Stephen McGinty: World of academia bites back

Subscribing to the Beano costs more than buying single copies in the newsagent
Subscribing to the Beano costs more than buying single copies in the newsagent
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Overbearing publishers who charge tens of thousands of pounds for annual subscriptions to their respected journals have had it far too good for far too long, writes Stephen McGinty

MY AFFECTION for DC Thomson deepened when I discovered that to subscribe to The Beano cost more than to simply purchase it weekly at the newsagents.

The majority of publishers operated on the notion that a loyal subscriber, someone who wished to read every issue of their publication, not just whenever they could be bothered to pick one up, deserved a little reward, so the cost of an annual subscription was always less than the cover price. Unless, of course, you happened to be DC Thomson who I learned, while in discussion with the editor of The Beano many years ago, decided that the proper model for subscription should be the cover price plus the cost of an envelope and second class stamp.

I thought of The Beano while pondering Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, which, as I’m sure you know, is the publication of choice for organic chemists and is a must read for every aspiring lab rat who has a tattoo of Boron on their butt. It is to chemists and biologists what Variety is to the Hollywood agent, essential reading.

So guess how much an annual subscription costs? Go on. Well, it is currently £15,210. Now, before you get all upset and start sputtering into your coffee or, perhaps begin to ponder just what a good deal a subscription to The Scotsman is, it should be said that for your £15,210 you do get a total of 100 issues of a quality, peer-reviewed publication that will keep you up-to-date with the latest reviews of cancers and molecular cell research but also biomembranes, too, so this is surely a snip at roughly £152.10 per issue.

So why does it cost so much? Well, there are the overheads to think of. You don’t think that academics from around the world write long, detailed articles on the fruit of sometimes years of hard work for free do you? Well, actually, they do write them for free. OK, how about the scientists and academics who peer review the articles prior to publication – surely they are on a fat wad of cash? Sadly, it would appear not. The editors of the publications? As far as I can gather, some get paid and some don’t. The reason that Biochimica et Biophysica Acta cost £15,210 for a single annual subscription is that university libraries will pay £15,210 for a single annual subscription. The reason they pay £15,210 for a single subscription is that they don’t really have any choice as their chemists and biologists have to be kept informed of the latest development in their fields. And what is more is that, unlike other publishers, who will allow you to subscribe only to the publications you actually wish to read, Elsevier, the Dutch publishing house behind Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, has a much better idea which they call “Bundling”.

A library cannot call up Elsevier and say simply: “Phew, we’ve had a vast ‘bring and buy’ sale and so we can now afford to take up a subscription to Biochimica Acta.”

For Elsevier, while no doubt lighting a cigar with a €100 note, will say no, you can’t have only the magazines you wish, what you have to accept is a bundle with lots of other expensive journals that you don’t really want.

Elsevier are like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. In one episode of the American sitcom, a new soup shop opened selling the most wonderful tasting soups, but service was strictly on the proprietor’s terms. If you asked for something else, or commented on the high price of his Mulligatawny, he would snatch it back and say: “No soup for you.” Apparently, again according to a senior professor, university libraries who try to negotiate with the company find that they are “ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals”.

The way the system appears to operate is that we, the British public, fund universities through our taxes as well as the Research Councils UK, who provide grants for academics and scientists to conduct research into new fields. After we, the taxpayer, fund the work the scientists are required to publish their work in the appropriate academic journal who, of course, do not pay them for the articles, but claim copyright of them – 70 years will do – and then charge us, the taxpayer, to read the results of what we have funded.

C’mon you have to doff your cap to the likes of Elsevier, and the other leading academic publishers such as Springer and Wiley who, in an age when publishing has taken a pounding from the rise of the internet, are apparently impregnable behind their pay walls and exorbitant subscription fees. If you wish to read a single article in one of Elsevier’s journal the cost is £19.47, Springer charges £21.60, while Wiley-Blackwell charges £25.96.

When George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist, peered into the accounts of the three leading academic publishers he discovered that their returns were staggering. In 1998, before the explosion of the internet, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36 per cent; 12 years later it remains 36 per cent with the company last year earning a profit of £724 million on a revenue of £2 billion.

If I was a shareholder in Elsevier then I would be delighted and urging them to charge not just £15,000 for a subscription to Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, but £30,000. I mean, why not? Who is to stop them? Well, if a university library doesn’t like it they can go off and subscribe to another journal which carries the same content? Oh that’s right. They can’t. There isn’t one.

But the fact remains that, sadly, I’m not a shareholder in Elsevier. Instead I’m a taxpayer in Scotland where, last year, Edinburgh University had to pay out £1.7m to the big three academic publishers, while Glasgow University had to pay £1.4m in subscription charges for academic journals, and St Andrew University spent £624,000 on academic subscriptions.

So, as a taxpayer rather than a shareholder, I’m rather delighted that a spotlight has recently been trained on the, well, we’ll not say “scam” or “cartel” or “monopoly”; let’s call it the rather exceptionally generous trading circumstances in which the academic publishers have found themselves.

A rebellion against the costs and restrictive practices of Elsevier has been stirred up with Professor Tim Gowers from Cambridge University casting himself in the role of Spartacus. The academic, who won the Fields Medal, which, as I’m sure you know, is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics, has announced a boycott of Elsevier. He will no longer submit articles to any of the company’s journals or peer review for them and has even gone as far as to set up a website, The Cost of Knowledge, on which over 9,000 people have logged their objections to Elsevier’s practices.

Then there is The Wellcome Trust who are insisting that any research paid for them must now be published in a manner accessible by the public. Finally, earlier this week, David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, announced plans for the development of a website on which all government-funded research – which totals £5bn a year – could be accessible to the public. He is now in talks with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, to assist in the new “government-funded portal”. The problem will then extend to gaining access to the remaining 94 per cent of research papers still tucked away within the paid subscription journals and produced by non-British academics.

While researching this column, I discovered that Glasgow University has decided to throw open its vast library of research files and experiments and puffing cauldrons to the Scottish public. If an individual or company is embarking into a specific field and thinks the university may have research and intellectual property that would benefit them, say, for example, in the development of a new type of widget, they can have the IP for free, and if they make millions as a result then it is theirs to spend as they wish.

This is on the grounds that as the work was funded by the public purse it should benefit those entrepreneurial members of the pubic keen to put it into practice. The university would hope manners might prompt a donation or two, but there is certainly no requirement, although the donation of a subscription bundle to Elsevier would certainly lighten their fiscal load.