A Storm is Brewing in the Academic Publishing World

As postgraduate researchers, we’re all too familiar with peer-reviewed journal articles. We read ’em. We cite ’em. In the latter stages of our research, we sometimes write ’em. And we know that, if we want to build an academic career, we’ve got to eventually churn them out.

Why is the old ‘publish or perish’ adage so true? The more peer-reviewed publications we have on our CVs, the better our chances of finding academic appointments and, eventually, moving up the academic career ladder. The reason universities reward strong publication records is simple: it makes them look good. It improves the institution’s research track record, which translates into increased government funding (via the Performance Based Research Fund in NZ) and improved positions in measures like the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

So publishing is important to our careers, and to our universities. But what about the publishers? They need us as much as we need them, right? After all, academics provide their content, and conduct all the peer reviews that keep standards high.

As a mark of appreciation for this peer review work, a consortium of academic publishers got together to designate last week as ‘Peer Review Week 2016.‘ The theme for the week was ‘Recognition for Review,’ a choice which seems to have partially backfired as academics bitterly point out that they are not paid for their peer reviews, and that academic publishers make sizeable profits from their free labour.

peer reviewHere’s how it works: academic publishers don’t have to pay for content, because researchers are always scrambling to publish. They don’t have to pay for reviewers, because peer reviewing is part of the academic job description as well. They don’t have to pay much for materials these days, because many journals are predominantly online. And they get to charge university libraries hefty subscription fees to access the very articles that the universities’ own staff wrote and reviewed for free.

What this means is that academic publishing is a highly, highly profitable industry. How profitable? The Huffington Post reports that Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishing conglomerates, has (as a percentage) “higher operating profits than Apple.” According to one scientific, medical, and technical publishing industry report, the academic journals market is worth about US$10 billion per year (p.23). For perspective, that’s roughly the same amount that the NZ government spends on our entire national education system, from kindergarten to tertiary. Meanwhile, publicly funded universities struggle to afford the escalating costs of journal subscriptions, and academics struggle with high workloads of writing and reviewing.

The solution that is often put forward to this problem is for academics to embrace open access (OA) publication. This typically means bypassing traditional subscription-based journals and making research available publicly. However, in the current ‘publish or perish’ system, academics are often discouraged from publishing via OA platforms because so many career advancement and funding measures are based on the quality and impact factors of the (traditional) journals to which we contribute. Funnily enough, it’s the academic publishers who work to maintain this system. As a Science article recently pointed out, journal impact factors are calculated by Thomson Reuters (a major academic publisher), and they don’t make their data transparent.

But the tide may be turning. Over 16,000 researchers have pledged not to contribute their labour to Elsevier-owned journals, and thousands of peer-reviewed OA journals have cropped up to provide quality alternatives to for-profit journals. As the quality and respectability of OA journals increases, and researchers become less willing to prop up the subscription-based business model of traditional journals, it may be that we are about to see a major shift in the way that research outputs are disseminated.

At the very least, we’re seeing an entertaining example of how corporate PR efforts can be hijacked. After all, I bet the publishers who organised Peer Review Week didn’t want to see their Twitter hashtag used for this survey from @AcademicsSay

peer review survey

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About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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