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I understand that academics are not paid a single dime on their publications. In my field (computer science), IEEE, ACM, Springer, Elsevier are some known journals/publications and none of them pay authors any royalties but they charge the readers a substantial amount of money per paper.

I'm a new PhD student so please bear with me if there is something obvious that I am missing here. I was told by my advisor that to graduate I need to publish in IEEE or ACM. He did not suggest, and I do not know of any reputed journal in my field, that either pays royalties to authors or allows free access to readers. I am forced to publish my papers at IEEE or ACM if I want to graduate and find a job afterwards.

My questions:

  • Why are PhD students, professors, and others who publish their life's works in professional research publications not paid royalties on their hard work poured into these papers?

  • If academics choose not to make money (e.g. they are not greedy and want to promote free education for all) shouldn't these publications not charge readers an absurd $30 for 6-7 page paper? Shouldn't the publications charge a nominal fee that covers paying their employees and distributions cost, but nothing more. Right now, it's a trillion dollar profit industry. Why are the publications pocketing all of the profits on research done by scientists? And why is the research community OK with this?

  • If this really is an issue (Aaron Swartz -- famous hacktivist -- fought against this injustice), what can be done against this issue by the research community and academics? For example, if researchers at top institutions (in my field) such as MIT, Berkeley etc. boycotted publications that do not pay researchers AND charge the readers (thus pocketing all profits), can this issue be rectified? Can PhD students and professors start submitting to other journals that either pay royalties or be free to readers?

Please help a new PhD student from an underdeveloped country understand this issue. In my country, a lot of the people never go to universities or colleges (thus have no discounted university access to these papers) but are very bright and could use them.

UPDATE:

Although, I think I was clear in the original text above, from one answer here it seems I am coming off as "naive" asking journals to make papers free access AND pay royalties -- a clearly unsustainable business model. No. I am asking for either this OR that. Either pay fair royalties to authors OR make their papers free access (maybe charge readers a nominal fee to cover publishing and distribution costs). I just do not understand why it is justified for publishers to pocket billions of dollars of profit.

UPDATE 2:

Since I said in my original post above that I am a PhD student and there might be a connection I am missing due to my inexperience, I am now adding other sources (e.g. posts by senior professors) that are relevant to this discussion:

  • Some of my students asked me yesterday who profits from the egregious pricing structure of academic journals. The only answer I could give them was: publishers like Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, et al.

    As noted by The Economist, Elsevier made $1.1 billion in profit in 2010 for a profit margin of 36%; Taylor & Francis’s profit margin was 25%. In 2011, Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 contributions to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, of which 12 went to NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who sponsored something called the Research Works Act (RWA), a bill that would it illegal for the government to make taxpayer-funded research openly accessible to the public.

    http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2013/01/16/the-state-of-academic-publishing-rip-aaron-swartz/

  • Brian Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Open Science, says, “Academic publishing is the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.” Nosek finds this whole system is designed to maximize the amount of profit. “I, as the researcher, produce the scholarship and I want it to have the biggest impact possible and so what I care about is the prestige of the journal and how many people read it. Once it is finally accepted, since it is so hard to get acceptances, I am so delighted that I will sign anything — send me a form and I will sign it. I have no idea I have signed over my copyright or what implications that has — nor do I care, because it has no impact on me. The reward is the publication.”

    https://medium.com/@jasonschmitt/can-t-disrupt-this-elsevier-and-the-25-2-billion-dollar-a-year-academic-publishing-business-aa3b9618d40a

UPDATE 3:

I would like to once again stress that I realize that publishers need to cover costs and even make a bit of profit. I am not against that. I understand that businesses exist to make profit. But if certain publishing houses are making excess profit of billions while paying nothing back to the authors, how is that fair? There is no problem with the journal covering their costs. My question is: are they just covering their costs or are they making a substantial/hefty profit which is leading to an elite few at the top (maybe shareholders of publishing house) getting very rich? It seems they are making billions of dollars in profit -- after covering all distribution, publication and other costs.

