Academic publishing is absolute disgrace and needs fixing now

Academic publishing is absolute disgrace and needs fixing now

Academic publishing needs fixing, says Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Academic publishing needs fixing, says Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

OPINION: There’s nothing like a global pandemic to show how important it is to have free access to the latest research and data. How else are researchers, medical and public health professionals supposed to advise governments and their officials on the appropriate actions to take?

Unfortunately, the way we currently share research is an absolute disgrace and has created an industry with higher profit margins than the likes of Amazon and Google.

Traditional publishers pay writers for their articles and employ editors to commission and check articles. Academic publishers outsource all of that to the research community. Not only do we do that checking – otherwise known as peer review – we do it for free.

And rather than being paid for our writing, we often pay the publisher to publish our articles. Which then go straight behind a paywall.

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To top it all off, academic publishers then sell our articles back to our institutions in the form of journal subscriptions. In another twist, what publishers charge for their journals is commercially sensitive so different institutions are probably paying wildly different prices for similar deals.

To give you some idea of costs, the University of California has a subscription budget of about US$50 million (NZ$78m) a year. Not everyone has a budget like that, so subscriptions create a massive inequity between who gets access to the latest research and who doesn’t.

In fairness, many journals now offer an alternative that allows researchers to pay an “open access” fee to make their article accessible to everyone. This has created its own problems, with thousands of fake journals popping up to scam researchers looking for an affordable way to publish their research.

When the new coronavirus emerged, many academic publishers pledged to make any articles related to the pandemic open access. This has meant everyone around the world has equitable and timely access to all the latest information about Covid-19. But it’s not clear how long this arrangement is going to last.

The University of California spends US$50 million a year on academic subscriptions.


The University of California spends US$50 million a year on academic subscriptions.

The University of California has just reached an interesting agreement with the world’s second biggest academic publisher. For the next four years, Springer Nature will make the articles of more than 2700 of their journals available to the university without a subscription fee.

In return, the university and its researchers will pay Springer Nature a fee for every article they get accepted for publication in the publisher’s journals. That fee will mean the article is published open access. The arrangement doesn’t include the prestigious Nature and Nature-branded journals, but it’s a start.

It’s clear that Covid-19 is disrupting much of the world as we knew it. My hope is that we come out of this pandemic with an academic publishing model fit for purpose.

That has to be better than the current system of handing over vast amounts of public money that could have been spent on research.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles MNZM is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and a Deputy Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence.

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