Sunday, February 05, 2012

Publishers are not evil

Commercial publishers, as a class, are not evil. To think so is wrong. They have just been doing what the scientific community can't or won't do by itself. And like most businesses, they charge what they can get away with. It’s known as ‘the market’. They can’t be criticised for existing and functioning in a perfectly legal capitalist market and regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean they can’t be criticised. Individual publishers can be criticised for their actions and inactions. As an industry, among the things they can be criticised for are not evolving fast enough, given the environmental change that the web has brought about. But so can the academic community. The reliance on old and now effectively dysfunctional systems and habits from a bygone era is mutual.

Centuries ago, in Europe, non-Christians were forbidden to belong to the guilds, which made it impossible for them to be any kind of craftsman, essentially leaving them with few other options than being an unskilled labourer, trader, or money lender. So some became very wealthy and thus became the target of envy. And accused of usury and the like. Just for doing the only thing they were allowed to do and society needed someone to do. It’s more complicated than that, but it captures the essence.

The relevance of this to science publishing? Well, at a certain point, when science had grown into a sizeable, professional and global pursuit, academics didn’t, or couldn’t, organise publishing properly anymore on that global scale. University presses were, by definition, rather local, and so were scientific societies. Commercial publishers stepped into the breach, some became very wealthy, and are now the target of envy. Or at least of criticism of their wealth. And accused of greed and the like. Just for doing some of the things the academic community needs or thinks it needs, in the environment of a ‘market’ (starting in the 1950’s with e.g. internationalisation of science communication; abolishing the sort of author charges the scientific societies were levying for their journals, standardisation of article structures, language, et cetera).

Lesson: if you leave it to outsiders to provide your essential services, because you can’t, or won’t, truly assimilate and embed those outsiders, and provide the services from within your own circles, you risk losing control and you cannot blame the outsiders for taking the opportunities you give them.

Jan Velterop

PS. The first Open Access publisher was a commercial publisher. The largest publisher of Open Access articles today is a commercial publisher. Why are there not more scientist-led initiatives like PLoS?


  1. Nice essay, would earn an A. But the premise is wrong. This not a free market, this is a market heavily regulated in favor of big commercial publishers, and the publishers continue to lobby the US Congress for new laws. A significant change happened around 1990; it made the transfer of the copyright to the publishers more or less inevitable. Now comes RAW. Changing the copyright laws from favoring publishes to favoring authors would eliminate both the problem and Elsevier.

    Elsevier lobbies the legislators in order to extend the life of a bussiness model that was fairly suitable for the paper-base delivery of information. It is completely outdated now, and survives only because of unfair laws, and, yes, some laziness of the scientific community.

    You stress the past inactivity of the scientific community and blame this community for its problems because of this.

    Your timing is perfect: you do this exactly at the moment when scientists attempt to be more active.

    This leaves no questions about whom do represents: science, or publishers-predators.

    1. The transfer of © has been a longstanding practice in scientific publishing. At least since the 1950's. It was the way to 'pay' for the publisher's services of organising the peer review and formally publishing the article. I don't quite understand what happened around 1990 that changed the situation significantly. I do know that around 2000 the first Open Access publisher started asking money, instead of a transfer of copyright, for its services, and delivered Open Access to the published articles as a quid pro quo.

      Copyright law allows authors to transfer their copyright, but in no way does it compel them to do so. In fact, copyright law is pretty much irrelevant to the equation. If the system lacks anything it is sufficient interest and commitment to change on the part of the academic community, which seems extraordinarily slow in coming. Blaming the publishers is a very easy thing to do. But as long as it is done while standing on the sidelines and just shouting at the players, nothing much will change. What are you doing to effect the necessary change?

  2. I have to admit that I failed to find suitable references being at home, and I can devote only some very limited time to this. What I remember quite clearly, that sometime in the 80ies - I believe that in the very late 80ies - almost all US journals I used announced that because US finally joined the Berne Convention, retaining the copyright is not an option anymore (it was not widely used anyhow, you are correct). This is not mandated by law, but the publishers claimed that otherwise they will be not able to distribute journals in other countries and protect the rights of author. The last statement is amazing: the copyright transfer strips the author of all rights under the copyright law.

