The Curious Case of Academic Journals

One of the prominent ways of ‘decorating’ our Curriculum Vitae (CV) is lacing it up with published research papers or articles in renowned academic journals. Not just students, but also teachers, scientists and academicians prefer submitting their works to noteworthy journals of their respective academic disciplines. In cases of public-funded research, the journals get the research almost free of cost, but they charge exorbitant amounts in giving access to these academic articles. Elsevier, the biggest academic journal publisher, made a profit of $1.2 billion on revenues of £2.1 billion in 2011. Yes, it does make Murdoch look like a socialist! In this blog post, I will discuss two possible solutions to this significant problem, first, getting rid of the system of journals altogether and secondly, open access journals along with their pros and cons.

Introduction

The primary stakeholders in the instant case are – the government (in funding the research), the scientists (in conducting the research), the academic journals (publishing the research), the students, other academicians, universities and citizens (consumers of the research).

Most of us are familiar with Jstor, one of the popular digital libraries of academic journals and books. In 2010, Aaron Swartz illegally downloaded over 4.8 million articles from Jstor. It’s not possible to conclusively state that he intended to make them public since he had previously downloaded large numbers of academic articles for private research. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, signed by Aaron himself reads, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of powerful organizations.”

In cases of public-funded research, the journals get the research almost free of cost, but they charge exorbitant amounts in giving access to these academic articles. Peer-review and the research itself come from the academic scholars. The journals incur the cost of editing, distributing and managing the peer-review process. The growth of Internet has greatly reduced the distribution costs of these journals. Going step by step, first, the government funds the scientists’ research (which is the tax payer’s money). Secondly, the research is submitted to an academic journal which charges a subscription fee (which is again the taxpayer’s money) to grant access to it. The taxpaying laymen ultimately face the brunt by paying at both ends in the case of academic journals. On a different note, the government typically funds research which is for the public benefit, but the end-result (the research) rarely trickles down this chain to the public. Consequently, this hampers further research and also tends to restrict knowledge in hands of a few with the required purchasing power. In fact, Harvard University in 2012 claimed that with annual cost of journal subscription reaching $3.75 million, sustaining major periodicals of academic journals was difficult. The plight of the developing/under-developed countries only becomes obvious.

I have outlined below two broad solutions to encounter the issue at hand along with their pros and cons:

1. Doing away with Traditional Journals

A primary function of an academic journal is to provide peer-review, which doesn’t require a physical journal at all. It needs an editorial board and an editorial process. Sam Gershman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in Josh Tenenbaum’s Computational Cognitive Science Group provides an interesting answer and explains that we could post papers to a pre-print server (i.e. a server that hosts an unpublished draft of the scientific paper) , similar to bioRxiv.org or arXiv.org.  Then the creator submits his paper to a journal, by essentially sending him a link to his pre-print draft. The editorial process continues as earlier and if the paper is accepted, it gets a stamp of approval from the journal. Whereas, this stamp is only an imprimatur with whose help the creator can claim that his paper was accepted by the respective journal. Without a physical journal, this process substantially cuts down the related costs.

Issues with the approachfirst, the basic problem which comes up is the cultural revolution required amongst the academics in order to leave the secure conventional methods and reputed publishers like Elsevier or Wiley.

Secondly, the Supreme Court of India has on numerous occasions referred to or cited academic journals (e.g. the Yale Law Journal) in its judgment. One would have to pause and think whether the esteemed Court would have cited the same paper, had it been published in some other not-so-known or rather a non-academic journal. Getting rid of traditional academic journals would necessarily snatch away this weight age.

2. Open Access

Open Access aims at making scholarly articles (electronic form) freely available to the public. It can be classified into two types: a) the ‘green’ route – where the author self-archives during submission of the publication on whether it is peer-reviewed, pre-prints or a monograph. The costs are borne by library subscriptions and not the author. An embargo period may apply in these cases (e.g. DSpace, Fedora) and b) The ‘gold’ route – where the author pays a fee to the publisher (depending upon the journal) who thereafter makes the paper ‘free’ for all. Access to the material is immediate in such cases. United States’ National Institute of Health (NIH) in order to promote science and improve health, has made it a point to make all research funded by itself publicly available on PubMed Central. Recently in 2015, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation adopted an Open Access policy which states that any research resulting from its own funding shall be made freely available and broadly disseminated. The publications shall also be published under the Creative Commons 4.0 Generic License or any other equivalent licences.

Open Access in India

In December 2014, two important departments under the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India – the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), jointly announced their Open Access policy on research funded by them. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has also recently adopted an Open Access policy. One of the primary reasons for a lack of comprehensive legislation on Open Access in India is the oblivious nature of the policy makers. In 2013, Argentina passed an Open Access Act for publicly funded research. Ideas of the benefits of Open Access on promoting research and development should be disseminated far and wide. The recent petition filed by Mr. Carl Malamud, regarding Open Access for Indian Standards sheds some light on the dark lane to Open Access in India. A detailed study of the petition can be found on SpicyIP, here.

Mr. Subbaih Arunachalam, an Open Access advocate, clearly outlines that the heads of funding agencies (of the Government of India) should mandate Open Access and research institutions should set up institutional repositories. A law mandating Open Access for publicly funded research would help in downplaying corporate interests over individual rights. Another possible solution could be that where the research is funded or subsidized by the government, a standard, reasonable publishing cost should be maintained throughout. Using a Creative Commons license or other open-content licenses is an increasingly common and effective way for consenting to Open Access.

Open Access journals have also been supported by 737 organizations in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Dissemination of information is vital in promoting creativity and furthering research. Keeping this information stored away in a few hands strains the overall development of the world. A step towards Open Access has never been more pressing!

Further Readings:

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