Can costly academic indexes be fixed?

jstor_logo_large-249x300I ran across an interesting pair of articles concerning academic journal indexes—a complaint about the journals’ expense and inaccessibility by Laura McKenna in The Atlantic, and a rebuttal pointing out a number of errors and misconceptions in McKenna’s article by Nancy Sims of the University of Minnesota Libraries on her blog.

At the heart of McKenna’s complaint is the often outlandish pricing for individual articles found on some of these journals, such as JSTOR. She brings up the example of a charge of $38 for a 12-page article. McKenna posts an explanation for this state of affairs that involves publishers selling rights to academic articles to index services, which then sell the articles themselves back to universities. Sims points out this is an oversimplification, and that McKenna is imputing for-profit status to some entities that are actually non-profits.

McKenna concludes:

How could we make this academic research more accessible to the public? The challenge is finding a way to get research on the web by bypassing the publisher/JSTOR nexus. If academic journals skipped that needless step of providing a print version of their journals, they could stop this cycle. They could simply upload the papers to a website and take the publishers out of the process.

Sims responds:

I think I’ve pretty much fully addressed the misconception of a "publisher/JSTOR nexus", but wanted to point out that continuing to provide print access is not the thing that’s hanging up this dysfunctional cycle. Online-only access carries plenty of costs of its own. The non-profit open access publisher PLoS charges a publication fee of couple thousand dollars an article to underwrite only some of their costs. Many institutions or grants underwrite open access publishing fees or even whole open access publications, though. In the long-run, the costs are much lower to institutions than when subsidizing commercial profits.

Sims points out that, while JSTOR does have some problems, it is actually one of the better elements of the current academic publishing landscape. There is room for improvement overall, and there are many people already trying to reform the system. But the academic publishing system is not as simple as it looks, and complicated systems take time and effort to change.

I wonder just how much of this stems from people accustomed to the ease of finding things on the Internet being exposed to the less user-friendly nature of academic indexes? I was using indexes well before the World Wide Web, thanks to the systems at my local college library, and they took some getting used to. Many of them didn’t store text at all, but just told what issue of a magazine the article you wanted was in, and then you had to go to microfilm to find the actual citation.

Now the Internet has become a lot easier to find stuff you want (thanks in no small part to Google), but indexes have stayed about the same. Perhaps when people are used to getting stuff fast and free, costly and tricky-to-navigate systems seem that much more offensive. (This might also be why most paywall implementations run into trouble.)

Regardless, I’m sure that sooner or later the net’s simplifying influences will reach into academic publishing as well. It’s just a matter of time.

(Found via BoingBoing.)

3 Comments on Can costly academic indexes be fixed?

  1. It seems to me there are two separate issues here: ease of use and cost. The bottom line is, academic journals should be on line and free. It is true there are all kinds of costs associated with journal publishing, but the vast majority of these are currently not borne by the publishers, which take the profits. All the editorial work is done by academics donating their time — and of course the authors donate the actual material. Even most of the day to day management is handled in academic departments, who often hire assistants out of their own funds. Nobody beyond the academic publishers themselves wants to keep the system we have, but it is hard to change, for a simple reason: established journals have the prestige on which academics depend to forward their careers. A new journal needs to establish a reputation before it is worth publishing in, and it is just very difficult to do this. It will happen, but it is slow, much slower than most of us would have predicted.

  2. As Neil says: “The bottom line is, academic journals should be on line and free”

    It is a complete nonsense that Science has allowed this appalling situation to develop where only the rich or institutions can afford to access this research, and it’s about time Science get’s it’s house in order and fixes this.

    As far as the publisher/JSTOR nexus of convenience goes, there is no economic cost base that justifies the costs involved in accessing this content.

    Nancy Sims can protest and wriggle around as much as she likes, but she is fooling no one. She seems to think that being a not-for-profit is some kind of catch all excuse and justification for these prices. But please, people, this attempt to use “not for profit” as some kind of excuse should be fooling no one!

    After a career in SME’s and no for profit businesses, I can tell you that there is no core difference whatsoever between how a profit motivated business is operated and a not-for-profit business except one tries to make a small margin of net profit.

    Indeed a not-for-profit is almost always far more inefficient and ineffective at controlling costs without the profit motive. This is clearly at the heart of the outrageous prices being charged. Her protesting about this indicates that she thinks being a not-for-profit is some kind of catch all excuse.

  3. Resonating on what @Howard says, the crime is that academics provide this content for free in their “paper chase” of promotion, tenure and grant funding. The author gets virtually nothing from JSTOR.
    Some non-profits are a racket for officers who pull down substantial salaries. I don’t know if this is true of JSTORE but something doesn’t smell right.

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