The modern academic system is a notoriously ‘pay to play’ system, particularly in the USA. Students pay for entrance, for room and board, and for access to academic materials like books. Striking a balance between getting access to the learning materials a student or research needs with paying bills is a constant challenge.
As the costs of education have steadily risen despite flat wage growth over the last thirty years:
As you can see in this graphic, the cost of tuition has nearly doubled, while wages have ticked up much less:
Considering just wages and tuitions are hardly an accurate measurement either. The cost for content (books, multimedia, and the like) can be staggering. One report from 2018 indicates that an average student spends $1200 a year on books alone.
A multitude of factors are to blame, but each boils down to a single point: Greed. Textbook publishers are the gatekeepers of a vast wealth of knowledge. And with this power, they are able to monetize and monopolize the availability and distribution of content as they see fit.
The promise of Open Access brought with it hopes for easier access to knowledge and research. And in many ways that promise is realized. The opportunity to offer content free and open exists. But someone is still paying for the that opportunity.
In many cases it is the author (a researcher or student) or the institution supporting the author (likely a university).
One recent, real world example of this situation is the University of California’s refusal to accept Elsevier’s status quo. WIth a $10 million contract for access to Elsevier’s library of journals, the University of California (which according to the above accounts for around 10% of research content in the USA each year) is unhappy with a model that would impose steep fees on authors to achieve Open Access status for new content.
This is the blatant monopolization of knowledge academic publishers engage in.
The crux of the University of California’s argument is that publicly funded research is being held behind a paywall, either permanently or for a period of time after publishing. While reducing the cost to authors is ostensibly their issue with Elsevier centers on availability, the issue truly hinges on cost.
During the period after research is published and before it is made available through Open Access is when Elsevier (and other academic publishers) sell the work with no competition and no restrictions. Particularly because institutions sign contracts with academic content providers, the researcher (the content creator) can be trapped in a situation where they have to publish with the service their sponsor school engages with.
The End of Contracts
One solution would be to end contracted content provider services. This wouldn’t prevent publishers like Elsevier to continue to offer their services and sell academic content. But it would free the content creators and the institutions from restrictions that limit competition. In a world without competition, the academic publisher can embrace greedy profit models that service shareholders and neglect the public—those who should be benefiting from the research content institutions sponsor.