Please note that I am merely looking to understand the issue better and have no preconceived notions such as "publishers are evil".

closed as unclear what you're asking by Dirk, Brian Borchers, StrongBad May 2 '18 at 16:06

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I voted to close as "unclear what you are asking". The title asks why academics do get get paid royalties on their papers, the body asks other questions like "shouldn't publishers not charge that much?" Or "what can be done?". This post seems to look for discussion, and not for answers. – Dirk May 2 '18 at 4:58
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    Just because questions are related they don't have to be asked in the same question. I have a simple (personal) answer to the question in the title but no simple answers to the other questions. The fact that you can't entangle the questions indicates that the whole issue is too complex for a simple stackexchange thread. – Dirk May 2 '18 at 6:52
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    What I am also wondering is why the institutions that pay researchers allow them to do free work for publishers by peer-reviewing articles. – Herman Toothrot May 2 '18 at 9:21
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    Related to the issue: thecostofknowledge.com – Ari Brodsky May 2 '18 at 10:10
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/52007/… – Nemo May 2 '18 at 13:40

15 Answers 15

65

The short answer is: we let publishers profit off of our work because many of us are egocentrics seeking prestige. At least it was the major reason at the creation of the modern academic publishing system. The rest of us can do little to change this, since our careers depend on it.

However, I think this could change soon since more and more academics are realising the same thing as you realised soon in your career: we do not need greedy publishers to do science and this wheel must be broken. Read about the German and French cases against Elsevier/Springer Nature [1, 2, 3, 4].

Before the existence of modern scientific journals, academics used to publish via universities' local presses. At some point, someone had a great idea: invite academics to publish in a journal where only the best would be allowed to publish and then sell it to universities. Academics accepted that because they wanted the prestige of their work being part of the hall of the best publications. Universities accepted to pay because they wanted access to high quality publications. For a more comprehensive history of academic publishing, please read 5, 6 and 7.

The system must change. Today, publishers have little monopolies over scientific knowledge. If you want a specific article you only have one seller that could sell it - that is not fair. Countries are paying a high cost to fund research and then pay again for the product of their own funding. This is just madness.

The problem of changing this goes around the metric used today to evaluate academics. If you are a researcher you need to submit to the system, publish in high impact factor journals and feed this ugly industry - otherwise you can not step up in your career. Governments are trying to change things demanding academics to submit the final version of papers into local repositories and asking to prioritise publishing in open access journals when possible.

  • 1
    @learnerX discussions around this issue have been raised in last years, as you can see in the links I posted in my answer. I think something will change soon. There are arguments in favor of creating scientific journals administrated by the European Union or by national science foundations. This would allow to restaure some balance for academic publishing. – The Doctor May 1 '18 at 23:14
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    +1 for how relevant this is to our times. I am slightly surprised that nobody has brought up sci-hub yet. A lot of businesses are grossly unfair, academic publishing today may be one of them. – user153812 May 2 '18 at 4:14
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    Some of us are (slowly) trying to change things, but it's not easy. For instance, I am boycotting Elsevier by not publishing or reviewing for them, but some of the higher ranked journals in my area belong to them. And journal ranking (there is an official list in Finland) is used as a metric by the government to assign funds to departments. To my dismay, I recently found out that even at equal impact factor Elsevier journals are disproportionately better ranked on this list. I'm sure this is no coincidence. – Miguel May 2 '18 at 5:55
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    @Miguel Was there an information request to find out how the list was compiled? I know it was hard, but that worked in Finland in the past. – Nemo May 2 '18 at 12:46
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    many of us are egocentrics seeking prestige. Maybe. But more importantly, our career and thus our ability to make a living from research depends on our work being published in reputed journals. It's not about thousands of greedy egocentrics, it's about the incentives and restrictions imposed by the institutional structure of academic publishing. Don't hate the player, hate the game. – henning May 2 '18 at 16:23
13

