THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

September 22, 2011

In a recent polemic on academic publishers, author and activist George Monbiot accuses them of "making Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist" in their hunt for profit.

"You might resent Murdoch's paywall policy..." Monbiot writes, "but at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50 (£20.00). Springer charges €34.95 (£30.50), Wiley-Blackwell $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50."

While Monbiot's criticism is typically excoriating, it resonated with many and was widely picked up in the blogosphere.

Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, returns to the issue in his most recent blog posting. "He (Monbiot) denounced academic publishers as 'privateers', taking unjustified profits from the public world of research," Professor Hall writes. Reflecting on the unease among academics about the current publishing model, Professor Hall states: "We put a huge amount of effort into research that is partly funded from public money, substantially supported by our own time.

"We write peer reviews for journals, sit on editorial boards and edit special editions of journals, making the results of research widely available. When we come to publish ourselves, we often surrender our copyright in full, including our right ever to reprint or distribute our papers.

"But then our university libraries have to pay substantial subscriptions (that increase annually at rates significantly above general inflation) so that our colleagues and students can read our work. And...we are invited to pay a large amount of money so that we can send our own papers to our colleagues and collaborators without risk of prosecution (I was recently offered a special price of $3,000 for this privilege)."

Like so many scholars, Professor Hall believes the answer to these problems may be open access, and he describes some of the benefits to academics. "The evidence is now incontrovertible that putting a paper in an open-access repository may significantly increase citations, often dramatically," he writes.

Another academic blogger in agreement is Mike Taylor, honorary research associate in earth sciences at the University of Bristol.

On his shared blog Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, he quotes Scott Aaronson, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has argued that there should be more "anger" among academics about the status quo.

This, Professor Aaronson says, would be "a justified response to being asked to donate our time, not to Amnesty International or the Sierra Club, but to the likes of Kluwer and Elsevier".

Dr Taylor says it should amount to a call to arms. "From now on, I plan to stop freely volunteering expertise and labour to for-profit journals," he writes. "When I'm asked to review a manuscript, I'll reply saying that I'll be happy to do it for free if the final published version is going to open access, but that if it's going to be paywalled, I am available at a reasonable consultancy rate of say £100 per hour...I urge you to do the same."

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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