Friday, 21 September 2007

Corporate publishing houses: Building boundaries and breaking insights

For all the bad press that they receive, a lot of people still believe that Western corporations are making some sort of contribution to improving the lot of people in the third world. Let me present a counter-example.

I'm currently working in a mathematical institute in India and the example that I want to focus on just now concerns academic journals. The institute where I work is one of the few in India (we're talking less than ten) which has access to the most up to date research in mathematics. A very big chunk of the Institute's budget is spent in buying access to these journals - both online access and subscribing to the paper copies. I don't know what the exact size of the chunk is but I'd guess that it's around 50%.

This money is mainly paid to the big mathematics publishers, namely Reed-Elsevier, Springer-Verlag-Birkhauser, Kluwer etc etc. All of these publishers are very proud of the work they do in providing high quality scientific publishing; they trumpet the benefit that their work brings to humanity. Elsevier's tagline is Building Insights. Breaking Boundaries. It's a tagline that, with a little reworking would aptly desribe the real situation for these publishers are in reality hell-bent on Building Boundaries and Breaking Insights. Here's why:

1. Their service is next to non-existent. I am the author of a small number of academic papers. Here's how the system works (at least in the field of mathematics). Let's suppose I submit to a Reed-Elsevier journal...
- I create some maths, write it up, submit it. I do this FOR FREE.
- An academic editor receives my submission and decides where to get it referee'd. The editor will be an academic working in the field and she works (usually) FOR FREE.
- The editor sends the article to a referee who reads it, makes comments and a recommendation for publishing (or not). I've been a referee on one occasion so I can confirm that the referee works FOR FREE.
- Let's assume the referee says the article is OK. The editor then writes back to the author and asks him to make whatever edits are required. Often this will also involve making sure that the typesetting is consistent with the format of the journal. Yes, that's right, in maths the author does the typesetting.
- The final version is sent in by the author and gets passed by the editor to the Reed-Elsevier employees who run the journal. They will check the type-setting of the article, and arrange it with the other articles to appear in the given volume. This will be printed in a paper version and appear on web. These employees will also have to chase up paper work like the transfer of copyright. Yes, it might seem absurd, but if I want to publish in their journals then I must resign myself to the fact that Reed-Elsevier becomes the owner of my work.

It's pretty clear that Reed-Elsevier are getting an awful lot for free and not contributing a great deal themselves. I don't want to denigrate the work of their employees who are, in my experience, very professional. But we need to give the work they perform a proper weighting - it is important, but it is by no means the whole game. And a lot of their work is involved with protecting the interests of Reed-Elsevier. They chase copyright transfers, they run secure web servers with credit card payments for subscribers etc etc.

2. Their prices are horrendous. And they're getting worse. In 2006 the American Maths Society (AMS) surveyed mathematics journal prices for the years 1994 - 2004. A useful summary of the results is also available. The summary compares commercial journal pricings with the price of the Annals of Maths, perhaps the most prestigious maths journal in the world, which is published by Princeton University Press. The comparison is illuminating. For instance, the Annals of Maths, at that time, cost around 10 US cents per page. Commerical journals ranged in price up to $5.30 per page, with fifty of the journals surveyed costing more than $1 per page. The annual price increase for many of the journals was in excess of 10%.

In absolute terms an annual subscription to a mathematics journal is likely to cost well in excess of $1000, often more than double that. The AMS survey includes a list of more than 270 journals although this is by no means exhaustive. It is pretty clear that if an institution wishes to have up-to-date access to cutting-edge mathematics research then they are going to have to spend a lot of money. That money is simply not available in developing countries like India. It's not even available to many institutions in rich countries.

Think about the implications of this! Whole sections of the globe (most of humanity, in fact) do not have access to the body of human knowledge. We proclaim our benevolent intentions to aid development and provide assistance to the third world and yet, at this most basic level, we are denying people the tools to help themselves. And to what purpose? Simply so that the share holders of two or three big corporations can grow wealthy on their ill gotten gains.

3. We can do it ourselves. There is no reason why journals need to cost the reader anything - online access to research articles should be free. And for most mathematicians online access is all that they need. Many journals ouside the clutch of the big corporations provide free online access already and there is, frankly, no reason why we should support journals that don't provide this service

So here are are some suggestions for action:

- Authors should not submit to journals owned by Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Kluwer etc. Indeed, they should only submit to journals which allow free on-line access. There are lots of these and, a lot of the time, they are the most prestigious! People who are asked to referee an article should refuse if the journal is not free.
- If you must submit a paper to a journal owned by one of this horrible lot then make sure you put your paper on the arXiv - so at least people may find it if they're on a search. And make sure the copyright of the journal allows you to keep it on the arXiv once it's published.
-If you're an editor, resign! Or, better, get the whole board to resign! It's been done already - the board of Topology recently resigned en masse. A little later a new low-cost journal appeared - the Journal of Topology - with a very similar editorial board. More power them!

In fact the arXiv has been showing us the way for a long time now. All that is lacking is a system of peer-review - and we don't need a big corporation to make that happen. A journal simply needs to run a web server where authors can upload their papers automatically like on the arXiv. Editors then take responsibility for the review process (as they do now) and when everything is approved the article can be made public and given a unique identifier. The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, for instance, already works in a similar way and there's no reason why all the rest shouldn't follow suit. Academics need to get their act together.

A final thought. Each day when I come to work in this institute I pass a whole army of auxiliary workers toiling away to keep the place going - cleaners, security men, catering staff, receptionists etc etc. Unfortunately, for all their good work, their wages are lousy - it'll be a long time before they can aspire to membership of the fabled Indian middle class. Indeed their annual salary would not compare well even to the hourly rate of Crispin Davis and his coterie of executives at the top of Reed-Elsevier, who take home millions of pounds every year.

Perhaps the comparison is too naive, too emotive to be valid. And yet on some very real level these two sets of people are connected - for starters, both their wages are paid by academic institutions. And, speaking from experience as an academic, I know which group has been of more benefit to me.

[P.S. I'm not the only person who thinks this way...]

1 comment:

Alan Jackson said...

There is a good analogy with the Open Source community. Software development is not easy. It requires project management, testing, co-ordination. A lot more than simply programming. But somehow the community conspires to make all that happen because without it, there is no project.

Similarly for academic publishing - a key part is the pier review process. But as the Open Source analogy suggests, it is not beyond the abilities of the community to provide these services.