The reason why someone can't just make an open free journal which competes away the for profit closed journals is there is a complicated "ratings" system. Journals are rated by how many top authors publish in the journals and how many citations articles in the journal receive. Of course the reverse is also true, an academic will be judged as a top author by what journal they publish in. Since this is a very strong positive feedback loop, it is difficult for any of the free and open journals to become popular. In addition, universities pay for access to these journals. Generally, students and faculty of most universities get access to most of the top journals so most readers of academic articles aren't paying $30/paper, they're paying nothing. It would be difficult for a university to decide to stop paying for these subscriptions because academics want to focus on their field not focus on starting a complete shift of how publishing is done. If the university stopped subscribing to journals then all their good professors would go to universities which still provide journal access.

Basically to get rid of the system, you need a critical mass of professors/researchers to abandon the top journals all at once in favor of some other open and free journal. It doesn't work if only a few people want to abandon the system, they basically won't be able to abandon it unless everyone does it at once.

7

This is just how this business works. Publishers started doing important things scientists could not do pre-Internet: Organizing peer review, typesetting, making figures, printing, distribution, marketing, archiving.

Now there is no real reason to keep doing it the old way except "that is how it has always been". Anyone can self publish and get peer-reviewed from a self-organized light-weight process.

I have never followed the "chase the highest-ranking journal" game - the journal that fits the scope of the paper best, and provides good Open Access options, usually wins. (Elsevier journals need not apply). The journal and author ranking metrics like Impact Factor are seriously flawed and bordering to pointless. Yet "it is a well-known metric, so we'll use it rather than nothing" still influence even junior authors who then end up propagating the old, pointless practices.

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    I would very much like to do follow your approach but sadly if don't "chase the highest-ranking journal", I won't even graduate, much less find a job afterwards. My advisor only considers publication in certain top journals worthy of a PhD. This system is so deeply rooted in the minds of academia that I do not see how it can be broken other than everyone abandon it at the same time as someone else over here said. – learnerX May 2 '18 at 9:14
7

I'm a master student and I worked part-time at my local French university library, so I know a bit about this problem without being an expert either.

Universities libraries really have no love left for Springer and Elsevier. When you are at a University, you can read the paper in the database your university bought the access to. This access cost is really high, to the point where my university decided to stop buying access to Springer a few years ago. There is also a negotiation crisis at the moment between the CNRS (the highest French research institution) and Springer. Every high ranked librarian I've spoken to hates these platforms (they call them 'parasites editors') and have wild dreams about leaving the "double pay" system.

Meanwhile, in my CS field, you have more and more open access solutions :

  • HAL is a French platform. Depending on your state funding, you research may have to be published there, whether or not it was published by a private editor. So you could find some Springer & Elsevier publications there (max delay : 6 months after publication). I do not know if the same system exists in other countries.

  • Open access conferences. Many of them are really prestigious in my field (CVPR for example). Whether or not you want to publish "ethically", you have a lot of famous conferences to choose from.

Times are changing !

6

Perhaps this question will soon be closed as a duplicate ... But if not, here are my comments.

If you want to get lots of money, do not choose "academic" as a career.

Publishing your research is valuable to you if it helps you get into a better school, get a better job, get a promotion, get a raise. For that reason, academics are happy to get their work published; they may even be happy to pay a fee to have it done!

You, as an academic, can try to choose only journals where you do not have to pay, and where readers do not have to pay. This is easier now than in the past, but still not very easy in many fields. If your research is supported by a research grant, you may be able to get the grant to pay for publication and free access.

