The Immorality of Traditional Academic Publishing

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By Daniel Berze, Senior Vice President of Glasstree Academic Publishing

Most academic Institutions base their existence on government support (taxpayer’s money), tuition fees and grants. The Professors who are responsible for generating the research that results in new knowledge are supported by their academic institutions via salaries and grants. Research is expensive and can take many years to conduct. When results are available for dissemination, it can take the academic authors months and even years to prepare for publication (this is partly a result of the Peer Review process, which is also a product of the academic community). Traditional publishers, dominated by the ‘big five (see then publish this research, either in the form of scholarly articles or books. These publishers do not pay authors, or the academic institutions that fund them, anything for these articles and a pittance for books (typically book royalties are in the range of 9%).

In my previous discussions against this unfair business model, I argued that authors/academic institutions should receive a fair proportion of this money. I received several rebuttals informing me that academics do not conduct and publish research in order to obtain money. We conducted a large scale survey to determine if this is indeed the case. When we asked which aspects of academic publishing were most important to them, while the financial aspects were identified to be significant, the return of money was subordinate to other aspects such as ‘affordability at point of purchase’, ‘availability’ and ‘recognition’ (I would be curious to learn the responses if this survey was conducted with the academic institutions that employ these academics, but that is another matter).

In retrospect, these findings make perfect sense. Academics don’t spend years of their lives studying (at great expense), with considerable competition, to enter into the academic world in order to earn large sums of money. If this was their primary motivation, they would become bankers or stock brokers. Academics are essentially motivated by one absolute imperative – to discover the truth – to come to a theoretic or practical understanding of a subject area in order to contribute knowledge, ultimately towards the advance of science and the improvement of society.

I suspect that academic publishers have known this all along, and have developed the existing model in order to take financial advantage of a subsection of society that is not primarily motivated by wealth acquisition. This is a parasitic model. The academic publishing business generates upward of 30 billion annually. If a fair portion of these funds were returned to those who are responsible for the creation of this knowledge, universities would enjoy a resurgence in terms of what they could contribute to society. A tremendous increase in research could take place. This increased pace of research would undeniably benefit everyone. Especially at this present moment in history, in which ‘fake knowledge’ is becoming increasingly prevalent, science would be provided with the additional resources that it would need to guarantee the basis upon which responsible science is conducted – the ability to reproduce and/or repeat experiments costs money, money which is often unavailable. Increased funding (producing increased research) would actually lead to increased publication, which would probably benefit the academic publishing business more than the existing model of maximum profit extraction does.

Many academic institutions have had enough of the traditional publishing model and have created their own ‘university presses’ in order to redirect some of these funds back to the university so that they can be used for research (although these funds, alas, are not always directed towards research!). This is a positive development, given the dire shortage of institutional funding, and the potential negative effects that recent geopolitical events might introduce (e.g. Brexit upon the UK).

If money is not the ultimate motivation as to why academics should look for publishing outlets outside of traditional publishing, what is? No one could reasonably argue that traditional academic publishers are justified in extracting massive profits off the efforts of the academics that create the content they disseminate. Traditional publishers will argue that they ‘add value’ to the academic publishing process, and that their investment in technology helps to facilitate dissemination. No one would disagree that publishers do add value, but no one would dare to agree that this entitles the publisher to reap all of the profits of this process.

It may be asserted that academics have a moral imperative to publish their work in such a way that it returns funds back to them or their supporting institution, to the betterment of science. The great German Philosopher Immanuel Kant took the moral imperative to be a dictate of pure reason, in its most practical form. Not following the moral law was seen to be soul-defeating and thus contrary to reason (see If ever there was a community that is motivated by pure reason, this would be the academic community. If money is not an essential motivator for the academic community, surely the essential immorality of the existing process should be.

Academics, if the money is not of essential importance to you, act out of pure reason. Science will only benefit in the process!

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