Academic publishing and money

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Jan Blommaert 

In what follows, I intend to place some footnotes to an earlier text, in which I addressed at length various highly contentious issues characterizing the field of academic publishing nowadays. That earlier text, roughly summarized, (a) described the present economic model of academic publishing as outspokenly exploitative; (b) included the current models of Open Access as equally absurd when viewed from the perspective of ownership, and (c) suggested that publishers become increasingly redundant as actors in the field of knowledge circulation. We can independently do almost everything currently done by publishers, and do it better.

The text became the topic of one of the first discussion sessions on Academia.edu and was widely picked up and redistributed (illustrating, thus, the exact point it was making). To the extent that the arguments in the text still require clarification and further elaboration, I wish to offer one point in what follows – about money.

As an element of background, it is good to recall that academic publishing is an extraordinarily lucrative business – in fact, one of the most lucrative businesses around. In 2013, Elsevier-Reed (one of the giants in the field) reported a net profit rate of 39% – a margin which for most other domains of industry belongs to the realms of dreams. Part of this is due to the escalation of subscription costs for academic journals, which has risen at a level three times higher than other average commodity costs since 1986. Academic publishing is, if one wishes, a robber economy. Open Access negotiations, especially those in which so-called “Gold Open Access” is the target, involve the payment of several thousands of Euro’s for a single article to be made Open Access. I refer the reader to the earlier text for details.

Grasping the nature of the transactions involved in all of this can be helped by the following illustration. Here is part of a copyright agreement I recently concluded with a prominent academic publisher.

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There is nothing special about the text of the agreement; in fact, it is quite common in our field. We notice that I transfer all copyrights to the publisher, and that I do not get a reward for it. In fact, what I get in return is a reference to an electronically published version of my text, and some heavily limited rights in using this published version myself. People who wish to read my article and have no access to an institutional subscription to the journal have to pay the price of a book – between 30€ and 50€ per article. And if I (or my university) want to turn the article into something that can be read at no cost by anyone, a couple of thousands of Euros must be paid to the publisher.

It’s all about money, surely, but only parts of the money involved in this are shown so far. An aspect never mentioned in these transactions is the production cost of the article. Articles don’t grow on trees, they are manufactured by someone, and this process involves material and immaterial resources, and labor costs.

Now let us do a little simulation here, and a merciful one. Imagine that the production cost of an average article involves 100 hours of academic labor (from getting the idea, over the research, to reading, writing, editing and so forth, and including the material costs). And imagine that such labor costs about 20€ per hour (as I said, I am being merciful here). The production cost of the article is 2000€, and by signing the copyright agreement this is donated to the publisher, who, in turn, charges everyone (including the author) for reading the article. It’s a form of “enclosure” – you spent a season working hard growing apples, but if you wish to eat one you need to buy it from a grocer who happens to have licensed the apples.

Imagine now that I write a book. The book has seven chapters, and to keep things simple I use the calculation above – each chapter being the equivalent of an article. We then get 7 times 2000€, or 14.000 Euros’ worth of labor donated to the publisher. It is because these production costs are eliminated in the transactions we (have to) enter into with publishers, that academic publishing is so extraordinarily lucrative a business. Publishers, simply put, do not bear any cost in the production of their primary material – the papers and books we submit to them for publication. When they speak about “costs”, consequently, they only address the end of the line production costs – some editing and lay outing, and marketing, sales and distribution of things that consumed tremendous amounts of labor to produce and represent, consequently, tremendous value – all of which is made invisible now. Note, in passing, that these end-of-the-line costs are usually pressented as prohibitive and are also rolled off onto the author, as in the following illustration, a fragment from another copyright agreement:

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Now, whose money is involved here? In my case, the money appropriated by publishers is that of my employer, a public university; through the system of subsidies in education, the money is ultimately put up by the taxpayer. Who, if s/he now wants to read the product they subsidized, need to pay 30€ for a single pdf download.

From the publishers’ viewpoint, this is an excellent business model (credentialed, I assume, by their profit margins). From the viewpoint of the producer, it’s a net, huge loss, and an economic  model that is profoundly unsustainable. I can therefore simply repeat the conclusion of the earlier text on this topic: let’s do the publishing ourselves. We can do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, and more democratically.

(Some of the arguments here are inspired by the essays in Charlotte Hess & Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a commons: From theory to practice; MIT Press 2011)

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Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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