[Their] monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist - George Monbiot

Want to know where a huge amount of taxpayers' money invested into science goes?

Straight into the pockets of publishing companies' shareholders.

This is probably old news to most people, but the reason why I'm writing about it here is because
Heather Morrison has released some figures in part of her open thesis (Morrison 2011), and it's best to take this sitting down.

Around 1/3 of the money that you pay to access a journal goes is profit. For Elsevier, who is the titan of publishers, it is 35.74%. So, if you pay $37.95 to view a journal, about $13.56 is pure profit.

Safe to say that it's a business model that works well. These are Elsevier's profits over the past few years, found by Mike Taylor
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%

Scientific publishing, then, is big money, and moreover, it's easy money. Because, really, they have very little to do. We do the research, we write the papers and we review the papers. The only part that the publisher is involved in is just that; publishing.

The thing is that, in days of yore, the printed word was the only way of disseminating information about the globe. So, it didn't hurt so much.

However, it is a little bit more difficult to stomach the fees to get your paper published these days when the paper is simply uploaded to a web page. For palaeontology, Andy Farke put together a list of the various fees that you have to pay, and some of them are a bit unpalatable.

You might wonder why we, as scientists, put up with it. And to be honest, it's a pretty good question. Why would we ritually insist, year on year, on sending our papers off to publishers who charge us through the nose?
It is always the gripe du jour in coffee rooms across the world. And, there are open source journals, after all.

The problem is, if you want your work to be noticed, you have to publish it in a high impact journal. Which then attracts naturally attracts more credence. It's a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. Many people I know are very suspicious of open journals, and I have to say that, if my paper was accepted by Nature or Science, or even JVP, it would be difficult to refuse. Some people, like Mike Taylor, have said that we should refuse to review manuscripts submitted to non-open publications. But ultimately, it's a slow solution; a bit like trying to kill a diplodocus by giving it thousands of paper cuts. And, as Andy Farke has pointed out, the people who really suffer are the authors.

I do think that it's very easy to blame the publishers, however. It's partly a natural consequence of the laws as they are. George Monboit has some ideas on how we can resolve this, which I'll leave you with, (making this article a bit of a Monboit sandwich):

In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin's Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.

Morrison, Heather (2011). Chapter two: scholarly communication in crisis. Freedom for scholarship in the internet age.

These are my views, not those of the organization that I'm associated with