Best of Hearing Economics: Time for Ruthless Publishers to Walk the Plank

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
October 16, 2012
[This post was originally published at Hearing Economics on January 24, 2012 ]

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world?”  Bankers? Oil companies?  Health insurers?  None of the above; they are actually academic publishers… their monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist.  {{1}}[[1]] George Monbiot writing in The Guardian, quoted in The Robber Barons of Academia,  The Week, 3 Sept 2011.[[1]]

Thus speaks British social activist and journalist  George Monbiot, himself a prolific book writer. On what basis does he make such charges?

  • “The material they publish has been commissioned and funded by taxpayers, through research grants and academic stipends.
  • they charge vast fees to access it.  Securing a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals, for instance, will cost you $31.50.
  • They get away with charging so much because libraries and researchers can’t get the information anywhere else.
  • in 2010 Elselvier’s operating profit margins were still an amazing 36%.”

I’m an amateur when it comes to investigating price, value, stock, whatever of publicly traded companies, but Mr Monbiot’s statements appear on target for 2011.  Reed-Elsevier, Thompson Learning, and Wolters Kluwer are the big guns on the educational/scientific publishing streets, constantly vying with each other for first place.  Here are some numbers from last year for two of them:

I have no survey data on how consumers, students and professionals feel about this, but let me start a survey right now and volunteer as the first participant.

Consumer View:  Gosh, that’s a lot of money.  I feel inadequate.

Student View:  I shelled out $205 for a required Econ course textbook last week.  I feel bereft and unentitled.

Professional View:  As author/editor of 7 text books that sell for anywhere from $70 to $351 at, I can state with confidence that writing textbooks is the lowest income-producing activity I know of, except for blogging.  My top estimated income from royalties works out to about a nickel/work-hour.  I feel like an idiot.  I feel unsuccessful.

While we await more responses to this survey, let’s look at what other critics, less brutal than Mr Monbiot, have to say.  Basically, they acknowledge the needs of specialty publishing:  relatively small number of sales, high production costs.  But they do not find the arguments sufficient.  Instead, they emphasize optimizing digital text publishing and echo the call for “free” texts.  For example, Open Book Publishers, founded by a small group of Cambridge academics, envisions a more equitable distribution of knowledge by “spread[ing] educational materials to everyone, globally, not just to those who can afford it.”  As one of their scholars, Ruth Finnegan{{2}}[[2]]Open access: taking academic publishing out of its ivory tower. The Independent (London, England) | August 2, 2011.[[2]], sees it, there is an imperative to break:

“…the  restriction of knowledge to a small minority of scholars [which]… may suit the publishers (and the academic promotion system) but it seems wrong that research, which is often publicly funded, should not be freely and publicly available.”

Back to activist Monbiot, who notes that the Internet has yet to  “break up this lucrative racket”  and that a 1998 prediction in The Economist  anticipating the demise of publishers’ 40% profit margins  has yet to materialize.  Enough already!  He calls for revolution to “throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us.”  Don’t you love the way that guy writes? It makes me want to go polish my cudgel.

Actually, I have a cudgel of a sort–and so does anyone else who has a blog or other online publication. We can play a role in the revolution to “liberate the research that belongs to us.” How can we do that? I’d like to address that question on the Hearing Views section of That’s because my answer goes to the subject of Why I Blog, the theme of a continuing series of posts at Hearing Views.

photo courtesy of Woody Lewis

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