We are not Stephen King

“But don’t you make money off your publications?”

Academics — university professors like me — get the question all the time. Those outside the ivory tower assume that when we publish a paper, we get royalties.

They couldn’t be more wrong. The money goes the other way. We pay the publisher to print our work.

Here’s the normal scenario, at least in science and medicine.

Step One. A team of researchers gets an idea to investigate an issue. It could be the effect of salmon farming on sea lice infestations or the magnetic field of the sun or whether smoking prevents Parkinson’s disease. They work out a research plan. During this process they teach courses, advise graduate students, referee other researchers papers, serve on university and community committees, and continue their ongoing research. The university — usually funded by taxpayers like you — pays their salaries.

Step Two. The team translates the research plan into an application for funding from a granting agency. This onerous task takes weeks or months of writing and form-filling. During this process they teach courses … well I’ve explained this.

Step Three. If the application  is successful (and a majority of applications fail), they use the  money — usually less than they asked for — to conduct the research. Their salaries are still paid by the university (that is, by you, the taxpayer), but the grant pays for the supplies and equipment. Since most granting agencies are publicly-funded, this money comes from you, the taxpayer.

Step Four. The team  writes reports on the results of the research. This typically happens years after the original idea. Each paper is submitted to a journal where an editor (another taxpayer-funded academic) sends it out to two or three referees, who are experts in the field at other universities. The referees either reject or accept (usually with modification) the paper for publication.

To this  point, all this valuable work has been paid for by the public — you.

Step Five. The publisher steps in. The publisher is a large corporation that produces a score or more of journals that are distributed to university libraries and professors who are willing to pay for them. Subscriptions to such journals cost thousands of dollars a year. Twenty thousand dollars is not uncommon. On top of that our research team has to reach into its grant money to pay the publisher a fee for publishing the results of its publicly-funded research.

Step Six. The benefit to the researcher involved in this drama is that he or she gets to add the paper to the list of publications on his or her curriculum vitae. This may lead to promotion or tenure. Promotion brings a higher salary. Often deserved, but, as always, paid for by you.

So you would think that you, as a taxpayer, could take a look at the results of the research you helped fund.

No. You have to go to the university library (which will charge you if you are not a student of staff member) to get the journal. Try accessing a paper on line, and the publisher will ding you a fee.

You have paid for something you cannot get.

And the publisher is rolling in money.  Check out Mike Taylor’s column in The Guardian for the political and financial details.

Some independents have formed on-line publishing outfits that provide free public access to scientific research. They make their expenses by charging the researcher modest publication fees. But there are no subscription charges. Check out the Public Library of Science.

All this is entwined with three bills before the US congress. These bills (RWA, SOPA and PIPA) are aimed ostensibly at curbing copyright infringement and online piracy. Laudable enough. But each would strengthen the power of publishers and limit the freedom of the internet. And their influence would spread beyond the borders of the United States.

The link in the previous paragraph will take you to Wikipedia’s informative discussion of this legislation.

And WordPress blogger Alternative Hypothesis has some enlightening words to say about this issue.

About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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