As I have begun to enter the world of academic publishing, one thing hit me hard: the cost of subscribing to journals. While journals in the humanities tend to be on the cheap side compared to some major STEM-subject journals (e.g. Nature), the cost is still significant. Recently, an article in The Guardian (link) pointed out that there has been a growing discontent with publishers charging high fees for what amounts to very little work. For the most part, the publisher’s paid staff does makes connections (i.e. gets authors, editors, and reviewers). However, the articles are written (for free) by academics. They are reviewed (again, for free) by other academics. The editors (who are generally unpaid) construct the CFP for an issue, make sure the contributions are anonymous before peer review, and then finally pass complete, edited, reviewed articles to the publisher who then prepares them for print, prints issues, and mails them to subscribers. Nobody doubts that the publishers should be paid for the cost of the work they produce (and, perhaps, a profit if one is so inclined). However with the advent of internet publishing platforms (from WordPress to Open Journal Systems), the extent to which that process can be automated is clear. Add in some technical geekery through Pandoc and a well-prepared LaTeX (or some word processor) template and a printable document is ready.
I’ve worked in the print industry, so I have an idea of what it might cost to print and even mail a given quantity of journals. That number, by the way, is nowhere near the $50 an issue journals charge. Even at retail cost, a journal like the Jornal of the American Academy of Religion (roughly 300 pages of black-and-white text, cut to roughly 9″x6″, then bound with glue and a cover) can be printed for $26 a pop. With 12 issues per year, the $228 annual subscription sounds like a steal. However, given the sheer number of subscriptions, that $26/book cost gets significantly reduced even if still done at retail (I’d guess a place like FedEx Office would charge ~$18 a book for just 100 books to print and mail). If there’s any additional discounts (e.g. corporate deal, larger volume discount, etc), and we’re looking at even cheaper production costs which make the $228 subscription sound quite high.
The Powers That Be in Nature would like us to think their paid staff does a lot of work by making the data interactive, perhaps creating graphics, and maintaining a website. The exact list of staff contributions are: ‘identifying the author and the article’s aim, assessing and editing the draft, selecting peer reviewers, working with the author to build on their advice, developing illustrations, rendering the article into print and online forms, maintaining it online and including links, citation statistics and other enhancements’. Yet, in most cases, these are done by the unpaid academics. In many cases, the author must provide keywords and an abstract of the article. Does the publishing staff simply make sure those things are present (something which an automated online system like OJS does). The staff assesses the draft? Makes sense if the paid staff member is knowledgeable in the particular field. Otherwise, that task is given to peer reviewers. I’ll allow that the paid staff does copyediting (a very useful service). The staff selects peer reviewers? Oh, so you mean the staff looks up which peer reviewers (who have identified what areas they are competent for reviewing) have expertise close to the article’s field (something which an automated system can do). The staff ‘work[s] with the author to build on their advice’ sounds a bit like the staff ‘passes on comments from the peer reviewer’. Developing illustrations. I’ll give that one. Render the article into print and online forms? So easy a program can do it for you (see Pandoc, above)! Maintain the online form including links and citation statistics? Ah, so they copy-and-paste from one form to another, then perhaps add links to other articles already published in their journal, then let the system count the journal equivalent of pingbacks/trackbacks. Oh wait, there’s a program which already does that. I’m not sure what ‘other enhancements’ are and if they even exist, so we’ll take that one out for now. So, the reason why Nature charges $32 per article for online access and requires an unlimited and exclusive license from authors is to have a copyeditor, and graphic designer, a manager to oversee them (or perhaps two: one for each department), a middle manager to oversee the lower managers, upper management to oversee the middle managers, and (finally) their profit. Again, Open Access Journals have shown that they can do all of the above (minus, perhaps, the rendering into print) at no cost for readers (though they may charge for printing and delivery if one wants that).
Strangely enough, one intention behind the original development of the internet was to allow easy and unfettered access to research for universities. Somehow, though, academics have let publishers erect paywalls to keep their hold on research as a marketable product. I, for one, support the move towards Open Access, full stop. There is no reason why major publishing companies should be able to dictate the terms on which research is produced, published, and accessed except that academics have been either ignorant or uncaring that their own research is often locked away and, in some cases, taken from them. Academics, as the ones who do the research and produce the articles, are the rightful copyright owners (since publishers defend their actions along the lines of copyright law) and should not need to give unlimited, exclusive access to their work in order for other academics to see it. I can respect the fact that publishers want to make a profit, but forcing academics into a give-or-go scenario must be stopped. What academics seem to not understand is that without their work, the publishers will suffer while academics can freely share their work. In other words, there is nothing to lose for academics but the chains which bind them.