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    I think I made it clear that even if academics are not into it for the money, I still do not understand why it is OK for publications to profit off of someone's work. Why not give the papers to readers for free or nominal cost? About being a duplicate question: I cannot find another question on here that directly asks this question. – learnerX May 1 '18 at 21:53
  • @learnerX - there are many questions (see 'Related' on the sidebar) that touch on these points. Many papers are available for 'free', for some definition of free. But, you should perhaps ask, what would a completely free (as in no-cost) publishing model look like (much less one that returns money to a paper author)? If it looks like the current internet, that is not a good answer for academia... – Jon Custer May 1 '18 at 23:11
6

Technically, most authors cannot ask royalties on the sales because they gave up all their rights on their own work: publishers often force authors to give away their copyright with a copyright transfer agreement. (Is it even legal? Maybe not.)

The legal defense is to at least use a SPARC author addendum or other, or better publish in open access (preferably with the pre-print in CC-BY) so that your work cannot be taken away.

The practical defense is to only publish with journals which respect the authors' rights. Aside from fully open access journals (which can work in various ways), some toll-access and hybrid publishers are better than others, but not much.

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    SPARC is useful information! – henning May 2 '18 at 16:44
  • Is the SPARC addendum still in use? I hadn't heard about it since a few years ago before your post. Moreover, it seems to me that many journals shifted to the "click on this checkbox" format for obtaining consent, and it's difficult to add an addendum to that. (Or maybe yes --- if I change HTML page source using Firefox developer tools before accepting. Hmm, I wonder what's the legal status of that...) – Federico Poloni May 2 '18 at 17:58
  • @FedericoPoloni I don't have statistics about the usage of the specific addendum, but I know from some authors directly that they achieved changes in the text of contracts proposed to them. – Nemo May 2 '18 at 18:06
5

It's not clear that journals paying royalties would have any great benefit. The cost of those royalties would come directly from the journals' customers, who are almost exclusively universities. Royalties for academics would essentially be a pay rise. It would be much more efficient to just give us a pay rise than to implement it by our employers sending money to journals, who would then employ armies of administrators whose only job would be to send that money back where it came from, using up some of it in the process.

4

It's all about brand reputation. People will pay more to watch a movie by a well known director, or to watch a football team with well known star players, or to download software from a company whose name they recognise, or to read an article in a "reputable" publication. The leading publishers like Elsevier and Wiley have built a brand reputation that you don't have if you publish on your personal web site. That reputation gives you career brownie points when you publish in those journals, and the publishers capitalise on that. Of course, they have to work to make sure their reputation is not compromised: but the way the academic system works, that is achieved largely by engaging unpaid reviewers.

Like any system where you pay a premium for using a recognised brand, you can regard it as a racket. Why should Avis be able to charge more than Joe Bloggs car rental, for exactly the same product? In the end, because people like you and me are prepared to pay more (a lot more) to go with someone we trust.

What's different about academic publishing is that the service they provide is primarily to authors rather than readers. As you have yourself indicated, academic authors strive to write and publish papers whether or not anyone is interested in reading them. Sometimes this leads to authors even paying to get their work published. Almost no academic work has such a strong demand from readers that you can negotiate royalties with a publisher. If the process was driven by demand from readers rather than authors, the model would be very different (and far fewer papers would be published).

  • The publishers don't provide any service to the authors. The editorial board of the journal does. – Nemo May 2 '18 at 12:41
  • @Nemo Huh? The publishers provide all the administrative services, printing of paper copies, web servers to host electronic copies, ... Without a publisher, there would literally be no journal. Sure, it doesn't have to be Springer or Elsevier but somebody has to do it and that person or group is "the publisher". – David Richerby May 3 '18 at 17:45
  • Plus, as soon as money is involved, there's a raft of work in managing subscriptions, invoices, etc, etc. In fact, I've seen the internals of some publisher's online platforms, and managing users and subscriptions is half the complexity. – Michael Kay May 4 '18 at 8:27
2

Part of the problem is that most institutions doing the research are funded completely or mostly by the government, hence your tax dollars. How would people of Virginia for example, feel if the research they funded was treated in a secretive manner and the person doing the research got rich. Of course there are many top schools which are private and they publish quite a bit too -- if they were only institutions to get royalty fees, it would create a two-tier system of research which would not be good for the user community.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE! I've edited your answer a bit for clarity -- feel free to correct my edits if necessary. I would also point out that the people of Virginia apparently have no problem with journals charging $30+ to read work that was publicly funded, and that quite a bit of government-funded research is classified or otherwise unpublished. – cag51 May 2 '18 at 2:04
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When you consider how much tenured professors are paid, that you often cannot get tenured unless you have a substantial publication record, and that promotion and salary raises are often tied to publication, you will realize academics are very well paid for the work they publish: they are just not paid by the journal publishers.

