Monday, December 9, 2013

Journals, Open Access, and the Cost of Knowledge

An article on slashdot brought to my attention that Elsevier--Academic Publisher and Intellectual Gangster--is going after authors for sharing their own work. According to the terms of their ridiculous agreements they are probably legally entitled to take this course of action. Of course, that doesn't make it right.

I haven't really written here before on the travesty that is academic publishing.  Once upon a time I was incredibly naive about it, thinking that it must function something like the way all other publishing works, just with less/no money involved for the author(s). When I found out what the actual terms of many publishers are like, I was appalled (note, they have improved, slightly, since then).

Don't be fooled by the use of Creative Commons for the Open Access version of Elsevier publications. To publish on the OA model with a big publisher costs a lot of money: as much as $5,000 for prestigious journals.  It's true that PLOS charges up to $2,900 to publish a paper, but they also don't turn around and charge $39 for access to said paper, or engage in shady journal bundling for institutions. The bulk of PLOS's funding comes from those fees, and they have a tiered pricing setup for those who cannot pay.

I recognize that journal publishers used to provide essential, vital services; to some extent, they still do. But the most important component of academic publishing--the review and critique of work by peers of the author in their field--is conducted by unpaid researchers. Yes, a nice layout is useful (though I'd argue the old print layouts are not optimum for the web and non-printed pdfs), and LaTeX is a pain in the ass for authors that aren't mathematicians or physicists. But libraries don't really want print copies anymore, and distribution on the web is relatively inexpensive (hence academic publishers making money hand over fist).

Frankly, I find the way the academic publishers have been stripping publications rights from authors and reaming institutions in pursuit of the bottom-line to be repellent. I'd greatly prefer to have no part of it.
I want to sign on with the boycott, and have nothing to do with them.

The problem is that I am a graduate student. I am expected to publish. And who publishes all the top journals in my field? Urban Ecosystems? Springer. Ecological Indicators? Elsevier. The other options are mostly with ESA, who--while getting better, and making an honest attempt to grapple with these problems--still could improve.  Little journals like Ecology and Society are less costly, and have reasonable copyright policies... and low impact factors.

So what can I do? I am frustrated by the fact that if I want to advance my career, I almost certainly have to deal with these companies, due to the narrow range of journals available.

What do you intended to do?