The traditional model of academic publishing is absurd. Universities and their faculties invest enormous resources into conducting research. They then send the articles away — for free — to academic journals. Universities pay those same faculty members to provide more free labor for journals when they act as editors and reviewers of others’ submissions, assessing their quality and publishability. Journals then claim copyright over the articles they eventually publish. But the most outrageous part is that journals go on to charge our university libraries subscription fees to access the research we worked so hard and paid so much to produce. A fairer and more efficient system would make research open and accessible to all.
Dutch giant Elsevier, a for-profit publisher received $12 million from the University of California alone in 2018. The bargain we academics made with the journals has never been a particularly good deal for our universities. But for public universities, whose research has been paid for with public funds, it should be deeply offensive. The very idea that we take our precious intellectual products paid for with tax dollars and give them away to corporations who charge our taxpayers again to read them ought to outrage any sensible citizen.
UC Berkeley is in the business of generating and disseminating knowledge — it is disseminated in both the classroom and throughout the world via academic publishing. UC Berkeley faculty members seek the widest distribution for the greatest impact of our work.
There was a day when journals helped with dissemination by printing paper copies of research articles and sending them to libraries around the world. That day is gone because of the ease of distribution over the internet. We no longer need journals to print paper copies for us. We can post our papers online and make them instantly available to the entire world — for free. How is it possible that a company like Elsevier is still in business?
Professors send their papers to the most prestigious journals because those journals promise the broadest reach and greatest professional reward. Journals provide quality assessment and prestige that help readers determine what is worth their time and attention. Building a journal’s reputation is a gradual process, and status hierarchies can be slow to change. That is why researchers still submit good articles to legacy journals owned by for-profit publishers, and that is why libraries subscribe to these journals.
But this is all changing. The University of California libraries are standing up to Elsevier. Under our previous contract, we paid millions of dollars in subscription fees each year. While individual authors had the option of making their work “open access” — free and available to all — Elsevier charged an additional fee, which was usually thousands of dollars per article, for this freedom. Perversely, these open access fees did not reduce the subscription fees our libraries paid.
When it came time to renegotiate our contract with Elsevier, the UC libraries asked that our fees go to making papers by UC authors open access by default. Elsevier refused to broaden access to our work. By maintaining its current business model, Elsevier is shying away from the potential to broaden dissemination and increase the impact of research. Unable to reach a new agreement, the UC libraries’ contract with Elsevier lapsed.
Perhaps this will mean that more UC faculty decide to send their papers to open-access outlets, including some of the new, high-quality online journals. If so, this would move UC Berkeley closer to a future in which all scholarly knowledge gets shared online, free for anyone to access.
This change would be better for universities if it meant they paid less in subscription fees. It would also be better for research consumers everywhere, including students, scholars, policymakers, journalists and taxpaying citizens. The research would then be accessible to those, such as students at small colleges or scholars in developing nations, whose libraries could not afford the high subscription fees.
Scholarly peer review will always be necessary to identify the most important and high-quality research. But given that most of this peer review is already done without compensation, it is not tethered to the existing system of journals. A better system for disseminating scientific knowledge in the modern age would not include paywalls and subscription fees. Instead, we should aspire to a truly open science, one that is both more efficient and higher quality than the current system.
Don Moore is the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.
A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that Elsevier has a profit margin of roughly $12 million. In fact, Elsevier has a profit margin of 37 percent, and received $12 million from the University of California alone in 2018.