Good publisher, bad publisher?

Ich habe in letzter Zeit mehrmals über Wissenschaftsverlage und die mit ihnen verbundenen Probleme geschrieben. Im aktuellen Newsletter der European Society for Ecological Economics fand ich einen sehr interessanten Austausch zwischen Gaël Plumecocq und Clive Spash zu diesem Thema, den ich hier reposten möchte. Es geht dabei u. a. darum, ob alle Wissenschaftsverlage gleich „böse“ sind und ob Open Access die Lösung ist.

Zunächst die Replik von Clive Spash, die meine Aufmerksamkeit ursprünglich geweckt hat:

Publishing, Corporate Power and Ecological Economics?: A Reply to Plumecocq

In the Spring 2017 edition of the ESEE Newsletter Gaël Plumecocq raised a series of serious concerns over power and inequity in academic publishing. The publishing world is described as one where academics supply work and publishers extract the rent; the former are exploited by the latter; while copyright is used against the originators of the work. There is much to be concerned about here. However, where the commentary goes wrong is in tarring all publishers with the same brush.

There is no differentiation made in the commentary between the multi-national corporation extracting millions (e.g., Elsevier) and the small firm making a living. Yet, this is a crucial distinction between institutions, and one that is highly relevant in any social ecological transformation of society. I was an editor for Environment and Planning C (EPC) for 10 years. It was owned by a small independent publisher (Pion) that maintained high production standards, while encouraging strong editorial control over content and presentation. I am Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Values where again a small independent publisher (White Horse Press) runs a family business and is concerned for hands-on production quality and editorial involvement. There is also a massive difference in the institutional subscription rates between say Environmental Values and Ecological Economics (over 350% more per issue). In addition, the former gives ESEE members free access (although few people make use of it), and offers free advance access to the full text of all forthcoming articles and book reviews unless an author objects. The difference between such small family businesses serving the community and the corporations exploiting them is like chalk and cheese.

Elsevier is notorious for capitalist exploitation and bad practice. It was heavily involved in arms trade fairs before protests led to it selling that off (see Guardian 2008), at a profit. It has an ongoing embargo by academics (see also Guardian 2012). Profits mean outsourcing production to countries with ‘cheap’ labour. Profits do not seem to require quality, as is very evident with the decline in production standards of Ecological Economics, e.g., its fluctuating monthly issue size, errors and random article ordering. Unfortunately, neither editors nor the community seem much concerned, and least of all over the hard copy. When I have raised questions the report back is lack of editorial control over production quality, content and appearance and that Editors have been actively disempowered. In the past, Elsevier violated its contract with ISEE, but the then ISEE President (John Proops) refused to pursue the matter and renewed the contract rather than move the journal to a better publisher. Things are so bad with Elsevier that the board of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management (JEEM) resigned and started a new journal (at a University Press) and told members of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economics not to publish there or subscribe anymore; this had been their flagship journal for 30 years.

The traditional publishing model in academia was for a University Press to be allied with academics in a community publication project. Publications like JEEM started out this way but Universities sold-off their assets and big publishers like Elsevier bought them up. Academic societies ran their own journals. They covered costs through individual (not just institutional/library) subscriptions for hard copy. Electronic publishing changed this model and has decimated revenue from individual subscriptions, while libraries have moved away from single subscriptions to bundles. The business model has been changed to favour the big players. Small academic publishers and family run firms are fighting in the corporate world, where dominance of online media is a major strategy. So do not lump them into one basket.

Open access is also not the miracle solution it is commonly touted to be. In fact, corporations have used open access to their own advantage. This has resulted in the passing of State funds directly to the big publishers, and the creation of a divide in publishing between the rich academics, who have grants and funds to pay for open access, and those who do not.  The former get their work sent out as free for the users and the former have theirs hidden behind payment barriers. Neither is the open access electronic journal necessarily a wonderful alternative, because it still requires free labour to maintain production and quality and is also being heavily used as a commercial vehicle with hidden profit (e.g., selling subscriber information for marketing, as done by social media). There is also a lot of junk being produced in vast quantities.

Academics are typically publicly funded. Why then do governments not treat them as producing work under State copyright, like some do their civil service? For example, Crown Copyright which operates in the UK and Australia means open access after one year with no payment at all to publishers. The USA also reserves government copyright over work of its employees. Instead we see open access being used to buy-out publishers in the neoliberal mode, rather than enforcement of rights.

