Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This time, Monbiot's got a point

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.   


English Pensioner said...

I think the monopoly of book publishers will disappear in the longer term as e-books take hold. The Kindle is leading the way, there is certainly increasing self publishing as far as fiction is concerned and I see no reason why this should not extend to academia.
The same, I suspect will apply to some maps. A local family history society was mapping and identifying graves at a local cemetery and they had a fancy SatNav system which enabled them to plot the positions and transfer the data to a computer to produce a plan. And a local walking club has something similar for mapping their walks since they were in trouble for photocopying marked up OS maps.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

They still publish this stuff in books? Real physical books?

How 20th century!

And while on the subject of the UKHO do you know they even manage to enforce copyright on TIDAL information? Yes, that's right, the movements of the moon are information that belongs to the State, and you have to pay them an indulgence before you're allowed to publish it. Mad, completely mad. And grasping.

Fairfax said...

Yachtsman wrote "They still publish this stuff in books?"

Many do, but the main cost is electronic subscription. The last time I physically went to a library was some time ago, but I use my library's subscriptions daily.

There is a simple solution: mathematicians and physicists publish papers in arXiv, or similar preprint sites. These papers aren't refereed, but the solution is simple: the academic publishes the paper online, in arXiv, then asks ones of the journals, say "Journal of BingBong Theory" to consider it for their stamp of approval. After refereeing, and changes, the paper gets the right to append "Published in Journal of BingBong Theory". We academics already serve on editorial boards and referee papers for free, so there's no change for us. All subjects could do this, removing the problem and the cost.

Demetrius said...

Yes, as someone who likes to get back to source for a few things, instead of relying on busy press and media interns, the frustration at the costs and blocking of key articles is immense. Hooray for Monbiot on this one.

Anonymous said...

Question: Does the CEO of OS have a reasonable salary and allowance?