Opinion: Academic Publishing Is Broken

Michael P. Taylor | The Scientist | March 19, 2012

Academic publishers are currently up in arms about the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA)—a bill that has the perfectly reasonable goal of making publicly funded research available to the public that funded it. Tom Allen, president of the American Association of Publishers, described it rather hysterically as “intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation.” Why are he and his colleagues so desperate to retain the current business model?

By any objective standard, academic publishing is a very strange business indeed. It became established at a time when all publishing was on paper, when duplication and delivery were demanding problems, and when publishers provided an important service to researchers. Now, as the Internet is dramatically changing other forms of publishing, academic journals seem stuck in the 1980s, with results both comical and disastrous.

Let's take a look at the flow of money in the production of research. The government takes tax revenue from citizens and uses it to fund university research groups and libraries. Researchers obtain government grants and use the money to conduct experiments. They write up the results in manuscripts that are destined to become published papers. Manuscripts are submitted to journals, where they are handled by other researchers acting as unpaid volunteer editors. They co-ordinate the process of peer-review, which is done by yet other researchers, also unpaid. All these roles—author, editor, reviewer—are considered normal responsibilities of researchers, funded by grants...