Fresh fuel has been poured on the smouldering open access/academic publishing debate by Samuel Gershman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in Josh Tenenbaum’s Computational Cognitive Science Group, in an online article for the Boston Globe.  Entitling his piece “The Exploitative Economics of Academic Publishing,” he protests that: “taxpayers in the United States spend $139 billion a year on scientific research, yet much of this research is inaccessible not only to the public, but also to other scientists. This is the consequence of an exploitative scientific journal system that rewards academic publishers while punishing taxpayers, scientists, and universities.”

As you would expect from such a tone, Gershman comes down very much on the open access side of the debate. Not least as he’s been a victim of the notorious Elsevier takedown notices himself.

“Like many scientists, I provide access to my research papers on my website,” he states. “When I published these papers in Elsevier journals, I was required to hand over the copyrights. Therefore, I had no choice but to remove the papers.”

Gershman then proceeds to demolish the value-add arguments used by closed-access publishers to justify their business models. Reviews? “Typically coordinated by a combination of volunteer editors (academics) and an automated email system.” Additional text and references? “Elsevier does not add text and references to research papers – academics do.” Formatting? “Hardly necessary, since new technologies allow authors to typeset their own work.”

However, Gershman also points out some of the flaws in certain of the new breed of open access publishers. “In the case of many open-access journals, the costs of publication are now borne by an article’s authors rather than its readers. To publish in these journals costs academics (and ultimately the taxpayers who fund their research) thousands of dollars per article.” And he dismisses the running costs argument for this kind of open access by citing one journal whose total running costs, since its establishment in 2000, amounted to: “less than $7,000, or $6.50 per article published.”

So open access is not an automatic guarantee of probity and fairness. But Gershman’s basic argument remains highly critical of the closed-access publishers – and hard for them to refute. “Scientists are providing free labor that benefits extremely profitable corporations,” he states. “Taxpayers are subsidizing these corporations, effectively shrinking the amount of funding available for research. Universities cannot afford growing subscription fees.” In the circumstances, Gershman’s more radical suggested remedies, such as a collective boycott by universities of closed-access journal subscriptions, seem pretty justified.


  1. Coming up with viable alternatives is the challenge and academics haven’t yet mustered the motivation and energy required to start, let alone finish, that invention. Since institutions of higher education are both the primary producers and consumers of scholarly works, they could dis-intermediate the entire academic publishing enterprise (eTextbooks, scholarly eBooks and eJournals). The requisite technology is in hand and yet we see very little being done outside of a few open eTextbooks. That’s because it’s not a technical problem. Rather, it is a people problem – a cultural problem.

    The academic culture, some think, is inextricably intertwined with academic publishing. To change it will require a complete re-thinking of the way that the value of scholarship is determined and, with that, how the hierarchy of academe forms itself and rewards or punishes its members. A large part of the data that is used to make promotion and tenure decisions is currently outsourced to publishers. It’s “publish or perish” and loath it as an academic might, it is the way of our world. Unless you are published by respected and prestigious publishers, your work has little value and you will not advance. If your work is self-published, it is vain and has no value.
    This is the “hard nut” thaw has to be cracked before academic publishing can be reformed in any meaningful way. The schemes being played with today simply rearrange the deck chairs.

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