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    This is patently false in most of the world. It may apply to professors in rich institutions in rich countries, but not elsewhere. You can look at the table in this Wikipedia article (from 2014) and tell me if academics are "very well paid", if you take into account that professors are hired after roughly a decade of studying and several years of professional experience, with heavy competition at every stage. Someone working outside academia with similar qualifications, experience, and responsibility will earn a ton more. – user9646 May 2 '18 at 7:35
  • @user9646 Let me gently push back on this. I do not know what is the NL equivalent but the Canadian province of Ontario has a disclosure law so the names and salaries of public employees earning above $100k (in Canadian currency) are published every year: see ontario.ca/page/… You can filter the search to universities and the list of loooong. There is no reason to suggest these are uncompetitive with or wildly more than the rest of Canada or North America. – ZeroTheHero Mar 8 at 4:46
0

Not a true answer, but perhaps interesting.

In Germany you can get money from online and offline publications. Even though not directly by the publisher.

There is the VG Wort (link (sorry German only)) which is an organization that distributes royalties among authors. The original idea behind it was to provide compensation for authors that do not receive royalties when copies are made. In Germany there are (small) fees on the sales of printers, scanners, photocopiers, etc.., which is then distributed by the VG Wort among the registered authors using some complex process. Even though not well known in the scientific field, you can register there with scientific articles. However I do not know what the exact prerequisites are, i.e. whether the publisher must be a German one or not. In any case English language publications are ok, though. One can also register there for instance with the PhD thesis (when published as a book with an ISBN number). Royalties will be a few 100 EUR. Not much, and not money that the publisher payed (!), but at least something.

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    You seem to have missed that the publishers mentioned in the question usually require total copyright transfer. – Nemo May 2 '18 at 12:40
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    @Nemo: I have not missed it. First, there is no such thing as "copyright transfer" in Germany. VG Wort pays money to the authors and authorship is non-transferrable in Germany. The authors grant the publishers a right-to-use (which would be equivalent to the copyright transfer) and to my knowledge this is not prohibiting that one can receive money from the VG Wort. Then the VG Wort would not make sense at all, because almost all authors have some kind of publisher. – Andreas H. May 2 '18 at 14:17
  • I have the impression that the downvoters have not really understood the answer. But perhaps I am wrong. A reason would be nice, though – Andreas H. May 2 '18 at 14:19
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    Or alternatively, can you mention at least one example of a researcher using this system and receiving some money for a paper's sales? – Nemo May 2 '18 at 14:52
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    @Nemo I did. But the money doesn't come from publishers, it's paid to VG Wort by providers of copying machines, libraries, etc., and VG Wort relais the money to the authors. – henning May 2 '18 at 16:52
0

According to you, how should the journal cover its costs?

The journal has to have a few qualified scientists on staff to select papers, propose corrections, etc. Further, it has to run servers, administer the webpage, referee disputes, etc. All of this is not free.

  • If it makes the journal articles free to access, where will the money come from?
  • If they keep the fees but share the profit with the author, they will make less money. Do you want them to raise the fees still further?

The journal prices do seem steep ($30+ per article for non-members), but recall that the prospective audience is small. Further, most journals do allow cross-publishing on the arXiv (for free), and/or on a university-owned webpage; it's still usually possible for researchers to make their work available outside the paywall if they care enough to do so.

