Academic publishing: escaping the stranglehold?

Elsevier BV is a Netherlands company which, according to its website, is a ‘world-leading provider of information solutions’; in other words, it is a publisher. Its main focus is on science and medicine. It publishes 2,900 journals in one format or another, including such well known periodicals as Acta Anaesthesiologica Taiwanica, or the American Journal of Otolaryngology, or the unputdownable Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids. It has published more than 24,000 academic books. So one thing you already know about Elsevier is that it holds the key to publication for many academics, and to access to scholarship for university libraries and their readers.

And it is not cheap. So for example, the seminal book Dacie and Lewis Practical Haematology will, should you decide to buy it, set you back €93. And if you think your library should subscribe to Prostaglandins, you may want to let them know that the electronic version (only) will cost €3,743.33; if you need it in print, that’ll be €4,524.

It would not be fair to single out Elsevier; it is merely doing what companies do in an inadequately competitive market. Academic publishing  is full of such examples; th0ugh not that full, because the number of really significant publishers is not a large one. And as universities across the worlds try to prioritise their expenditure, library subscriptions and purchases have become more and more unaffordable.

And yet, universities have not seriously resisted the exploitation by publishers, beyond agitated discussions. However, now a German university, the University of Konstanz, has told Elsevier that the university ‘will no longer keep up with this aggressive pricing policy and will not support such an approach’. More precisely, it has decided to discontinue the existing licensing arrangement, and to tell academics that they will instead support them when they need individual access.

Perhaps this bold step will prompt a wider and more decisive response by the global academy. Perhaps it will create more debate about how open access publishing can be developed in such a way that scholarly output is not pulled behind an excessively high paywall. Perhaps the abuse of trade in knowledge in a very imperfect market can be fought after all.

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3 Comments on “Academic publishing: escaping the stranglehold?”

  1. Adam Ogilvie-Smith Says:

    Given that the barriers to entering this market are low but the prices are high, Elsevier cannot really be said to have a ‘stranglehold’ on this market: it may charge higher prices because others have not entered the market and subjected it to competition on price. Your blog suggests that Elsevier is taking excessive profit rather than reflecting very high costs and low margins: If it can take such high margins then the market is ripe for new entrants to come in at lower prices and still make good returns on investment. An opportunity for Aberdeen Business School, perhaps?

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    Ferdinand, knowldge like every other commodity has a price that the market (generally) dictates. Your observation does raise an important point in focussing on one impediment to open learning and ease of access to credible sources of information and exchange and testing of fact and opinion. However, I think you rocked your own boat there in your last sentence: ”Perhaps the abuse of trade in knowledge in a very imperfect market can be fought after all.”, because isn’t that what some (of the best) universities are doing all over the world? Abuse of trade in knowldege, by imposing exorbitant and exclusive fees and strict student restrictions? A subject often cited in your blog, MOOCs, comes to mind…and maybe this is the fate of academic publishing once/if MOOCs take off?

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    Today’s post makes for some kind of perfect trilogy coming after ‘Books’ and “How do we know what we know?” – also it might be worth recalling some lively discussions on this blog on a similar topic from May 2011 https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/the-academic-publishing-game/#comments
    Since then ‘open access’ has taken center stage (‘open’ not to be confused with ‘free’, of course), HEFCE has launched a new project to investigate the issues regarding open access publishing of monographs (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/newsarchive/2014/news85292.html), although as the author of this blog post acknowledges: “There is still a lot of work to be done to develop practical and useful OA models” (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/is-open-access-the-future-for-monographs-15-jul-2013) while a recent AHRC call intended to “explore the future of the academic books in the context of open access publishing and continuing digital change” (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Pages/The-Academic-Book-of-the-Future.aspx)
    One of the most lucid articles I have come across on the topic is “The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing” (http://footnote1.com/the-exploitative-economics-of-academic-publishing/) I fully agree with the concluding statement: “Whatever publication model is ultimately adopted, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that reforming the current system is about more than just open access; it’s about correcting a complex web of economic, social, and political inequalities.” Indeed we should not think that open access is some kind of panacea. A variety of publishing models should be available and publishing scholarly papers with, and on, Wikipedia will most likely be one (http://wikiambassador.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2014/03/28/publishing-scholarly-wikipedia/), also peer-review, the pillar of scholarly publication, might be replaced by ‘post-publication peer review (http://tinyurl.com/qell9bm).
    Pace MunchkinMan, knowledge is not a commodity like any other, its public good characteristics make for it to be different, and in any case its complex economic status in knowledge economies has been long recognized (this article by B. Jessop offers a truly insightful perspective “Knowledge as a fictitious commodity: insights and limits of a Polanyian perspective. In: Bugra A and Agartan K (eds) Reading Karl Polanyi for the Twenty-First Century: Market Economy as a Political Project, 2007).
    ‘Knowledge as a commodity’ is far from being a straightforward definition and this explains, in part, why universities are internally complex organizations with contradictory aims, visions and strategies.


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