Let internet replace journals

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 25 November 2009

HE who pays the piper usually also gets to hear the tune. Not so when it comes to academic publishing. Those who pay for scientific research have to pay again to read the results. This practice is ripping off taxpayers at the expense of a few international publishers. But for how much longer?

Academic publishing has a bizarre business model. Academics and scientists at government-funded universities and institutions carry out research and write papers about it. These papers are then reviewed by other state-funded scientists and handed to the editors of academic journals, who also happen to be on the government payroll.

Funding for all the academics involved in the research, review and editing comes from you and me, the taxpayer. However, most of the research is published by a small circle of corporate publishers, most of whom are based in Britain and the US. These companies then charge the same Australian taxpayer-funded institutions ridiculous amounts of money for subscriptions to academic journals to which the publishers’ contribution hardly exceeds the provision of the paper on which they are printed.

Take the Australian Economic Review, for example. It is an academic journal published on behalf of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. The three editors of the AER are all professors at the University of Melbourne.

They are assisted by the Melbourne Institute’s publications manager, who states on the institute’s website that she sub-edits the articles as well as lays out the journal for the publisher.

That’s all very practical for the AER’s British publishing company, Wiley-Blackwell. It receives high quality, peer-reviewed, fully edited articles on perfectly designed pages free of charge from Australia. Its only task is to print them and upload electronic copies to its website.

In return, would it be wrong for Australian taxpayers to expect some benefits? Well, don’t hold your breath for concessions from the British publisher. Australian universities wishing to read the AER online and in print are charged $507 for an annual subscription. So if an economist at the University of Sydney wants to know what his colleagues in Melbourne have just put out, he first has to pay a British publisher. Ridiculous? Yes, but it’s standard practice in academe.

There may have been a time academic publishing was the best way to spread knowledge. Back in the pre-internet days, it would have been impractical for a university or an institute to publish journals on its own and get wide distribution. Rather, they relied on a few big global publishing companies to do the job for them.

The internet should have made this comparative advantage obsolete. Nowadays, academic research publications can reach a global audience at the click of a button. An academic working in Melbourne, Sydney or Perth has a much greater chance of making their research known without relying on an academic publisher.

In fact, an Australian academic’s chances of reaching an international audience may improve by publishing online rather than in a local academic journal with limited distribution.

Students in Poland, Canada or Chile probably don’t find the Australian Journal of Psychology, Griffith University’s Journal of Sociology or the Australian Journal of Entomology in their libraries. But they can download papers from anywhere in the world via the internet, with the aid of search engines such as Google.

The proponents of the old business model of academic journals claim that only they can guarantee quality. They are overlooking that a journal’s reputation depends much more on the institution to which it is linked than on its publisher.

Thus, the significance of the AER depends on its affiliation with the Melbourne Institute rather than with Wiley-Blackwell. The publisher has nothing to do with the peer review process, which is organised entirely by the AER’s Australian editors.

The practice of academic publishing adds no value to Australian academics wishing to be heard. But it costs Australian libraries millions of dollars in subscriptions and it charges Australian taxpayers to access research that they funded in the first place.

In other parts of the world, this dated system may be about to change. In Germany, more than 10,000 people have signed a petition to parliament to legislate for open access to the results of government-funded research. In the US, the National Institutes of Health demands that all medical research it funds has to be made publicly available within 12months.

The Australian government should be at the forefront of switching to publishing its research outcomes online. Our academics have nothing to lose and our universities would surely find better use for the money saved on costly journal subscriptions.