Poor quality subsidised by bundles of despair

July 16, 2009

The electronic distribution of academic journals has many advantages, but the business model that underpins it has a fatal flaw.

Central to it is the "bundling" of journals. When we subscribe to a particular bundled catalogue, we cannot cherry-pick. We are not allowed to cancel the subscription to a bundled journal, even if we believe it to be of poor quality. The bundling model shields publishers from the discipline of market forces, as poor-quality journals are being subsidised by university library budgets.

In a world where the evaluation of research is becoming a global industry, bundling is aiding the development of an "underground" journals market. These are journals where no self-respecting academic in a research-led university would dream of publishing. They exist because they allow colleagues elsewhere to check boxes on their CVs and claim they have published work. The subsidies they receive from bundling help them to exist.

Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to one of unjustified cross-subsidies. Research evaluation in some universities simply means counting papers without considering quality. Good researchers trying to publish high-quality research are placed at a relative disadvantage because less able colleagues can "publish" in underground journals, where quality does not seem to matter.

Sometimes, the journals we could do without also seem willing to tolerate unethical behaviour. In the past five years, one journal I know of has published at least three articles with substantially plagiarised content. Its publisher failed to apply its widely publicised "naming and shaming" of authors found guilty of plagiarism, but my library can't cancel its subscription to this journal or others from the same publisher because of bundling.

University librarians should collectively seek to renegotiate choice through the unbundling of electronic journals. While low-quality, unethical journals will exist as long as there's demand from low-quality, unethical scholars, there seems no reason why our cash-strapped universities should subsidise and encourage them.

Peter F. Pope, Director International Centre for Research in Accounting, Lancaster University.

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