The above is all about journals, but there are similar concerns over our work appearing as books and book chapters, and the ability to maintain copyright. Publishers try to get infinite copyright forever and pay little or no royalties. Academics mostly just sign away their rights without thinking, because they want to get their work out there and are already paid (e.g., by the State). They often seem powerless actors within the publishing structures. Yet, clearly some authors are able to make a living from publishing (e.g., in the literary world).

There are also small independent presses, run on a variety of business models, who are trying to serve their community of scholars without exploitation, or themselves being exploited, who would like to be respected for what they do and expect no more than a reasonable payment for services provided. They are also being forced into practices against their will, due to corporate competition, and fighting for survival. The loss of small independent presses will be a loss for us all.

The discussion of alternative publishing models, as suggested by Gaël Plumecocq, is a good idea. However, this should also take into account the history of and variety in publishing and why the corporate oligopolists are in control. This also should relate to why academics are exploited and disempowered, and that also means understanding who controls access to information and to what ends.

Der ursprüngliche Text von Gaël Plumecocq:

Who owns Ecological Economics?

Yes, I know, the question may be provocative, and I hope that most ecological economists, irrespective of their differences, would answer that, ‘we, as a community, own Ecological Economics’ – or even better that, ‘it’s not about ownership.’ However, if we define our community in relation to what it achieves (this question maybe easier to address than the one regarding who we are), the question takes a different meaning; who, then, owns the knowledge produced in Ecological Economics? Researchers do, but academic publishing companies such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage Publications own the rights to the scientific documents that convey the knowledge produced (together, they published more than 50% of papers published in 2013, cf. Larivière et al., 2015). And maybe this is not a problem! Is it not? In my opinion, private ownership of the formal expression of knowledge produced by research is not a problem if (1) it does not prevent the producers (i.e. the researchers) achieving the goals they pursue, and (2) publishers actually provide services to the researchers they publish.

Currently, these services mainly consist of formatting texts by copy-editing manuscript, correcting misspellings and misprints, checking the literature cited, and most of all, attributing a unique identifier to published material (Doi). A fair conclusion would be that these services provided by scientific publishers are quite unsubstantial. On the contrary, the constitutive rule upon which scientific publications lies is peer reviewing, which is freely provided by researchers (the same researchers whose institutions pay to get access to the very same material they reviewed…). Having producers pay for broadcasting their outputs, in addition to their free collaboration in the diffusion process is a brilliant business model! Even management tasks are done by editorial boards exclusively composed by academic researchers.

Secondly, do academic publishing companies help ecological economists (and how)? The ESEE website mentions that one of its aim is to, ‘produce and disseminate information on policies for sustainability globally, nationally, and locally through electronic, printed, oral and other publication means’ (cf. Ecological Economics then developed platforms to display the work of the community by creating academic journals such as Ecological Economics (Elsevier), Environmental Policy and Governance (John Wiley & Sons Ltd) and Environmental Values (White Horse Press) (among others, but these three appear on the ESEE website). The first two are directly linked to the ISEE and ESEE (respectively). Each one prevents authors from freely diffusing their work once they are published in these journals (post-print archiving is however permitted). To ‘help’ disseminate research, these academic publishing companies support open access. They also offer ‘free’ access (Environmental Values, and Environmental Policy and Governance) or reduced fees (Ecological Economics) for ESEE members. In fact, in addition to institutional subscriptions (which cost is becoming unbearable for universities or research institutions, having increased by a factor of 5 over the last 20 years), academic publishing companies have willing authors pay for open access options, and by debiting ecological economics associations (e.g. Environmental Policy and Governance gets a commission on ESEE conferences fees for free access). As a result, while access is being sold several times, diffusion is restricted and likely to be more and more difficult in the future (even though reduction or suppression of embargoing is being discussed, and pirate archives such as  exists).

Now a final question; are academic publishing companies a ‘necessary evil’? I would suggest that they are not. Other publishing models are possible; through personal websites or academic open archives such as HAL ( and through open access journals, whether they are designed on the author-pays model (such as Ecology & Society, or PLoS ONE), or they are partially supported by public sectors (such as Développement Durable et Territoires What would prevent ecological economists taking control of the diffusion of work done in the community? What would it take? Writing, reviewing, putting into form, attributing a Digital Object Identifier… The rest is ‘just’ putting good science online (which seems to be less costly than what is paid for in the dominant publishing model – cf. Van Noorden, 2013) for colleagues, decision-makers, journalists, and students.

Larivière V, Haustein S, Mongeon P (2015) The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127502. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502
Van Noorden, R (2013), Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature 495(7442): 426–429. doi:10.1038/495426a

Press articles on the increase of subscription fees for universities or research institutions:
And probably many others…

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