Academic publishers have had a stranglehold on university libraries, faculty members and graduate students for decades: though many have high rejection rates and slow response times, publishing in academic journals remains an important component of tenure review processes and obtaining grant funding for future research. A number of recent developments are sure to have big impacts on the world of academic publishing–and surprisingly, these changes are all about costs rather than the accelerating digital exchange of information.
In the past, many academic journals were developed and housed within university departments, like the Canadian Journal of Urban Research operating out of the University of Winnipeg. Now Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley own most of the more than 20,000 journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published. Published articles are only available to those with subscriptions–typically university libraries and some of the larger public libraries. In recent years, open access options have increased, but most publishers charge authors publication fees to guarantee open access–retaining the standard option (publishing an article that can only be accessed to those who pay for the extremely expensive subscriptions) at no cost to authors. Many researchers working within universities support their work through public grants and other funding sources, which means that the output of publicly funded research is often locked behind a firewall of elitism and capitalism. A number of individuals have rallied against this practice, notably internet crusader Aaron Swartz, who pushed to make publicly-funded documents freely available and was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 for downloading nearly all of JSTOR’s catalogue of publications. Since Swartz’ suicide in 2013, many of the mega-publishers have allowed short-term public access to their articles.
Faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and Ph.D.s act as reviewers and editors as well as authors, as part of their salaried/funded work. Publishing articles, that is going through the tedious cycle of writing and revising to address reviewers’ concerns, takes up a significant amount of time–a recent article in The Guardian stated that researchers waste an estimated 15 million person hours annually on unpublished submissions to scientific journals. As I’ve written before, there are all sorts of other issues with spending a year or two to publish research findings that can now be shared instantly online.
As early as 2003, the first glimmerings of change in the centuries-old academic publishing practice began to appear: universities, who initiated the peer-reviewed publishing process in the first place, began to opt out of the system. Several announced that they would be cancelling subscriptions to these mega-publishers, beginning with Cornell University (2003) and the University of Illinois (2004). In 2012, Harvard University announced that it could no longer afford the increases in already high subscription fees charged by major journal publishers–which cost the university an average of $3.5 million per year. Harvard’s advisory council noted that many journals make profits of 35% or more, and prices for online access to articles increased 145% from 2006-2012 with some journals costing $40,000 or more. In an article in The Guardian, Ian Sample wrote that Harvard would be encouraging other universities to abandon their subscriptions, encourage their professional associations to take charge of publishing, consider submitting their work to open access journals, and consider resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access. The article quoted Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a US-based international library membership organization: “Other universities are likely to follow Harvard’s example on this. If it starts at a university with the stature of Harvard, they will take a long hard look at whether this is something that makes sense for them to do as well. People watch Harvard. There’s no grey area there.”
The same year, more than 14,000 academics joined a boycott of Dutch mega-publisher Elsevier in protest at its journal pricing and access policies. The website The Cost of Knowledge, prompted by frustrated mathematics professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge University, allows researchers to register their protest against the publisher. In a 2012 blog post, Gowers wrote that he would no longer submit or review articles for any journal published by Elsevier. Like the Harvard action against mega-publishers, Gowers’ stature as a Fields Medal winner and that of his institution had an important impact on the boycott.
In Canada, Brock University announced that it would cancel its subscription to its package of 1,363 journals published by Wiley-Blackwell on December 31, 2014. Brock stated that the cumulative effects of annual price increases and the higher American dollar are forcing them to make this decision. Students will still be able to access back issues from 2002-2014, and can get access to new articles through free interlibrary loans.
Can universities–faculties, students, and administration–adapt to new forms of publishing, such as open access? Will publishers be willing to trim down the costs of subscriptions to these journals? Universities have already moved to non-traditional forms of teaching and seem to be slowly replacing tenure-track positions with precarious, lower-paid adjunct positions. Is publishing in peer-reviewed journals, one of the last bastions of academia, finally crumbling?