Academic (Journal) Revolution!

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

For those of you not of the higher education world, here’s a tip about one of the biggest scams plaguing it. For very many fields of study it’s the academic journals that make or break academic careers – publish or perish! – and those journals have in effect become monopoly providers. So they charge monopoly prices: universities pay incredible amounts yearly to leading publishers just for subscriptions. And as the cherry on the cake, those who write the scientific articles that are accepted for publication in these journals thereby give up all rights to them.

Doesn’t that sound like something that just shouldn’t exist in this glorious Internet Age, where “information just wants to be free”? I agree, but this piece from the Times Higher Education (formerly Supplement) shows that things are getting no better.


[Researchers] found that the amount [for journal subscriptions] paid to Oxford University Press rose by 49.2 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The amount paid to Springer rose by 36.3 per cent and the amount to Wiley by 33.5 per cent. The smallest rise – 17.4 per cent – was in subscriptions to Elsevier journals. Overall expenditure increased by 23.9 per cent.

That’s interesting – but since when did EuroSavant turn into a higher education blog, rather than a European foreign press blog?

You’re quite right. But fear not: what I wanted to bring to your attention was a recent high-risk attempt by Netherlands universities to do something about that, reported by Martijn van Calmthout of the Volkskrant.

At issue is so-called “open access” (a phrase translated unchanged into Dutch), namely free access to such journal articles, whose publication would be financed by one-time university payments. Ironically, the first target is Elsevier, the (relative) best-behaver in the Times’ article, but also the only Dutch one. The consortium of Dutch universities, the VSNU, is pushing for open access as soon as possible and has proposed to Elsevier that its member-universities pay a year’s worth of subscription-fees to it one last time, but thereafter switch over to open access to the titles the company publishes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elsevier has rejected this offer; the company would prefer to keep getting the subscription-fees and charge extra for any open access. Talks have now broken off. These universities face the prospect, as of 1 JAN 2015, of having no more access to any new articles. (Old articles will still be available, though; furthermore, that is just on-line access that they will lose to new articles.)

The universities are not beaten yet, it would seem, as the State Secretary for Education in the Netherlands, Sander Dekker, has their back. He was publicly advocating back in early 2013 for the Netherlands to have een voortrekkersrol – that is, to be in the avant-garde – when it comes to open access. (Note that most Netherlands universities are publicly-funded; that scientific material scholars submit to journal publishers for them to make their monopoly profits on was likely heavily subsidized by the State.) The EU is also on the VSNU’s side – although, of course, the Commission has just changed regime, and scholarly journals are probably not top-priority for the new EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics.

Meanwhile, VSNU has taken up negotiations with Springer and Wiley. “These talks are proceeding more smoothly than those with Elsevier, insiders report.”

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