    This did not changed the situation significantly at the time, that's correct. The effect of transferred copyright started to be felt very recently. In the past it was very easily to accept that a book went out of print - the book was a heavy thing needing some storage place, and one could hardly expect that the second or third printing will be published if only a fraction of the number of copies of the first one is needed.

    Nowadays things differ significantly. Most of scientific books are already scanned, either by Google or by the publisher or by both. In some cases they are also scanned by some government-funded organizations, especially in Europe. of course, it does not matter how many scans exist. If a reasonably good scan exists (all mentioned are good enough), it costs only a few dollars to produce a print on demand copy. But this is rarely done. For example, Elsevier secured rights to the books publshed by Academic Press. I mean the books published before Elsevier bought Academic Press in early 90ies. Many of these book are exceptionally good and retain their value. I need some of them for my research, and would like to use some of them in teaching (of advanced courses). Elsevier sell hardly convinient electronic copies for $600.00 and more for a 300-400 pages book. No sane person will pay such amount, and no student can afford even one book at this price. Our library cannot afford to add them to the subscription; it spent already some huge amount on other Elsevier subsriptions. A change of one section in the copyright law would solve the problem.

  3. Continuation.

    That nothing will change if nothing is done is a tautology. Of course, this is the case. But I do not agree that only shouting happens. Just over this weekend I read a lot of interesing materials and ideas. People started thinking, hold public discussions, the Elsevier boycott is an action, although a little bit misguiden in my opinion. Elsevier is not the only problem, and for mathematicians who started this Elsevier is a fairly small problem (it killed all mathematics programs almost completely). But choosing Elsevier as the first target is well justified; the grievances against Elsevier go at least 20 years back and already lead to resignation of several editorial boards and replacing some top Elsevier journals by clones with more decent publishers.

    Although, Elsevier is ahead of other publishers. The changes at the second largest scientific publisher, Springer, became noticeable only 3 years ago, and real problems started only last year. It seems that it takes about 10 years to transform a respectable decent publisher into a predator. With both companies this was accomplished by the same person, Derk Haank, who is the CEO of Springer now, and before this he was the CEO of Elsevier.

    Your last question is a good one. I cannot boast grand achievements. Actually, till recently I used to defend the commercial publishers. I still think that before 2000 they were both necessary and, as a rule, not evil (the Gordon&Breach was evil, and faced the consequences). But since 2000 a lot of things changed, and so did my position. All the time I am trying to educate my colleagues about the real situation. Usually they don't know it. They are hardly aware of the fact that Elsevier and Springer completely changed the nature of their business. Even the initiators of the boycott are not aware of this. I witnessed that such an education may be efficient at least at the local level.

    I have some ideas how to eliminate commercial publishers from dissimenation of research papers completely. In fact, of all publishers. Personally, I lack the needed programming skills (this is not my field), so, I cannot do this alone.

    You can blame me, if you wish, but publishing problems are a minor issue in my life, by many reasons including completely personal ones. Personally, I can survive without publishing anything, and without access to commercial databases. All what I need I can either buy myself, or get directly from the authors.

    1. As said, individual publishers can, and should, be criticised for their actions or inactions, and if and when they are 'evil', but not for their sheer existence as a commercial outfit functioning in the current market and regulatory environment.

      All I'm saying is that if the academic community has a clearer and more articulate message about what should happen with publishing, and if they could set examples, they would have a very good chance of succeeding in their aims. An example of success is the cause of Open Access publishing, which did spark new publishing initiatives and is growing steadily as a publishing model. A boycott, if that is the word, amounting to the refusal to use Impact Factors as a proxy for quality of individual articles, by high-profile people on tenure committees, promotion committees, grant awarding committees, et cetera, might achieve an awful lot more than a boycott of publishers. If it came with sufficient visibility and publicity, it would have the makings of changing the entire system of scientific publishing.

  4. Anonymous1:40 pm

    Although the Computer Science community has created adequate and low-cost open-access venues focussing on their specialized conference/workshop culture (EPTCS, LIPIcs, OASIcs, CEUR), it's still a drop in the ocean. Meanwhile, researchers from both sides (for-profit/closed-access vs. non-for-profit/open-access - as the extreme cases) are fighting each other. Well, money and patronage may be some reaons ...