Let’s be honest: Academia hates poor people. The status quo needs to change. Quickly.
Despite compiling a Literature Library of over 5,000 items we here at MARE have no institutional access to pay-walled journals or database. No access to Elsevier’s journals, nor Thomson Reuters’, nor Springer’s. None.
In fact, we tried to buy access to Marine Pollution Bulletin once. We were quoted USD $10,000 for just myself and John Davis to have access to the journal for one year. Yes, you read that correctly: $10k for 1 year for 2 people. That’s $5,000/person/year. Needless to say, we didn’t purchase a subscription. (Did I mention MARE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit? We are. That didn’t matter for the subscription costs).
Unlike those of you at universities, when I try to read anything beyond an abstract, I’m greeted with a per-article download fee. These usually range between $20 and $50 per article. Typically, each Literature Update I write contains about 40 pay-walled journal articles. Assuming each of those costs on average $35, it would cost me $1,400 to purchase all the articles I’m telling you all about each week. That’s over $70,000 a year!
So the question is: should I allocate over $70k for journal articles, or use that money to pay for actual conservation work (staff, operations, etc.)?
Better yet: why should I have to ask this question!? Should anyone have to choose between scientific research and staff? No. They shouldn’t. When people donate to a nonprofit like MARE, they expect the money to go to conservation. Not to download PDFs that may (or may not) help influence decision-making.
Assuming you have intuitional access to pay-walled journal articles and databases, your university is paying for it, which means you are helping to pay for that. With each grant you get at a university, a portion of that overhead funds those subscriptions. Wouldn’t you rather keep that money for actual conservation work? I know I would!
Follow the money
Where does the money spent on pay-walled journals go? Let’s look at Elsevier for this example. They publish all the ScienceDirect journals like Ocean & Coastal Management, Marine Policy, etc. It’s already common knowledge that as a peer-reviewer, you don’t get paid. So the money isn’t going to pay academics. The people writing the article have to pay to get it published, so the money is going away from the people doing the writing. The money goes to profit.
In 2015 alone, Elsevier brought in £2.070 billion in revenue. Let that sink in for a bit. Even with the British Pound doing as poorly as it is now, that’s still USD $2.7 billion! And with Elsevier’s profit margin of 37% for 2015, that’s a billion dollars in profit. 1 billion US dollars in profit. Let me say that one more time: a billion dollars going to Elsevier’s pockets instead of conservation. What is going on here!?
To put the icing on the cake, in July of this year, Thomson Reuters sold their “Intellectual Property & Science business to private equity funds affiliated with Onex Corporation (“Onex”) and Baring Private Equity Asia (“Baring Asia”) for $3.55 billion in cash.”. That sale includes Web of Science, a very popular academic database. Wouldn't it be nice if a university or a foundation were providing these services, so they could at least give that money back to conservation?
I could go on and on and on complaining about how funding that ought to be going to conservation is going to big international corporations. But that won’t change anything. Yes, I wish everyone was as angry as I was about the state of academic publishing. But they’re not. You’re not. Until universities and think-tanks refuse to pay for academic journal subscriptions, the problem will go on and on indefinitely.
Beams of light
Thankfully, though, there are some beams of light in this dark scenario. Some universities are mandating all author’s copies go in institutional repositories with no embargo periods. Some professors are making promises to only publish Open Access. The key thing to remember here is that you, the academic writer, have all the power in this scenario. Elsevier can’t make a billion dollars in profit if people aren’t paying to publish with them! The big journals need your content. They need your free peer-review. They have no business model without your slave labor. Stop feeding the monster. Don’t be a slave to the pay-walled journals.
Let’s say all of this talk about money going to big corporations instead of conservation isn’t resonating with you. Fair enough. Because the vast majority of the world isn’t paying to download journal articles, conservation research isn’t getting used where it’s needed most. One study found primary scientific literature informed only about 14% of information cited in MPA management plans, with inaccessibility of that research as the primary cause. Ironically, that same study would cost me $35.95 plus tax to download. Touché!
There’s plenty of other anecdotal information out there on the inaccessibility issue. Obviously, ‘inaccessible’ can mean many different things: is it cost prohibitive? Not in the reader’s native language? Bound up in a book on the other side of the planet? Lots of things make academic research inaccessible to managers. But let’s not make the cost one of them anymore.
Editor's note: This blog post is the first in a series on "making your marine science matter" — a recent talk MARE gave at the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4). Future blogs will focus on knowing and writing for your intended audience, the key elements of a useful paper for conservation management practices, making effective and compelling visualizations, and plenty more! You may read the other blogs in this series by following the links below.