George Monbiot outlines in the Guardian this morning the stranglehold of a tiny oligopoly of academic publishers over the output of the research sector in the UK - research more often than not funded from the public purse. They can get away with it because the pernicious pressure in academe to publish or die - pressure that's resulted in a tsunami of ill-thought crap being foisted on the world from both mediocre and talentless academics, many of whom have failed even to master the fundamentals of the English language. Compare and contrast to the Oxford professor who led his field in my undergrad days, despite having been dead for thirty years and never having progressed beyond the degree of MA. He published only two books in his lifetime, both of which were on our reading list. Today, the need to know what others have been publishing gives Elsevier a 36% margin on a £2bn turnover.
Of course, a good chunk of this comes not from academic but medical publishing. One of my vacation student jobs was with Year Book Medical Publications, a US firm with an English branch off Holborn in Barnards Inn. Even then I was astonished that the cost of a subscription exceeded the annual equivalent of my salary. YBM was taken over by Mosby, and then, er, by Elsevier. Even South Africa and Rhodesia, both under sanctions in those days, felt obliged to spend scarce foreign currency reserves to subscribe. Since the contributing medicos were paid a pittance, margins must have been massive, even allowing for the cost of printing the calfskin-bound encyclopedia-sized volumes.
And of more relevance to ordinary folk, though we pay for both the Ordnance Survey and the Hydrographic Office through taxes, and the information they hold is in public ownership, both still charge a whopping fee even to access digital copies of their maps and charts. The OS have grudgingly freed access to larger scale maps, but hold tight to the 1:2500 maps that are needed for simple planning applications and the cost of charts from the HO mean many boaters either do without or rely on old uncorrected versions. In the US, the output of similar public bodies is regarded unequivocally as being public domain.
Monbiot has a point. It's time we looked at the cost of access to our own information.