Just who are the “Lairds of Learning”?

George Monbiot has just published an article on the very high subscription rates charged by certain publishers of ‘high impact’ scientific journals (see “The Lairds of Learning” on George Monbiot’s own website or the Guardian here). He does not hesitate to brand commercial publishers of academic journals as “the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world” and suggests that “the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities”. That might be the case if they really were running a monopoly or cartel, but are they?
Professor David Colquhoun drops in to comment on Monbiot’s article at the Guardian, saying:

“I see no reason to have academic journals at all … We can publish our own papers on the web, and open the comments. It would cost next to nothing.”

So where’s the monopoly? All scientists and other academics have to do is put their papers on the web.
George Monbiot says he wants governments to “work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating … a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets”, but why? Colquhoun’s suggestion could be up and running by tea time. No need for government meddling! It is already completely within the power of the great majority of academics from now on to make the results of their research freely and widely available by self-publishing on the web. So why don’t more of them do it?
Monbiot has an answer:

“The reason is that the big publishers have rounded up the journals with the highest academic impact factors, in which publication is essential for researchers trying to secure grants and advance their careers.”

Is that it? The making of “coherent democratic decisions”, the “tax on education”, “a stifling of the public mind” and the apparent contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that George Monbiot points to are all trumped by academics’ need to secure grants and advance their careers?
The peachy business that the commercial publishers of academic journals enjoy wasn’t really engineered by them. They are just taking advantage of a situation that academics find themselves in: the need to publish in ‘high impact’ journals.
On the face of it, it seems ridiculous that the value of someone’s research should be based on which journals they publish in. Essentially, going by journal ‘impact factors’ is just a way of judging the papers without having to actually read them. It’s like judging a man by the clubs he’s joined rather than by getting to know the man himself. Nevertheless (we are told), this is the basis on which academic careers are built today
So how did this situation arise? Is it what academic researchers chose for themselves? If not, how is it that they, of all people, have not managed to convince their paymasters (that is, ultimately, you and me) that there is a coherent alternative way of explaining why the public money that supports academic research should indeed be spent that way, rather than on better public healthcare, better schools or better social services?
George Monbiot wants to go after the publishing houses, but in the light of David Colquhoun’s observations, they’re an irrelevance. The real issue here, I would suggest, is the inability or unwillingness of academic researchers to set criteria for evaluating their own research that don’t just sound like self interest and that they actually want to live by themselves. Any number of claims that academic research is culturally enriching, or improves education or reduces suffering or makes for better public policy decision making may be true, but the choices of publication route still actually made by many researchers suggest that their university careers are more important to them than any of those things. Could it be that the publishing houses profits are just one consequence of publicly-funded science being largely carried out by people who don’t themselves believe the claims made for its value as a public good?

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