Copyright on Campus

A recent article by George Monbiot in The Guardian takes a critical look at academic publishers, apparently with a focus on the United Kingdom. The article makes the following points:

-Journals now eat up 65 percent of university library budgets.

-“[A]cademic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free.” 

-The research published by academic publishers is largely funded by publicly-funded research grants.

-Elsevier, Springer and Wiley currently publish 42 percent of all journal articles. In the most recent financial year, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36 percent.

The article suggests that the money paid to academic publishers represents a “tax on education,” and that academic publishers add “little value to the publishing process.”

The piece also features the following provocative excerpt:

“In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.”

The article appears amid campaigns for copyright reform by both the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students. Both organizations advocate in favour of more open access.


  • I work at a university library, and I absolutely agree that the journal publishers are basically a racket. They don’t do much and they charge an arm and a leg. For the most part, you’re not even paying for a paper copy any more, it’s all online. Anyone can host a database, don’t see what we need these profiteers for. They should be run out of business and a more direct publicly funded model substituted, cutting out the middleman.

    I’d tend to disagree with the very centralized approach the article suggests to deal with the issue, though. I’d rather see a more distributed solution, with little databases all over, open and readily mirrored, and many different peer-reviewing groups, perhaps sharing certain kinds of infrastructure such as software, which would be open source. I don’t like the idea of a single universal peer-reviewing gatekeeper.

  • I understand the necessity of academic journals, often find articles interesting and stimulating, accept that, in the not too distant future, I will have to seek publications (as I have already presented a paper at one of the “Learneds;”) but I also begin to understand how they not only have usurped the place of general interest publications, but also have sapped the critical and even revolutionary spirit of many disciplines, particularly sociology, social work, and the social “sciences” in general.

    Russell Jacobly argues in The Last Intellectuals how the demise of general interest publications, especially newspapers, and what seems to me embarrassment of sociologists at their roles at the University of California, Berkeley in the 60’s and even the University of Toronto in the late 60’s and early 70’s, along with the rise of mathematical modelling (aping the physical sciences) and the journals that require such work, has absorbed what might have been the generation of intellectuals after that of Galbraith, Jacobs, and many others.

    Ben Agger in The Discourse of Dominance discusses this in particular relation to the field of sociology, which includes my own profession of social work.

    Jacoby, in The Repression of Psychoanalysis, discusses the erasure of psychoanalysis as a political and social theory, along with the disappearance of lay analysts, as it became a professional and clinical field dominated by doctors–what I am beginning to understand as practitioners of allopathic medicine (as Pat and Hugh Armstrong describe it in Wasting Away)–also a model for the fall of social work as a radical practice.

    What possible relation does this have to the need for ‘open source’ “academic” journals?

    None, if one does not, or cannot see the totality, the excruciating closeness of liberation, and the forces, throughout the 20th century, and on into the 21st, that have blinded us to its possibility and almost eliminated the conditions for the possibility for it.

    The disappearance of the public intellectual marks an inverse path to the rise of academia, and the quintessential academic journal, and the mathematical-speak that is its vernacular: the absorption of all those who were on the barricades in the 60’s and who will never be on the barricades in the 10’s.

    Are there any to follow them?

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