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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Academic Journal Extortion

This story is interesting. The University of California is in a dispute with one of the leading scientific publishers, over rising journal prices. They are demanding lower fees, or that UC professors should stop publishing articles in their journals.

Academic publishing is *NOT* a free market. Most research grant money comes from the State. State tuition subsidies are an indirect subsidy of Universities.

Academic publishing is really messed up. The professors write the articles for free. They peer review and edit the articles for free. As part of this process, copyright is assigned to the scientific publisher. The publisher then charges the university an *OUTRAGEOUS* fee for subscribing to the journal.

In effect, professors are paying to read the stuff they collectively wrote for free! Technically, the money comes out of university budgets and not the professor's personal salary.

In a non-free market, there's little incentive towards efficiency and innovation. Now, with the Internet, there's a huge opportunity for innovation. A professor could self-publish articles on his website. However, the professor would be concerned that self-publishing would lead to less status and promotions, via the corrupt "peer review" system. It wouldn't be hard to write a Reddit-like engine for reviewing academic papers. There's no incentive for professors to start using it.

I saw this problem first-hand when I was in graduate school working towards a Math PhD. The academic journals also had space restrictions. This led to Math papers saying "It is obvious that A implies B.", when it took me a week to figure it out. On an Internet-based system, I could make a comment showing my work so nobody else would be forced to duplicate it. Math papers especially would benefit from hypertext, as you could link to show the details of any calculation.

Academic journals are an example of State waste and inefficiency. The US academic market is not a true free market. State research grants make most professors State employees/parasites. "Peer review" actively discourages innovation, because an important original idea will be a minority when first discovered. An important original idea will be offensive to established interests in the field.


Scott said...

I agree completely with everything you said here. The situation is absurd, a rip off, and we haven't even gotten to the point where we consider the fact that the research, paid for with public monies, is walled off from the public from access since no one is going to pay $20 for a 24 hour "pass" to read an article one time when they don't even know if it will be of use to them.

A reddit engine would be great, but I bet academics are terrified of the prospect that people with math and logic skills would have access to the claims they make in their papers.

Also, the whole scientific fraud system works by keeping it closed. Any paper will refer to 20-100 other papers (let's say average 30), all of which are impossible to find, or cost $20 each to read for one day as well. Each of those have 20-100 papers they rely on for their claims. And so on, going back 4-20 levels (average 10 levels), requiring fees of up to $20 * 30^10 = $6,000,000,000,000 in order to trace all the claims made in any one article.

And if you don't trace those claims, then when you criticize the claims in the article the rebuttal is "that was all proven in the citations I referred to".

FSK said...

It actually isn't as bad as Scott suggests. You can buy a non-student pass at the local university library for a couple hundred dollars a semester. When I was in grad school, I concluded that buying a library card was cheaper than being a grad student.

All the really good stuff is available for free on the Internet now.

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