Scientific Education


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2015-09-21 post date.

Are publishers really 'hoodwinking' academics?

Last week’s Academics Anonymous revealed that researchers are being pushed to publish books that few people ever read, but nonetheless bring big profits for publishers, who sell them to libraries all over the world. One editor explained that the company would expect to sell at least 300 copies of each book, priced at about £80 each – totalling £24,000.
The article sparked a huge online debate, so we tracked down a publisher and a library expert to get the inside story on the issue.

An anonymous publisher says:
The article claims that academic publishers “hoodwink” authors, but there was surely nothing dishonest in the behaviour of the editor, who was open about anticipated sales figures and his targets.
The anonymous academic implies that the fact the editor was working towards a target somehow made his commissioning efforts unseemly, but it is not clear why this should be so. Commissioning targets are important in ensuring the commercial viability of a press: without books, it ceases to trade.

The author of the article probably has his or her own targets of one kind or another, together with various other professional duties. I am sure that he or she does not feel that this makes his or her work dishonest, so why should it render the commissioning of books underhand?
If it is because they are commercially driven, then a similar charge could be levelled at a good deal of academic research, much of which has its origins in bids for funding. I am not suggesting that the financial imperatives that often surround academic research affect its integrity; I am making the point that the involvement of money does not instantly render a process in some way dishonest.
The basis of the anonymous academic’s assertion that publishers trick authors comes from incorrect assumptions about the market for academic books and an ignorance of economic realities. Since scholarly books rarely appeal to readers outside of academia, there are very few that publish books for academics and the general, educated reader. Therefore, anyone who aspires to a large royalty, a high print run and a low retail price on their book should write either a popular history (or similarly accessible) volume or a textbook.

Those who wish to publish specialist research should be aware that a press that is able to do so is likely to be operating within considerable restraints, particularly with regard to pricing. In suggesting that publishers deliberately price their books at a level that most buyers cannot afford, the author chooses to ignore the blunt reality that the market for specialist academic books is very small and that publishers have to apply these prices in order to remain in business.
The assumption is that the publisher could charge substantially less and more people would buy the book. However, reducing the price of an academic book does not increase the market for it. Interest in scholarly work is limited, even among academics, and additional sales to individuals rarely make up for the revenue lost by publishing at a lower price. This is why academic publishers publish for libraries: so that good scholarly work can at least be read by those who are interested in it.

Susan Reilly, executive director of the Association of European Research Libraries, says:

If the motivations for these publications are so cynical, why are libraries willing to pay for them? It could be that a library has a mandate to have the most comprehensive collection in the country or world on a particular subject. It could be that the institution has an affiliation with the author. If a book ends up on a course reading list, the library will purchase multiple copies because some students will not be able to afford these expensive academic publications.
The problem, then, is not the library’s approach to collections but the idea of incentives for researchers and the scholarly communications system itself. The target of 300 sales per publication is tiny in a global library context. What is illuminating is that these publications, with their limited readership, can still have such a huge economic impact on the scholarly communications system. Even if the number of sales is reduced, it’s likely that these publishers would just up their price per unit.

So what can libraries do to change this situation? An open access monograph can cost as little as £3,000 to publish. Not only does open access publishing reduce the economic strain on the system, it also increases readership and makes it easier to reuse content as part of curricula (meaning no more expensive textbooks for students).
Libraries have been advocating for open access for years and have even started to become incubators for institutional open access presses. Pushing the cost of monograph publication to the researcher is not always a viable solution as many research funders have excluded monographs from their open access mandates. With an institutional open access model, the cost of publication is covered by the institution rather than the researcher. 

The finger of blame is often pointed at libraries. People ask why they don’t stop paying for this stuff, cancel their subscriptions and invest in pure open access. The answer is that as long as researchers choose to publish in expensive outlets, libraries will do their best to ensure access to this content in the best, most equitable and least expensive manner.
Libraries cannot change the fact that emerging researchers feel that publishing a book will enhance their careers and are willing to take any route to be published. This is up to the leaders of the research community and the disciplines concerned. Libraries can only offer more attractive solutions and work with researchers to develop more meaningful routes to achieving success.