I think part of what you're really asking is what do the academics get out of publishing an influential paper? Answer: career options -- they'll be more likely to get tenure, salary increases, or visiting professorships; grant applications will be more likely to be funded; they may get offers from high-paying research shops like Google; they'll be invited to speak at prestigious conferences, etc. Most of this does not directly translate into personal profit, but it's still a sufficient motivator for most academics. (Conversely, failing to publish impactful papers can lead to the opposite of these things, which can make life difficult even for the tenured).

Edit: OP has changed his mind on which question he is asking several times since the one I answered. I completely agree that journals should not be making huge profits. The question I answered was about either (a) making articles free to read, or (b) paying a royalty to authors -- I do not think either of these are sustainable - coercing publishers to make costs more reasonable is more fruitful, in my view.

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    There is no problem with the journal covering their costs. My question is: are they just covering their costs or are they making a substantial/hefty profit which is leading to an elite few at the top (maybe shareholders of publishing house) getting very rich? It seems they are making billions of dollars in profit -- after covering all distribution, publication and other costs. – learnerX May 2 '18 at 2:31
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    And I agree with you there. My point is that it is unjust to profit heavily off of scientists. If profits can be kept in a reasonable range and hence fee-per-paper can be reduced, it would be a just system and I am happy. – learnerX May 2 '18 at 2:43
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    Elsevier makes about 5000$ per published article. Costs are of the order of 500$ per article. The difference is not all profit: some of it goes to paying executives, lobbyists, salespersons, etc, and to building a dominant position across the whole research infrastructure by buying promising platforms. – Sylvain Ribault May 2 '18 at 8:05
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    "The journal has to have a few qualified scientists on staff to select papers, propose corrections, etc. " - Reviewers are normally employed by universities or industries and not paid anything by the journal. I would hope the editor is - but the editor often has a professorship at a university as well. While one would hope that the better journals do indeed employ some academic staff, there is no clear evidence on the outside that they do. From outside it looks like they take a paper, hand it to reviewers, receive the results (responses/corrections) then re-typeset the document and publish it. – DetlevCM May 2 '18 at 10:38
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    @cag51 at least in my field, Elsevier journals charge me for publishing, charge you for reading, and get editing services for free! This is not something you can justify and is why so many of us are looking towards the Open Access journals which may still charge me for publishing but at least let you read it for free! – terdon May 2 '18 at 11:32
-1

when I was still in academics, working on my PhD, I asked exactly the same questions. Why are the universities all to happy for their staff to publish papers in journals and in turn the universities have to pay exorbitant fees to gain access to the published papers? Sure, there is prestige, some measure that puts them on a ranking system, and possibly some government grants that are based on publications. However, where it really gets bizarre is the PhD thesis. By definition, this is supposed to be an original piece of work. To ensure that work is original, one would expect that all theses are therefore published far and wide, for everyone to read and dispute. However, this is where universities become quite conflicted. They are very touchy about their ownership and copyright - after the academics already published most of this work in journals and signed away copyright to said journals. Many universities have therefore gone and published the theses in their online libraries, as opposed to the traditional approach of locking them away in their physical libraries. However, do not dare try and create a central, online repository, where as many theses as possible can be stock-piled, ranked, categorised and possibly research between academic institutions better organised and coordinated. This immediately threatens the university's role and its ability to maintain control. Once again, amusing to watch this desperate hold onto knowledge, which was already mostly handed over to commercial institutions.

