ridiculous profit margins by slowly squeezing nonprofit publishers out of the picture. In the process, they’ve turned academic publishing into a hamster wheel that stresses quantity over quality.
Most academic research is rushed out to a limited audience designated as the ones who “count,” while the rest of us have to pony up ridiculous sums to access an article that lies on the far side of a barricaded pay wall. Academic publishing is one of the few bastions that has managed to resist the digital tide of declining transaction costs.
I love academic research. I am a big believer in scientific inquiry. I am an avid reader of blogs like Science Daily and Big Think. But nine times out of 10 (or 99 times out of a hundred), when you actually read an academic paper (if you can get your hands on one), it’s hopelessly mired in academic jargon, and the actual findings fall disappointingly short of remarkable. What should be a reflection of the best of who we are has turned into a sordid little business run by shortsighted people who are only in it for a quick buck. If one of the preeminent physicists of our generation would rather become a used car salesman or worse yet, a marketer, than follow his passion, we know something is seriously wrong.
Google tried to remain true to the spirit of academic publishing when it introduced Google Scholar. I use Scholar a lot, and have found it very helpful for accessing landmark papers from a few decades back that have managed to seep into the public domain. But if you try to access more recent papers, you typically run headlong into one of the aforementioned pay walls.
Researching how academics feel about Google
Scholar, I was amazed to find this quote from the McKinney Engineering Library blog at the University of Texas: “Google Scholar has an ambiguous status in the library and research world.
Obviously, it is powered by the Google, which is kind of a dirty word in academic research. Also, the fact that it is free throws further suspicion on its quality, particularly when libraries pay lots
of money for database access.”
WTF? Forget for a moment that Google is referred to as “the Google” -- which I hope is a joke aimed at fellow Texan George W. Bush. Since when should knowledge be judged by the size of its price tag? Stewart Brand identified the disconnect 30 years ago when he said, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”The rest of the world seems to have moved in the right direction. What the hell is the problem with academia?
If you’re not mad about this, you should be. The vast majority of academic research is funded directly by your tax dollars. Academic publishers don’t pay anyone for content. They have done nothing but agree to publish, which, in today’s world, costs virtually nothing. But somehow they still feel entitled to charge $50 to access an electronic version of an article. Reasonable profits are the right of an honest businessperson, but academic publishing doesn’t even come close to passing the smell test.
One of the big academic publishers, Macmillan, is at least considering loosening the drawstrings a touch. They’re lowering the drawbridge of their pay wall just a smidge by offering the ability to read and annotate articles online. But academic publishing still has a long way to go before it approaches the accessibility that marks almost every other form of publishing in the digital world. For most researchers, the draw of being published in a prestigious journal has outweighed the idealism of openly publishing their work for all to see on a digital platform.
I suspect this is an area just waiting for disruption, and I hope the academics creating the content agree. It seems that academic publishing has been hiding in a previously overlooked nook that has escaped the relentless liberation of information driven by technology. But if Macmillan is feeling threatened enough to lower their defenses, however slightly, I suspect that the tide is beginning to turn. I, for one, thinks that day can’t come soon enough.
"I love academic research. I am a big believer in scientific inquiry. I am an avid reader of blogs like Science Daily and Big Think. But nine times out of 10 (or 99 times out of a hundred), when you actually read an academic paper (if you can get your hands on one), it’s hopelessly mired in academic jargon, and the actual findings fall disappointingly short of remarkable."
Er . . . Gord, reality check: That's the way science works. Most discoveries are incremental, not the sort of big-ticket items that you apparently enjoy wallowing in on Science Daily and Big Think. And yes, they have to be published, even when they're unexciting, so that other research can build on the results. And yes, when they're published they are written for an audience of specialists -- did it ever occur to you that you might not be their target audience?
There are actually so many other misstatements and misunderstandings in this article that it's tough, really, to know where to begin. For example, what's "squeezing nonprofit publishers out of the picture" is not the tender mercies of Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley, but the fact that most of these small nonprofits, such as professional scientific societies -- whose publishing operations and revenues are deeply rooted in previously successful subscription-based models from their print heritage -- have not found a way to make money online, which requires economies of scale that most of them cannot replicate. It is competition from Google and other end-runs around their subscription business, as well as government open-access mandates both in the U.S. and abroad, that is driving the publishing units of these small nonprofits into the arms of large, integrated firms like Elsevier and Springer, where they can hope to get some of the scale they need to survive.
And as long as we're parceling out blame for the culture of "publish or perish," why don't you lay some of it at the feet of the universities, which continue to churn out Ph.D. clones of their advisers, even in areas that are manifestly oversupplied, and in which these graduates will labor away in low-paying postdocs for the foreseeable future? If you would take a look at the data, you would see that the number of papers published each year has in fact been growing at exponential rates for many decades; it is not a new thing but is a result of the continual training of new scientists at greater than the "replacement rate" of old ones. Journal publishers are responding to the trend, not creating it. (And the set of incentives imposed by universities, by the way, is the main reason that "For most researchers, the draw of being published in a prestigious journal has outweighed the idealism of openly publishing their work for all to see on a digital platform.")
And nowhere in your article do the words "peer review" appear . . . sheesh.
There is a lot that's wrong with the current system, but journals are far from the only contributors.
This is, unfortunately, not only true of scientific literature but of Philosophy, my former field, as well. Yes, much that is published is just part of the hamster-wheel of gaining tenure, but there's still great stuff looking, fruitlessly, for a popular audience, hidden from sight by an effective paywall. But this has been the case -- at least in philosophy -- for decades. Plus ca change, plus cést la meme chose.