What have the Publishers ever done for us? And do we need them?

Tim Gowers has used Spike Milligan as an inspiration for challenging Elsevier: http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/ . British satire is one of the things that keeps us going. I’ll use the equally irreverent Pythons in “Life of Brian” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python%27s_Life_of_Brian ). From WP

There is also a famous scene in which Reg gives a revolutionary speech asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” at which point the listeners outline all forms of positive aspects of the Roman occupation such as sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public health and peace, followed by “what have the Romans ever done for us except sanitation, medicine, education…”.

Many industries have generated criticism in the wider community, ranging from anger to outright hate and revolution. Microsoft was (justifiably in my opinion) a major robber baron of the late 20th C . It was brought to heel by public/governmental anger and regulation and also by forces of innovation. Microsoft was effectively a monopoly but could not continue as such. Yet if you ask

“What has Microsoft ever done for us?”

even the most anti-M people would admit that they have brought new products and culture to the marketplace, and that huge numbers of people use these. If Microsoft products were suddenly taken off the market businesses would fold and kids would be crying. That’s true of most robber barons – steel, railways, cotton, etc. They brought new products and opportunities (albeit at great social and moral cost to many). Word is used by hundreds of millions (?billions) as is ExCEL.

I reiterate – I am not condoning Microsoft’s history – quite the reverse. I am simply saying they innovated. And some of that innovation is valued by many people.

The same can be said of most other entrepreneurs in ICT – Google, Facebook, etc. Whatever their sins they have innovated.

But when it comes to scholarly publishers it’s a different story. [I have acknowledged a few publishers such as IUCr, and some Open Access publishers – BMC, PLoS, EGU – who you should mentally exclude. But for the rest – including many society publishers – they have to stand up and be counted.]

Mike Taylor is a dinosaur expert who has got so angry with the publishing industry that he not only blogs about it but wrote an article in the Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jan/16/academic-publishers-enemies-science where he asserted that “Academic publishers have become the enemies of science“. I agree with this phrase. I have blogged for some years about the restriction, the intransigence, the arrogance of the scholarly publishing industry and I shall continue to do so. (I should be writing semantic code, but I am so upset that I have to write this blogpost first). Read his post, I won’t quote from it.

There has been a reply from Graham Taylor – director of academic, educational and professional publishing at the UK Publishers Association
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jan/27/academic-publishers-enemies-science-wrong . It makes the case for why the publishing industry creates value. Some of it is reaction to MikeT’s article, but in a few places it attempts to show why the publishing industry is essential and justifies the 10 billion USD it takes in every year. I have extracted the paragraphs that bear on this:


  1. when the reality is that their investments have made more research available to more readers at a lower unit cost than ever before. [and] Worldwide, around 3m research papers are submitted every year to scholarly journals – rising by around 3% per year in line with research budgets – of which around 1.5m are eventually published, including over 120,000 from UK researchers. Such journals are on the whole by their very nature tailored and adapted to the needs and interests of specific research communities. This is a complex and nuanced system that needs time to adapt to new methodologies.


  1. The scholarly world is not yet fully open access, nor even approaching it, but that is not the fault of the publishers. [and] Publishers are certainly not opposed to open access. [and] Publishers pursue the goal of universal access through whatever means are practically available.

This is all I can find on the value that publishers contribute. My analysis.

“publishers are trying as hard as possible to create Open Access”. This is simply false. Remember PRISM? A publisher consortium that paid 500,000 USD to create the phrase “Open Access means junk science”. “Open Access is ethically flawed” [RSC. Yes, they then got rid of the person who said it. If you look at the RSC licence for “Open Science” which is NOT BOAI compliant it is not the sign of a publisher trying as hard as possible to create OA.] And that’s typical of the industry.

“we’re publishing more each year so we’re putting our charges up”. This argument may work in some industries where there is an innate limitation on the supply of goods. But in digital industries we see costs plummeting every year. We expect disks, bandwidth, cpu, to get massively cheaper each year. And the software that creates digital objects improves. So any INNOVATIVE industry would be reducing its costs.

