Commercial academic publishers

(by Christian P. Robert)

Julien Cornebise has [once again!] pointed out a recent Guardian article. It is about commercial publishers of academic journals, mainly Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley, with a clear stand from its title: “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“! The valuable argument therein is that academic publishers make hefty profits (a 40% margin for Elsevier!) without contributing to the central value of the journals, namely the research itself that is mostly funded by public or semi-public bodies. The publishers of course distribute the journals to the subscribers, but the reported profits clearly show that, on average, they spend much less doing so than they charge… Here are some of the institutional rates (can you spot Elsevier journals? journals published by societies? free open access journals?!):

(apart from greed, there is no justification for the top four [Taylor and Francis/Elsevier] journals to ask for such prices! The Journal of Econometrics also charges $50 per submission! PNAS is another story given the volume of the [non-for-profit] publication: 22750 pages in 2010, meaning it is highly time to move to being fully electronic. The rate for Statistics and Computing is another disappointment, when compared with JCGS. )

The article reports the pressure to publish in such journals (vs. non-commercial journals) because of the tyranny of the impact factors. However, the reputation of those top-tier journals is not due to the action of the publishers, but rather to the excellence of their editorial boards; there is therefore no foreseeable long-term impact in moving from one editor to another for our favourite journals. Moreover, I think that the fact to publish in top journals is more relevant for the authors themselves than for the readers when the results are already circulating through a media like arXiv. Of course, having the papers evaluated by peers in a strict academic mode is of prime importance to distinguish major advances from pseudo-science; however the electronic availability of papers and of discussion forums and blogs implies that suspicious results should anyway be detected by the community. (I am not advocating the end of academic journals, far from it!, but an evolution towards a wider range of evaluations via Internet discussions, as for the DREAM paper recently.) The article also mentions that some funding organisms impose Open Access publishing. However, this is not the ideal solution as long as journals also make a profit on that line, by charging for open access (see, e.g., PNAS or JRSS)! Hence using another chunk of public (research) money towards their profits… My opinion is that everyone should make one’s papers available on-line or better via arXiv. And petition one’s societies for a tighter control of the subscription rates, or even a move to electronic editions when the rates get out of control.

PS-Here is a link to an Australian blog, the Conversation, where some publishers (Wiley and Elsevier) were interviewed on these points. I will not comment, but this interview is quite informative on the defense arguments of the publisher!

3 Responses to “Commercial academic publishers”


  1. 2 Anon June 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    PNAS should most certainly NOT go electronic-only. No medium other than paper has proven sustainable for long-term archival access, and the articles in PNAS are certainly important enough to warrant permanent preservation. PNAS is moderately priced relative to the number of papers it publishes, and inexpensive relative to the number of times it is cited in the literature.

  2. 3 TV January 26, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I think someone should do a ranking of the top journals by both impact factor and give pricing some weight. Then try to get some departments to sign on to using the weights in future (not past!) tenure decisions.


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The Statistics Forum, brought to you by the American Statistical Association and CHANCE magazine, provides everyone the opportunity to participate in discussions about probability and statistics and their role in important and interesting topics.

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