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The Impending Demise of Greedy For-Profit Scientific Publishers (Part II)

Part I here

In the previous blog I related how I almost signed up with Elsevier to write an article for their Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, but was deterred by the draconian contract that they sent me. I told Elsevier that I would only participate in the project if I could retain the copyright. We went back and forth, but couldn’t find a mutually agreeable solution (for example, they insisted that they would have the copyright on any figures I produced). So I bowed out.

To tell the truth I am not quite clear what is the business model that Elsevier uses in this instance. In the old days each research university in the US (there are roughly 200) would buy the Encyclopedia for their libraries. But today? My university library wouldn’t buy it. So who would? Will they be able to sell enough copies to break even?

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What is undeniable is that – so far – their business model is working, and working very well. Elsevier enjoys profit margins that are remarkable by any industry standards,

Elsevier is not the only one – several other scientific for-profit publishers enjoy profit margins of 35–40 percent (for example, Springer).

Why are they doing so well? First, because they get the product essentially for free. Academics can work for many months and years running experiments, analyzing data, developing models, and writing papers. When they submit their articles to the publisher, they don’t get paid for them. In fact, they are often required to pay page charges so that their articles would be printed.

Second, the publishers sell subscriptions for their journals to university libraries very dearly. A subscription can cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per year. And the price of scientific journals produced by for-profit publishers has been growing at 2-3 times the rate of general inflation.

So things have been going well for Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and others. But that doesn’t mean that they will continue going well. In fact, in my opinion, the traditional for-profit publishers are the dinosaurs watching the asteroid Nemesis streaking across the sky.

The reason why they are dinosaurs, and doomed for extinction (despite their more than healthy profit margins) becomes clear, I’d argue, when we consider the other side of scientific publishing: books. Specifically, that they insist on pricing the electronic versions of their books at a higher level than the hard copies.

Of course, Elsevier’s approach, with the electronic version of their Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences costing twice what you would pay at the Amazon for the hardcopy, is particularly ludicrous. But they are not alone in pursuing pricing strategies that intentionally, or not, aim to suppress e-book sales.

For years, Penguin, the publisher of my popular book War and Peace and War charged 10 percent more for the e-book version than it did for the paperback. (Recently, they increased the price of the paperback and now it is slightly above that of the e-book.)

Commercial houses publishing fiction have pursued the same policy. A successful self-published author and the unofficial leader of the e-book revolution, J.A. Konrath has argued that commercial publishing houses have been trying to delay that awful moment when e-books would drive paper books to extinction. He thinks they will not succeed, and will be driven to extinction themselves. I think he’s right, but let’s return to the scientific publishing.

There are three main types of scientific publications: (1) a journal article, (2) a book section (a chapter in an edited book), and (3) a monograph. Of the three, the only one that I would buy as an actual physical copy is the third one. The advantage of a real book is that you can leaf through it. The most serious disadvantage is that you cannot search it electronically and have to rely on the index, which often is inadequate. Furthermore, I have started running out of physical shelf space, so at this point I will only buy a book that I expect to return to on multiple occasions after the first reading. Otherwise I buy it as e-book.

And keeping journal issues or edited multi-author volumes, when I am interested in only a few of the articles, simply doesn’t make sense. I got rid of all my printed journals years ago. And my whole reprints collection has now been moved to the hard drive of my PC.

What it all means is that the bulk of scientific publishing should exist only in an electronic form, with a niche market for monographs of exceptional intellectual quality published as physical books (and even that will shrink as the current generation dies off…). This seems so obvious that I am embarrassed to belabor this point at such length. Except that the scientific publishers don’t get it.

Just the other day I saw an edited volume with lots of interesting-sounding articles, but it was priced at $150. I don’t understand why my colleagues agree to edit and contribute articles to such volumes. You put a lot of effort in writing the article and then very few people get to read it.

People, wake up! Scientists, get off your knees! Scholars, throw off your chains! Stop feeding the greedy for-profit publishing houses.

So what should we do? First, publish articles only in open-access journals, and preferably those that don’t have page charges. Since 2010 I have been editing Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. It’s free to read and download, and free to publish in. And, needless to say, the authors retain the copyright for their articles. It’s made possible entirely by the volunteer labor of the editor-in-chief (that’s me), the excellent editorial board of the journal, the reviewers, and the authors themselves. This whole operation has been much on my mind lately, because last week I posted issue 1 of volume 4 (we publish two issues per year).

I realize that not all scientific journals can be operated entirely by volunteers, like ours, so I am not against reasonable page charges. But the authors should get in return free access to the articles they wrote and paid for.

Second, multi-authored volumes are dead, dead, dead. There is potentially a huge amount of value in a well-edited collection of multi-authored articles, but they should not be published as a physical book. The costs of producing and distributing such a volume are too high. So it should be published electronically. There is a question of permanency, that is, web sites rise and fall, and one wouldn’t want the fruits of one’s labor to disappear when the website where the collection is posted goes under. The solution is to publish such volumes as special features in established journals. Journals have permanency. They are guaranteed to be preserved for future generations (well, as long as our civilization survives…) For example, Cliodynamics is published by eScholarship (the California Digital Library, University of California), which guarantees a stable URL, no matter what happens to any particular editor-in-chief. An additional advantage of publishing an edited volume as a journal special issue is the peer review process that journals subject all their articles to. So, multi-authored volumes are out, but journals should publish more special features.

Finally, the monograph. Most of them should also be published as e-books, but I am old-fashioned enough to want some as physical books with paper pages and hard covers. I am willing to pay 2-3 times as much as for the e-book. So I hope that traditional publishing of scientific books will not disappear, at least during my life time. But I am afraid that its days are numbered. The generation following mine is not into buying and keeping physical books. Their houses don’t have book shelves. They read from computer screens. It doesn’t look good for the traditional books. Oh well. Humanity has survived the Gutenberg revolution; we will undoubtedly survive the e-book revolution.

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  1. alexander says:

    this can be something i have never ever read.very in depth analysis.