So back to my question: “What have the publishers ever done for us?” Here’s my list – and they are all negative.

  • Double-column PDF. About the most senseless way of providing information in the current age. [Oh, they’ll tell us that they are creating stuff for new formats. But it “takes time”].
  • Restrictive and impenetrable licences. The industry has been excellent at this. It’s almost impossible to find out what you are forbidden to do – the easy answer is “everything except read the PDF”.
  • Branding. Readers do not want a different interface for each journal. It’s usually impossible to find the current issue – hidden among the glossy Flash adverts for how wonderful the publisher is
  • The rent-for-one-day-for-40-dollar article.
  • DRM

I can’t think of any positive innovation in the industry. I mean innovation. Any 10 billion industry will slowly track what everyone else did years ago. Wow! We have hyperlinks!!!! Crossref? DOI? These weren’t developed by the industry. There is NO industry research and innovation. [I’ll note the efforts of Nature to develop new ideas – Connotea, etc. – but these were often shortlived because they were experiments, not commitments]. And what have they stubbornly missed and even fought against?

  • Taking authors seriously. The industry sees authors as cattle. The interfaces used for submitting papers are AWFUL.
  • Taking readers seriously. Readers don’t exist. The industry’s end-users are purchasing officers
  • Semantics.
  • Interactive publication.
  • The social revolution

So the industry can be seen to be stagnant, self-serving, introverted, arrogant and either relying on its lawyers or branding.

And that’s a VERY dangerous place to be. “Be afraid, be very afraid”.

Because the publishing industry relies on a dam built on sand. Reed Elsevier used to be active in the arms trade: http://www.idiolect.org.uk/elsevier/

Reed Elsevier have been forced to drop their links with the arms trade – and the reasons are clear: individual and collective action by members of the academic and medical community, combined with disquiet from the public, investors and employees of Reed Elsevier. Thanks to everyone who signed the petition and who lent support in every way.

Yes, petitions. Petitions can grow very quickly in the Internet age. And that’s what Tim Gowers and Tyler Neylon have started http://thecostofknowledge.com/. “If you would like to declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate, then you can do so by filling in your details in the box below.”

I’ve signed it, and I’m proud to have done so. So have Mike Taylor, Mike Nielsen. Perhaps no surprises there.


We all have blogs and they reach different communities.

And those communities will reach others. Out beyond the rotten walls of academia. To the scholarly poor, whose tax dollars go to prop up the industry. An industry dedicated in practice to denying them the results of research.

Yes. Because any innovative industry would have picked up the discontent beyond academia and thought:

Wake up – we’re in the 21st C – the cost of distribution is zero. Academia is 0.1% of the world’s population [a guess, but it’s less than 1%]. We have a potential market 100 times bigger than our current market. WOW! People like Tim O’Reilly (one of the most innovative publishers) think this way. He’s dismissed the puny protestations of the industry on SOPA and PIPA “In short, SOPA and PIPA not only harm the internet, they support existing content companies in their attempt to hold back innovative business models that will actually grow the market and deliver new value to consumers.” https://plus.google.com/107033731246200681024/posts/LZs8TekXK2T

So we need a revitalised scholarly publishing industry.

But it will not come from the current one. They have shown themselves incapable of change, and arrogant towards their feeders – the academics. We have it in our power – to kill any or all of them and start again. It is a question of getting our act together.

Because almost all monopolist empires have the seeds of their destruction.






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10 Responses to What have the Publishers ever done for us? And do we need them?

  1. anonymous says:

    Oh please,
    name the products, MS invented.
    The original OS was bought from someone else.
    Windows NT is a copy of VMS by DEC.
    MS Word is a copy of WordPerfect.
    MS Excel is a copy of Lotus 1-2-3
    MS observes the market and copies or buys,
    whatever is successful.
    That’s all there is to MS.
    It is the world’s most successful parasite.

