I haven’t written anything about this topic before, but it is now becoming quite an interesting issue. As far as I understand it, there are two basic issues. One is that most research published today is publicly funded. Typically, however, journals hold the copyright to the published articles and they charge if anyone wants to read the published work. The second issue is that many publishing houses are making extremely large profits. The kind of numbers that I have heard are profits of £30-40 million on annual turnovers of £200 million.
The issue of public access to published work isn’t a problem in all areas. Many physicists and astronomers post their published work to the arXiv server. This is available to anyone and, as far as I’m aware, most of the relevant journals are happy with this. There are other areas where this is not the case and it seems clear that if the public are funding the research, they should have the right to access it without paying a journal for that priviledge. You could argue the public don’t have a guaranteed right to access taxpayer funded resources, but it seems clear that a private organisation should not really be benefiting, unduly, from it either. Furthermore, if the general public can’t access the results of our research, why are we doing it in the first place.
The issue of publishing houses making large profits is, maybe, less straightforward. They are private companies and will want to make a profit for their investors. They, however, do not pay for the research, they do not pay the editors (who are typically university academics), the do not pay those who review the articles (again university academics) and do not not even typeset the articles as this is now done by the authors, generally using latex. They do very little of the actual work, do not fund the research, are paid largely out of public money and make fairly enormous profits (20% or so in some cases). Furthermore, they often bundle numerous journals into a single package, forcing university libraries (for example) to pay for access to journals that they may not actually want. This way they can use popular and important journals to essentially fund the less popular and less interesting journals.
I have heard an argument that what has happened is that these publishing houses have simply become so good and efficient at what they do, that the costs have dropped and so why shouldn’t their profits rise. The problem I have with this is that if it was a truly open market, someone else would come along and provide the same service for less. If current publishing houses are making 20% profits, surely someone else would be happy to make 10%, it’s much more than you can make in many other markets. The reason this doesn’t happen is that in many fields there are a couple of journals that are regarded as the top journals in which to publish (as measured by the often justifiably criticised Impact Factor). A piece of work (and the academic who publishes the work) is often judged by the journal in which it is published, and so many would simply not publish in a new journal that doesn’t yet have any legacy. In some sense, the current publishing houses have an unfair advantage that is difficult to circumvent.
The government recently commissioned a committee, headed by Dame Janet Finch, to write a report addressing the issue of open access to publicly funded research. The government announced, a few months ago, that it accepted the recommendations of the Finch report. The report, which admittedly I haven’t read, only appears to address one of the issues, that of open access. The proposed solution is to make academics pay for publishing up-front, rather than (I assume) university libraries paying later for access to the journal. Currently journal access is normally paid for by the subscriber, typically university libraries. The idea is – I think – that if we have paid for all the costs of publishing up-front, then the journal can make access to the article free to anyone else. It may seem sensible, but it comes with a host of other problems. Where does the money to pay for publishing come from? What do you do if you’re currently unfunded? What confuses me slightly, is that some journals actually charge the authors and the subscribers, so what’s stopping that from happening here.
What I find encouraging is the groundswell against the current practices of many academic publishing houses. There is a petition against Elservier that has collected 12000 signatures, many of whom are refusing to act as referee, submit papers, or do editorial work. The telescoper is also proposing to start an online Journal with open access and with page charges that simply cover what should be the relatively small cost of managing and supporting such a journal. It’s things like this that should ultimately force the major academic publishing houses to change their behaviour.