We all know about higher education being squeezed financially. Government support is falling and tuition is going up. We see academic jobs getting scarcer, and more temporary. The pressure for research to focus on the short term is going up. Some of these changes may be fair, since society always has to balance its immediate priorities against its long-term progress. At other times, like when comparing the NSF’s $7.6 billion FY2014 budget request to the ongoing travesty that is military procurement, it does feel as though we are eating our seed corn for not very wise reasons.
Against this backdrop, the travesty that is scientific publishing may feel like small potatoes. But now we are starting to find out just how many potatoes. Tim Gowers has been doing an impressive job of digging up exactly how much various British universities pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. Here is his current list. Just to pick one random example, the University of Bristol (my former employer), currently pays Elsevier a little over 800,000 pounds (currently $1.35M) for a year’s access to their journals. Presumably almost all research universities pay comparable amounts.
To put this number in perspective, let’s compare it not to the F-35, but to something that delivers similar value: arxiv.org. Its total budget for 2014 is about 750,000 US dollars (depending on how you count overhead), and of course this includes access for the entire world, not only the University of Bristol. To be fair, ScienceDirect has about 12 times as many articles and the median quality is probably higher. But overall it is clearly vastly more expensive for society to have its researchers communicate in this way.
Another way to view the £800,000 price tag is in terms of the salaries of about 40 lecturers ( assistant professors), or some equivalent mix of administrators, lecturers and full professors. The problem is that these are not substitutes. If Bristol hired 40 lecturers, they would not each spend one month per year building nearly-free open-access platforms and convincing the world to use them; they would go about getting grants, recruiting grad students and publishing in the usual venues. There are problems of collective action, of the path dependence that comes with a reputation economy and of the diffuse costs and concentrated benefits of the current system.
I wish I could end with some more positive things to say. I think at least for now it is worth getting across the idea that there is a crisis, and that we should all do what we can to help with it, especially when we can do so without personal cost. In this way, we can hopefully create new social norms. For example, it is happily unconventional now to not post work on arxiv.org, and I hope that it comes to be seen also as unethical. In the past, it was common to debate whether QIP should have published proceedings. Now major CS conferences are cutting themselves loose from parasitic professional societies (see in particular the 3% vote in favor of the status quo) and QIP has begun debating whether to require all submissions be accompanied by arxiv posts (although this is of course not at all clear-cut). If we cannot have a revolution, hopefully we can at least figure out an evolutionary change towards a better scientific publishing system. And then we can try to improve military procurement.