Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Crisis of Scientific Journals

Some people think I'm crazy or overly demanding for desiring and expecting scientific research to be free and openly available for all to read and discuss, but this mathematician John Baez of MIT doesn't. He describes the high (and rising) price of academic journals as a crisis and calls for a boycott of the especially ravenous public company and media conglomerate Reed Elsevier (who's databases, as I commented earlier on, pretty much suck). He notes that Reed Elsevier's operating margin was 22%. It was a good year for the stock, rising 30% over the past year according to Google Finance. I first encountered Reed Elsevier when researching the publisher of New Scientist, a magazine which I thoroughly enjoy.

The good news is that in time Elsevier's hegemonic control over scientific publishing will eventually fall, as people such as Baez are outright boycotting the ridiculous restricted-access journals and the publishing companies which collect from them. The bad news is that it is taking longer than I would like, and there is still no good open-access source for economic and social science articles. For other disciplines the resources are much greater - see BiomedCentral, PLoS, Mathworld, and arXiv. The economists (along with all the other social scientists), those paradoxical profit-seeking academics and government workers, are behind the curve, but I doubt it's because they actually profit from journal revenues. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists some Social Sciences, but they are mainly either foreign or unprestigious.

Here the creator Mathworld recounts the story of how he published a book with CRC Press based on a website of his (the early Mathworld) only to be sued later when he didn't remove much of the content from open accessibility. He didn't win the suit - actually, he surrendered early and gave up all the money he'd made from the book.

Economists (and many others e.g. Cato) like to glorify corporations, and certainly they provide valuable services and offer some external benefits to society. Conservatives claim that corporations are unjustly criticized, with a few bad apples and incidents overshadowing the good. While I consider that view to be naive, it could be true. I am well aware that a corporation is in theory only as evil as its members. Yet in practice it is so easy for corporations to slip into an "evil" mindset, beset as they are by the everpresent shadow of the profit motive, share price, and bureaucratic management. In many ways they epitomize the banality of evil.

Eric, the Mathworld creator, says this:
I have had to conclude, to my sorrow, that CRC--perhaps like many other publishers in our era of wild corporate acquisitions and conglomerations--is no longer managed by people who understand and love books, authors, and readers.

The parent company of CRC, Information Holdings Inc., appears unashamed to treat information as a commodity to be exploited for short-term, bottom-line cash with no concern for long-term, strategic planning. The goal of the CRC representatives seemed to be monomaniacal: to squeeze from Wolfram Research and from me as much instant and short-term cash as possible, using the lawsuit as a lever.

How self-defeating in an era of rapid technological change! Apparently uninterested in looking forward and building good future business strategies, here are publishers focusing instead on how to squeeze greater quantities of immediate cash from old "properties."

I have come to realize how unusual it is to be working for a company that is run by people who still enjoy the core activities for which the company was founded. Very early in the lawsuit, a Wolfram Research response to the lawsuit mentioned that Wolfram Research has chosen to remain privately held in order to be free from the obligation to outside stockholders, who appear so often to focus corporations inordinately on short-term financial results. Wolfram Research's principals believe that they can take the long and broad view of the corporation's mission, as they could not if they had to satisfy stock analysts and uninvolved stockholders.

Information Holdings was, of course, publically listed on the NYSE - and no, they didn't go out of business (what large companies do these days?). They merged with The Thomson Corporation in 2003, a company which is now planning to buy Reuters. The Thomson family, which is Canadian, owns 70% of the company and also owns 40% of CTVglobemedia.

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