    • pm286 says:

      I did NOT say I approved of MS. I said they brought these products to market. The publishers have brought nothing to market.

    • Nick Barnes says:

      So every video game ever made is a copy of Pong?
      I’m no Microsoft fan – I’ve spent more than 20 years avoiding their products whenever possible – and it’s certainly true that they don’t create many new markets, and that many features of many of their products are derivative of previous work – but to say they never innovate is just ridiculous. You might not like their innovations – I greatly dislike almost all of them – but you shouldn’t deny them.
      For instance, that vile talking paperclip thing was innovative. Maybe a better example is Kinect.

  2. jonalv says:

    I do hope that your list of negative things is in no particle order. I have a hard time understanding your great protesting against the two columns format. I mean, for reading text on for example an A4, two column is the only acceptable way. The other alternative would be enormous white columns and that means a huge waste of trees. The reason being that about 66 character per line is optimum and anything larger than 85 is purely painful if you ask me.
    And, the first thing you mention is “Double-column PDF” which I don’t even think is a bad thing but rather the only reasonable way of doing it when printing on an A4 paper (probably on a letter sized on too but I wouldn’t know very much about that…)

    • I am holding my breath and calming down before I write a long reply to the question “what have publishers done for us? And do we need them”. That will come separately. But for now, Peter is on the editorial board of http://www.jcheminf.com/, as am I. If Peter has an issue with two column PDFs take it to the publisher of J Chem Inf and ask them to change it. What’s next to argue about…what font publishers use? American English or British English?

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Presuming to speak for Peter …
        I think he misjudged his audience in expressing his formatting grievance as “two-column PDF”. The issue is of course not the number of columns or the selected font, but the whole notion that the format of publication is one chosen by the publisher to be a good choice for some specific set of humans to read. The audience for science is much greater than humans with good eyesight: publication in formats optimised for semantics rather than aesthetics will have two important benefits. First, it will allow individual human readers to optimise the aesthetics that suit them, such as using larger fonts for partially sighted people. (Ironically, eBooks are much better at this than scientific publications.) Second, of course, it will allow machine reading, which opens up possibilities for synthesis and analysis that we can hardly begin to dream of at this stage.
        I think most journals do an excellent job of formatting their output for humans to read. But in the 21st century that is only doing half the job.

    • billswift says:

      Read enough two-column PDFs on screen and boiling the publishers in oil begins to look good.

  3. Virscidiman says:

    It would be worth checking out the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here is a bbc news article from today that is of relevance. http://t.co/r85s834Z

  4. Richard Kidd says:

    Those damn publishers.
    Oh hang on – just from my own point of view – apart from promoting semantics and open standards into the publication process (not saying we’re there yet), OSCAR use and promotion, ChemSpider, ChemSpider SyntheticPages, Open PHACTS, and supporting (i.e funding) continued InChI developments (with other InChI Trust members, associates and supporters), linking to Utopia, building RDF to help OreChem? And supporting whatever JISC projects of Peter’s we’ve been asked to, summer student funding, supplying a whole bunch of data for use in TREC CHEM text mining, participation in the Pistoia SESL project, being permissive regarding CrystalEye?
    Dragging a quote from 2006 is not representative of our current view of open access publishing – ALL our authors are offered the Open Science option on acceptance. While Peter argues strongly for a libre licence, we have no feedback that the current gratis license is a barrier to authors who wish their work to appear in RSC journals and be read by Peter’s scholarly poor.
    Authors have a choice. Authors chose to publish 20,000 articles with us last year, and chose not to place it not with other commercial or not for profit publishers – we’re very grateful to them for putting their trust in us, but we put in a huge amount of work to get the best scientific work from the best scientists, and offer the right service to them and our readers. We’re building publishing services to reflect our community as it is now, and to look to the future of scientific communications through innovation.
    Publishers – as you indicate – aren’t all the same. But you mis-categorise RSC.

  5. billswift says:

    Read enough two-column PDFs on screen and breaking the publishers on the wheel begins to look good.

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