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Academic Publishing

What is academic publishing?

Academic publishing is the editing and publication of academic journals, which are publications containing all the recent scientific papers in a certain field. It is the main method for communicating the results of recent research. We rely on this method of communication to solve the world’s biggest issues, such as human disease, climate change, and poverty.

How does it work?

A team of researchers spends months (even years) getting funding and performing rigorous research, all of which culminates in a paper that is submitted to an academic publisher. The paper is then evaluated by peer reviewers, who are other researchers in the field. This is the main quality-assurance mechanism in scientific research. If accepted, the paper is published. Libraries then pay up to millions of dollars for journal subscriptions to access the research.

Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. The authors sign away their intellectual property rights to publishers for free, and sometimes they must even pay the publishers. And yet scientific publications are some of the most expensive pieces of literature you can buy. It is such an odd system that those who fund and perform research must actually pay to read the research they create, while taxpayers have to pay to access publicly funded research.

The general process of academic publishing. 
*Note this is a general model. 'Open access' journals also exist, whereby the research is free and customers do not pay.
The general process of academic publishing. *Note this is a general model. 'Open access' journals also exist, whereby the research is free and customers do not pay.

So why is this a BIG problem?

1. Money is drained from science

Academic publishing is a 25-billion dollar a year industry, 10 billion of which are profited from journal sales at profit margins of up to 40%. Although there are many open access journals – those which are free to read – universities still spend millions to access research.

Academics, funders and universities are therefore involved in a system that sees billions generated from their collective work, all of which enters corporate pockets, and none of which is re-invested back into science. This is money that should be curing cancer, lifting people out of poverty, and solving climate change.

In Perspective: How much is US$10 billion?

The collective annual expenditures of some of the world’s largest research funders below does not even reach $10 billion.

  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - $3.9 billion
  • National Health & Medical Research Council - $590 million
  • Australian Research Council - $610 million
  • Research Councils UK - $3 billion
  • The Wellcome Trust - $1.2 billion

Total: $9.3 billion

In Perspective: How high is 40%?

The profit margins of Fortune 500’s top 5 most profitable companies versus Elsevier, the most profitable academic publisher.

1. Apple - Technology - 23%
2. ExxonMobil - Oil & Gas - 7%
3. Wells Fargo - Banking - 27%
4. Microsoft - Technology - 22%
5. JP Morgan Chase - Banking - 26%
Elsevier- Academic Publishing - 36%

2. Innovation and scientific discovery are slowed down

Research underpins the technological innovations that will solve the world’s most important issues. Expensive paywalls are detrimental to innovation. They not only waste university funds, but also slow down future scientific discovery and put up barriers for those who need access to primary research in order to exercise their democratic rights. A wealthier research industry would accelerate innovation and attract talent to research.

3. People are denied access to knowledge – a fundamental human right

Fundamental knowledge is locked behind paywalls, such that only wealthy institutions can afford the exorbitant journal subscription fees demanded by publishers. This means people from poorer institutions and developing countries cannot access knowledge, diluting their potential to learn and innovate.

- Fact -

In 2012, Harvard university, one of the world’s wealthiest institutions, warned it can no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the university around $3.5 million each year.

- Fact -

In the year 2000, 34,000 scientists signed an online petition pledging that they would discontinue submission of papers to journals which did not make the full-text of their papers available for free. Publishers took no strong response to the demands.

4. The cost of education increases

Currently, university libraries fork increasingly larger bills to access academic journals every year. The price hikes imposed by many journal publishers far exceed the rate of inflation, creating a financially unsustainable situation. Universities receive their funding from student fees, so more money spent on academic journals increases student fees and the cost of education.

Want to know more about the problem? See our recommended content.

How can you help?

Become a MTAM Supporter

Supporting MTAM signifies that you are passionate about making research openly available to everyone. You will join a global community that collaborates to increase open access and return publisher profits back to research.

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