The Commercial Cost of Knowledge

The title of today’s blog is a modification of a quite famous title of a website/blog (“The Cost of Knowledge”) started by Professor Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) in 2012. I would encourage the reader to read the relevant main statement here and the blog before proceeding with this blog. However, a large part of the audience of this blog is probably familiar with the problem of journal pricing anyway.

Simply put: many journals are far too expensive. Publishers have drastically increased profit margins (we are talking actual PROFIT here!) over many years. The problem is known in the academic community, and certainly to librarians at universities, as many years of blogging and discussion show. Just a standard internet search yields opinion pieces with creative titles and content, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. Presumably, there are hundreds of other interesting pieces to be read (please feel free to post links to those in the comments).

So what’s new here? The main new ingredient I am going to try to suggest here are a few, potentially quite novel, alternative solutions. Let’s briefly recap the main issues. Referees and editors work for free for most journals, articles are essentially delivered ‘camera-ready’ and correctly formatted, the logistic and computational infrastructure to run a journal have become substantially cheaper, yet prices of many journals are high and publisher profits are surging. Seems counter-intuitive, if you are new to the topic, doesn’t it? Some suggest that switching the publication model, say to an open-access format, is going to cure the problem. Quite frankly, I don’t agree with this view. If a journal is run by a commercial publisher, the primary commercial goal is profit. Therefore, open-access journals can just become another way to squeeze money out of universities, i.e., out of the taxpayer. Some say, that open-access costs will just be the actual publication cost… but then the commercial publisher may just claim that the cost is higher than the true cost. Nothing can really be done against this tactic. Once a journal has gained a serious international reputation as a high-quality publication forum, it may take decades, if not more, for the academic community to abandon it. In this time, it is easy for the publisher to make money. Some publishers, let’s call one ‘Reivesle’ for concreteness, have spotted this. Suppose a commercial journal has a high reputation, then Reivesle just buys it, then increases the price. Reivesle reaps the rewards of many years of hard scientists’ work in running and promoting the journal. Even if Reivesle has to drop the journal eventually, no problem, just buy the next one.

So what are the possible solutions? One solution is already in place: Let professional non-profit academic societies run a whole range of journals. At least, this way, there is better direct control regarding the way journals are run, priced and developed. The disadvantage of this system is that it may not guarantee sufficient diversity. What if certain influential society members and long-term editors gain too much influence on the journal content and the selection of the editorial board? Since there are just a few professional societies (maybe only one) in many research areas, just opening another journal would be quite difficult.

Therefore, we need to develop a way to achieve a non-commercial diversification of journal portfolios. This requires to identify key institutions, which may be able to efficiently run journals. One possibility is already in place and consists of university presses (but even these often act like commercial publishers by now). One option that is seemingly available and not utilized to the fullest are the libraries themselves. Electronic publishing means that we are moving towards a world where actually less ‘book-keeping’ in libraries is needed. However, we do have a very high-level education system for librarians in place in many countries. It seems plausible that librarians could act as journal publishers. The money to employ them could simply come from cancelling many commercial journals. At least, in this way, the control over journals is within a university. Since the university landscape is extremely diverse, it seems highly unlikely that even leading educational centers can gain a suitable monopoly position in the market.

The third option that I believe could be considered are government organizations that could set up publishing houses: in fact, this is not as absurd as it may sound. What is the point of using taxpayers money to give it to scientists, then they give it to libraries, the library pays the journal publishers, and the publishers end up with the pure profit? The only danger with relying on professional societies, university publishers and libraries and government organizations would be that the last two options are government run and political decisions might not always be the best ones for fundamental long-term research.

Hence, as a fourth pillar, one might think about setting up non-profit NGOs that run journals. These NGOs should be allowed to use their journals to raise money for a clearly identifiable good cause. For example, there are many causes, one could agree upon using such a profit for: helping people in regions affected by natural disasters, providing clean drinking water and hospitals, improving educational opportunities for children in the developing world, fighting global deadly diseases, and so on.

These four pillars of journal publishing would then have a healthy competition with each other. The money for publication costs would then be distributed quite nicely to the scientific advance (‘professional societies’), to universities (‘libraries’), to the reduction of administrative tax overhead (‘governments’) and to general good causes (‘NGOs’). Obviously, even in this system abuse is possible. The main argument for it would be that there quite easy legal ways to prevent exploitation of the system. Currently this is impossible as commercial publishers are covered by law in most countries, i.e., they can just make an extremely large profit out of free labor without any legal consequences (of course, from the viewpoint of the CEO of a publication house, actually making this available profit does make sense!).

Furthermore, if a new non-commercial system does turn out not to work optimally, one certainly can give commercial publishers an opportunity to enrich the four pillar system sketched above. As long as the four main pillars do not sell their journals to commercial publishers, I would expect that prices simply cannot sky-rocket but remain at more moderate levels.