Thursday, February 04, 2021

Broken Publishing Gone Wild - Time for a Change

The recent shock on Wall Street amateur investors used Reddit to challenge the investment establishment, stocks in GameStop rose suddenly from about $18 dollars a share to $347 dollars within hours.   When the dust finally settles, scores of business and history books will emerge about the saga.  GameStop will forever be remembered as a 'meme stock,' a reminder that the power of social media can challenge big money corporations.  While some deny it is nothing more than a symptom of the 'infodemic' of conspiracy theories and false claims, I instead argue that this is an evolution of the deep distrust of 'elitist' capitalism.   The argument has been that these too-big-to-fail institutions have taken advantage of investors, often bilking them of fees and talking down to the so-called 'uneducated' everyday investor while reaping profits at their expense.   The GameStop incident is the 'wisdom of the crowds', and I think the financial industry is undergoing a tectonic shift, and long before GameStop happened, discount brokerages have already given autonomy to individual retail investors.    But it's not the only industry that is about to be shaken.

Currently, the current academic publishing industry is dominated by monopolies.  Academic libraries have cut subscriptions over the past two decades with journals often consuming sometimes more than half of their budgets.  While other industries, such as the news, tend to pay their staff and writers for the content they sell, academic publishers don't even need to do that and, instead, getting their articles, their peer reviewing, and even much of their editing for free.  Something doesn't quite look right with this model.  Content funded by the government and student tuition goes directly to these publishers while universities are locked into buying their products. Academic journals are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their research areas. 

Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent because different journals can't publish the same material. In many cases, the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all.   They refer to this as journal bundling, and no one really knows who is paying what.  The monopoly of for-profit publishers Routledge, Elsevier, Springer, Elsevier, Emerald, Sage, and Wiley-Blackwell have a dominant grip on even the open-access market, as Shaun Khoo's piece in Liber Quarterly argues that article processing charges (APC) have opened up huge opportunities for big publishers by "going gold OA" to grow their revenue base even more.    This is unsustainable, but faculty and researchers are complicit as they need the publishing houses to secure tenure and promotion.   Academic libraries are on their own for the most part to resolving this, and it's happening one way or another.    The publishers know timing is running out, but they're prolonging the inevitable fall of this vicious cycle as long as possible.