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    Actually, there are several open repositories for theses. DART, the European e-theses portal, alone aggregates "766,105 open access research theses from 613 Universities in 28 European countries" as of now: dart-europe.eu/basic-search.php – Nemo May 2 '18 at 12:48
  • "Ranked"?! How the hell are you going to rank PhD theses? The fundamental flaw with your idea is not the centralization (as @Nemo mentions it already exists...), it's the pretension to "rank" theses. – user9646 May 2 '18 at 13:26
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    I'm not sure how the central or decentralized storing of PhD theses relates to the question why journals don't pay royalties. – henning May 2 '18 at 16:14
  • 1) Cool, I have been out of the game for quite a while and did not know about DART. Will have a look. 2) I did not mean to rank PhD theses, but rather the scientific output of universities - those lists that certain organisations put out, rating the universities. 3) Well, I guess I was just trying to look at the academic system in general - what happens to research output. How universities are happy for academics to publish their work and relinquish their copyrights, whereas universities typically own the copyright of the theses? Not sure if this is the same at all universities though. – Stefan May 3 '18 at 13:46
-1

First of all I am not defending the existing model, just another perspective:

EDIT: Handing over the authoring rights is a kind of ensurance for the journal. Fact is that it's also a hurdle to make it more difficult to republish the same paper, which in fact any intellectual owner could do, by rewriting the paper from scratch, with the same findings, but using other words. But then again: For an academic is it about just writing papers or getting your articles in renoumed journals? If it's the latter just compare yourself to poor musicians aproaching a big music label wich promises them fame, lots of tours and worldwide distribution channels.

EDIT2: Coverage and exposure are non-monetary compensations for handing over author's rights and partial distribution rights.

EDIT3: please take into account too, that academc knowledge pretty often is not absolute, but has a half-life. The nowledge of today, in some nearer future may be outdated (an example I love is psychotherapy and electroshocks, music compression algorithms or media (remember DAT or Mini-Discs?))

  • First of all probably we would have to define which royalities we're talking about. There are author's rights, distribution rights and copyrights. And some universites hande it different. In my case for example, when finishing my thesis, I had to give partial distrbution rights to my university, and kept all the authoring rights. Not all universites handle it the same way.

    • Author's rights: Tipically they do and will always belong to you, but when you publish something (in a journal, university press or as a book) you agree to the reproduction by definition.
    • Distribution Rights: You offer a partial distribution right to the journal in the moment you offer your paper for publication. (one time-distribution). That is actually the same distribution right your university gets of any paper and work you produce as long as you're studying or working there. I think for that very reason academic work is normally royality free.
    • Copyrights: The rights to copy a distributed work itself, this is tipically owned by the journal in this case, and refers exlicitely of making a scan or a photocopy of the journal.
    • The Knowledge itself in the paper is not bound to any juridical law as far as I know (except the authorial rights), and that's the whole point of academic publishing: Share your knowledge, so that anybody can take up the idea, and construct on it. They will have to credit your work in the moment they use it as base for their work in the credits (that's why the academic world is so keen on mutual credits and footnotes). And by continuing your research you probably find tomorrow more important findings which are not covered in any agreement.
    • So please correct me but I do not see any logical royalities. The academic knowledge itself should be free, otherwise if you want to make earnings out of your knowledge, and find a company that is ready to pay for that, patent what you have found out, your algorithm, etc. and DO NOT PUBLISH IT. But as it is a thesis, etc. you have to publish it. Damn, that's a academic dilema ;-)
  • As mentioned: Academic work, as far as I know, is free from royality payments, in the sense that most universites follow the model that: Knowledge is free. If you found something very interesting and something which can be turn into market value, most likely your university will pay you and patent that technology, but as long as you've just produced common knowledge with your thesis, nowbody will like to pay for knowledge. IMAGINE: If every paper ever produced in a university would be intellectual property and just showed with money, we would propapbly still be in the industrial age... Specially in the Information Technology sector advances have been strong because of public papers, public and shared knowledge. Don't forget univiersities are there to produce public knowledge. You're in the wrong business if you want to make money. Public/academic research is only about fame, not money, private research is about money.

  • Off course you can publish your papers wherever you want, but if you go to a certain journal, you have to play by their rules. and if that rule is no royalities, so it is. It is like going to a job interview and asking more money and more holidays than they offer you initially, it will be hard to get the job.

