Ex academia luxus: Or Why do we pay to access academic publications?


In this week’s blog, School of Business doctoral student Secki Jose (spj15@le.ac.uk) explores why universities are paying more and more to access the knowledge that their academics produce.


In recent years, academic publications have been coming under greater scrutiny due to the difficulties caused by the restrictions on access and spiralling costs. It isn’t entirely unusual for University based researchers (such as me) to occasionally come across articles that are pay-walled and not accessible because some journal has not been subscribed to by the University’s library. The high cost of individual articles makes them really prohibitive to purchase and nowadays even University library budgets are strained. In 2012, Harvard told its faculty to reduce costs as it was finding it difficult to pay annual subscription costs of around $3.5 million a year. Oddly enough, in 2016, the much smaller University of Leicester probably spent more than the 2012 Harvard budget, by spending £3.06 million on its subscriptions. This expense was up 11 percent from 2013-14, when I had joined the University, and was well above the general price inflation for the same time period (around 4 percent).


Despite the supposed freedoms of the internet, several different forms of digital media are now being carefully lassoed and ring-fenced from multiple directions. Academic publications are part of this move. If it was websites such as Scribd and Academia.edu that did an about turn on open access earlier, then publishers are about to have a go at ResearchGate next, raising questions about its future. The harm caused by prohibitive access costs is recognised by several academic fields and they have responded with their own alternate arrangements. In some cases, they have moved away from exploitative academic publishers altogether. Fields such as physics, mathematics and medical sciences created their own journals and repositories — and make all their papers accessible to anyone (through archives such as PubMed, Arxiv, PLOS). To a large extent, this has also been made possible by the rapid decline in data storage and communication costs. The actual costs of maintaining documents are nowhere close to the subscription rates that are being charged by the publishers. Is it any wonder then that academic publishers make close to 50 percent profits on their revenues?


But why wouldn’t they be making such profits? Once these digital items are produced, copies cost next to nothing to be reproduced. And, in this they are completely different from the traditional production of goods and services. If an entrepreneur could sell digital ‘copies’ (such as ebooks), to people at a price that people were willing to pay for it, then s/he could make nearly 100 percent profits on them. The obsession with value where there is none and where people attach one, has therefore become central to the ongoing phase of technology-led wealth accumulation and the technologists’ obsession with libertarianism and neo-classical economics that emphasise supposedly ‘free’ markets. As a recent study highlighted, Silicon Valley technologists are liberal and left-of-centre in every way – except in the case of market related regulation, and more so of work and labour.


Universities are now paying millions for annual access to digital copies that actually cost next to nothing. However, such arrangements also have much more profound impacts. For example, the digitisation of academic books and journals and charging an annual rental fee for their access radically alters the relationship between the publisher and the University. The University now becomes the borrower and the publisher becomes the lender. The publisher becomes the storehouse of knowledge, owns and keeps it while the University just accesses it through an annual subscription fee. Papers or books are downloaded by an assortment of users and as a result never really in the hands of the Library. In other words, Universities will also keep on paying for the same material every year, again and again, something which would never have happened in the case of paper publications.


The belief that the annual subscription of books and journals is a safe option is delusional, as we have seen that prices will only go in one direction: upwards. While some recognise this as a problem and attempt to publish low cost affordable options, they are dwarfed by the size and reach of major publishing firms, and by how dependent they have made the Universities on them. These are only going to be entrenched in the coming years if alternatives are not explored, made structural and institutionalised. For example, despite all the efforts around open access, only 6 percent of the papers published by Elsevier in 2016 were open access. It seems that moving ahead without concrete plans for open access will only result in ever ballooning fees, which only feeds into a downward spiral of financial pressure on everyone – the students, academics and Universities. Would rich millennials purchase academic papers as newfound luxuries and post selfies with them on Instagram? They ought to, but I’m guessing that they probably won’t.

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Martin Parker

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Professor of Culture and Organisation.

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