Professional Publishing: Push Back and Grousing

March 1, 2019

The University of California is a foreign territory here in Harrod’s Creek. The nearest library harbors a few individuals who want to dive into the Commonwealth’s deep and thrilling history.

UC is different. For vendors pitching library centric products from smart shelving to digital copies of journals related to the fascinating insights into misbehaving cells, California UC is a very big deal. The reasons range from money to standing orders. Oh, that’s money too. Sorry.

I read “UC Terminates Subscriptions with World’s Largest Scientific Publisher in Push for Open Access to Publicly Funded Research.” This fine title means, “The library system will no longer pay professional publishers like Elsevier and others outrageous subscription fees about research funded by government research grants.


The reason is that the cost of certain professional journals is brutal. To add to the irritation of high prices, authors have to pay the professional publishers to have their content in the journal. Then, the professional publishers ask “experts” to read these articles in order to maintain quality. Hey, it is cheaper to let unpaid “experts” read and comment instead of hiring an expensive subject matter expert. (How fresh are articles in professionally published math journals? Answer: Not very.)

What companies are likely to be hit in the pocketbook with this policy? Elsevier, for sure. Probably Wolters Kluwer, some units of Thomson Reuters, maybe sickly fish like Cambridge Scientific Abstracts and Ebsco too. Even outliers like Emerald could be affected but I am not sure if Emerald has a “must be published in” title.

The UC news release said:

Despite months of contract negotiations, Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s key goal: securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals.

From my point of view, universities have fed the high costs of professional journals. Here’s how the big time academics stumbled into an MBA trap:

  1. Unpaid, unloved, and often wacky PhDs have to prove that their work is important as part of the elusive and possibly endangered “tenure” track
  2. The academics whip up research using even more needy graduate students
  3. The “research” is crafted into a journal article published by an Elsevier-type outfit
  4. The PhD, tenure and approbation seeking author or authors then pay for page proofs and corrections. This is a nice way of saying, “You write this crazy stuff, so pay for the typesetting.”
  5. The journal’s editor sends out the submitted “research” to subject matter experts. Some of whom may not be paid or given a free copy of the journal or an invitation to the publisher’s suite at an academic conference
  6. The “good” write ups are queued for publication
  7. The author buys copies of the article, prints off citations, prays for or induces someone to write a review. These are then provided to the appropriate tenure track committee
  8. The tenure committee then uses these “research” publications in “important” journals as evidence of the desperate PhD’s academic work.


What Elsevier type outfits have done is monetize this institutional, symbiotic process. The UC system wants to change the rules.

Will this method work? Yes, if other universities jump on the bandwagon and stay there. The problem is that Elsevier-type publications may have more influence over academic institutions than the individuals who work in the university bureaucracies?

Nifty, eh. Universities like the UC units set up a system which feeds back high prices in a loop the hapless PhDs cannot escape. Who wants to accept a blog post or a tweet as proof of excellence. Certainly few on a tenure committee are keen on this approach. There are standards to maintain.

Stephen E Arnold, March 1, 2019


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