Publication wars

Publication wars – update part 1       4 November 2015                                                       

The article below by Professor Stephen Leeder appears in today’s Australian. We commend it to your attention.

Academics must cut the tentacles that threaten to strangle them

Mark Robertson’s reassurance that all is well in the world of academic publishing save for the occasional misunderstanding (HES, October 7) takes no account of widespread dissatisfaction within the research community, universities and academic libraries.

Robertson asserts that Wiley, an international publisher for which he works, reported a profit of only 11 per cent most recently. Like any international company it is difficult to know from financial statements pertaining to activities in Australia what the overall profit was. For example, based on research for her PhD, Canadian academic Heather Morrison provided details of the enormous profits of several large scientific, technical and medical scholarly publishers.

She quotes profits as a percentage of revenue for commercial STM publishers in 2010 or early 2011. These include Elsevier with profits of $1.5 billion on revenue of $3.4bn, or 36 per cent; Springer Science+Business Media, $636 million on revenue of $1.9bn (34 per cent); John Wiley & Sons, $106m on revenue of $253m (42 per cent); and the academic division of Informa with profits of $100m on revenues of $313m (32.4 per cent).

Profits from academic publishing are immense, provoking widespread anger in universities, their libraries and research organisations. The Dutch government is in heavy conflict with Elsevier, a Dutch company, because of the huge payouts demanded for subscriptions to journals that it publishes. These are not minor misunderstandings but serious battles.

The business strategy adopted by the major publishers of scientific and scholarly writing is brilliant.

New knowledge generated from research is paid for from the public purse through research grants and academic salaries. ­Academics then give away their ­intellectual property to the publishers of their papers instead of licensing it. They then provide free peer review.

While a portion of intellectual property could justifiably be assigned to publishers, new knowledge should quickly become available to the sponsoring public and it doesn’t. Instead, much essential free scientific water is bottled by publishers, then sold without compensation to the digger of the new well.

Simple diagnostics, however, do not apply. The publishing companies have found in universities a hunger for numerical data to measure performance.

The metrics of publication — how many times your paper has been cited and the prestige or impact factor of the journal you publish in — are used to judge you as an academic. Aggregated, the same metrics measure the performance of your institution.

High-ranking universities attract more international fee-paying students. Academics acclaimed on these metrics gain promotion and preferred employment. Governments with no incentive to comprehend the complex social mission of universities beyond the publication metrics use them by default to determine university support. The system is closed and incestuous — and who can blame the publishers for making money from it?

The plot thickens. Online publication has displaced print and accelerates the dissemination of new knowledge. Academic publishing has seen its share of shonky start-ups that have crashed and burned. The large established publishers have done deals with small academic associations and specialist journals that have kept their parents alive. The associations have found these arrangements to be financial havens and bless the publishers for their good fortune.

The medical profession has passed this way before where the largesse of pharmaceutical companies has supported research and paid for conference travel. Publishers claim that when they take over the production of a journal they assure editorial independence. It is true that they take no interest in the content of the journal, and why should they? But independence of research workers suffers when their intellectual produce is commodified and ­sold as part of a commercial ­enterprise.

The unfettered quest for new knowledge is crucial for innovation and progress. But academe and the research community have willingly embraced the octopus whose metric tentacles now threaten to strangle them.

Assuming that Malcolm Turnbull is serious about innovation, which depends critically on new knowledge, the Prime Minister would do well to inquire into how new knowledge is made, or not made, freely available.

Australia could lead the world by insisting on open access and the decommodification of all new knowledge.

Now that would be innovative.

Stephen Leeder is emeritus professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney.

Publication wars – update part 2             4 November 2015

Over the last few weeks, more information about the battle over who gets access to the results of publicly funded research and who profits from the publication of research findings has come to our attention. Because much is happening on several fronts, it is difficult to summarise these skirmishes, let alone gauge where the battle is headed or how it might eventually be settled. Instead, we are providing you with links to a range of documents which will keep you informed.

Open Access Week

The 8th International Open Access Week ( celebrated in late October led to a flurry of activity both here and abroad.  You can read more about the aims of the week and about how far we have come with open access in an article written by Virginia Barbour “The battle for open access is far from over”, published in The Conversation on October 19.  Ms Barbour is the Executive Officer, Australasian Open Access Support Group, Australian National University. Her article summarises the current situation and draws attention to a questionable arrangement negotiated between Elsevier and Wikipedia. See

Another overview of international moves to encourage open access to research materials and publications can be found at

In a separate article in The Conversation, Graeme Kendall tries to predict what academic publishing will look like in ten years’ time (see ).

What universities are doing

The article by Virginia Barbour draws attention to initiatives of several Australian universities in promoting open access.  Much is happening elsewhere, for example at the University of California and at Edinburgh University. The University of California has expanded its open access policy and now proposes that all scholarly articles by staff will be freely shared with readers worldwide (see ). In addition, the University of California Press is exploring new models for funding academic publishing (see ). Edinburgh University, meanwhile, is using a number of approaches and collaborations to cope with the increasing move to open access. In a detailed article by the head of the University’s research and learning services, the complexity of what faces the University and staff is clearly outlined (see ).

Another protest against Elsevier

On November 2, it was reported that all six editors and all 31 editorial board members of Lingua, one of the top linguistics journals, had resigned in protest at  Elsevier’s policies on pricing and its refusal to convert the journal to a free online open-access publication (see ).

Why is change so slow to happen?

As we pointed out in a recent update devoted to the problems of publication metrics, one of the impediments to change to greater open access is the reliance of established academics and their universities on what they perceive to be the benefits of publishing in the ‘best’ journals – which sadly are now mostly making money for the big five publishing conglomerates. In a blog posted on 28 October, Martin Haspelmath clearly outlines the dimensions of the problem and compares science publication with drug trafficking. He also makes some pragmatic suggestions as to how the big universities and major research institutes could join forces to win the publication war (see ).

Another obstacle to change

In an interesting essay, Dr Mattia Fosci explores the financial dependence of ‘learned societies’ (ie professional associations) on outsourcing the publication of their journals. Many societies feel that their financial well-being is threatened by the move to open access (see ).

Some of the skirmishes

For those interested in the arguments being mounted by the big publishers against open access but in favour of embargoed access, the following article is informative –

Another website for up-to-date information is the Inside Higher Ed site ( ). The following three items from that website make interesting reading:

    Essay on problems with state of journal publishing

    Major publisher bends under pressure from frustrated scholars

     Academic, library and technology groups criticize new Elsevier sharing and hosting policy


More international advice on publication metrics


The International Council for Science last year issued a detailed statement about open access and warned against the misuse/overuse of publication metrics. It was entitled

Open access to scientific data and literature and the assessment of research by metrics” and can be found at

And more local comment on publication metrics

The web based journal Croakey recently posted an article by Kerry Breen and Stephen Leeder, “Publish or perish – or publish excessively and become addicted”; see

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