  • why it is OK for publications to profit off of someone's work? Because you as an academic are doing the same: profitting from their work as a journal (editors, it's fame, it's outreach, etc.). It is actually known as a win-win deal: You get exposure with your paper, exposure bound to all the customers this journal already has, for free, but in most cases you renounce your royalities. Off course it seems unfair if they make tons of money with all the publications, but normally, as an author, you are free to see if you can monetarize your paper without any journal. Good luck!

  • The journals rose in times where there was no internet, no publications databases, no central repositories. Just some journals who had pretty much work in maintaing a certain cientific standard and additionally, or built on top of that, a stable and broad base of subscribers, ready to pay for it. The business model these days worked, because having a scientific journal was lots of work. Nowadays with the internet it's a little bit different, but not so much: When in earlier days there was too few public information available (hard to get to it) nowadays journals are a mass filter: they offer you a selection, so in any way, the old or the new one, journals are important filters, containing exclusive knowledge.

That being said, if you reduce everything to the money, you're in the wrong business. Academic life is about knowledge and partially fame, not money, that is a well known fact. If you want money go to private research, but then you're probably bound to research what your employer wants, and not by your academic thrive.

If you think what you found out in your PhD or thesis can be monetarized, you're free to patent it, but otherwise, please follow the way hundreds and thousands of academics have gone before, and share your knowledge with the world.

Closing I have found this interesting article which could shed a little bit of additional light. As I see there it depends nowadays on the journal and the contained areas, but as you can also see, it is more about the rights itself and the distribution and concentration of knowledge, than the money. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_policies_of_academic_publishers

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    It is not clear that you realize that articles are intellectual property, subject to copyright, and that most scientists have to sign over their rights to the publishers. This is why papers are "free from royalties", because the publisher keeps all the money! We are quite far from the utopia where "knowledge is free" that you are describing. In fact, the sentence that starts with "IMAGINE" is an accurate description of reality. The ideas are free, the articles are not, and this is the whole problem. – user9646 May 2 '18 at 14:40
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    Please read again, I am talking about intellectual property in the very first section. But you probably do not understand the difference between authorial rights, distribution rights, and the knowledge itself contained in the article. The knowledge in an article (published by whoever, the university or a journal or on your website) is always free. If you read a journal at the university, and learn something new, you do not have to pay for it; neither do you have to pay for that knowledge if it inspires you for a idea you then bring to market. That's the whole point of academic research. – Canelo Digital May 2 '18 at 14:49
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    Don't say intellectual property. Your terminology is a bit confused, so it's hard to get what you're saying. For instance, where you say "authoring rights" maybe you mean moral rights or authors' rights which are a bit different from copyright. – Nemo May 2 '18 at 14:55
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    PD: I see people giving negative reputations for answers they don't like... please give neg rep. for those who do not answer the original question but not when you don't ideologically like the answer, that is unfair in this case. Most answers given are not wrong, but just do not say what you like, that's different. – Canelo Digital May 2 '18 at 15:22
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    Please don't mix rights with royalities (payments). An author of the paper originally has all the rights in it's origin, but: author' rights are normally given away in one form or another to the journal, the same as the distribution rights (they usually belong partially to the university and or the journal), the copyright itself belongs to the journal. So no royalities. As the opposite of an author of a academic or non academic book: In that case you normally don't give away all the rights, just the distributional rights (partial or fully). – Canelo Digital May 2 '18 at 16:43
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My question is: are they just covering their costs or are they making a substantial/hefty profit which is leading to an elite few at the top (maybe shareholders of publishing house) getting very rich?

You can check out the typical profits the publisher makes by looking at their annual reports (three of the four biggest commercial publishers in the world are publicly held - Taylor and Francis [aka. Informa], Elsevier and Wiley). Their ticker symbols are, respectively, INF, REL, and JWA.

You should see that the operating profit margin of their academic publishing divisions are about 30%-40%. Operating profit margin is usually defined as the total profit after subtracting manufacturing costs and operating expenses but not taxes. Is this high? You'll have to decide for yourself. For perspective, you can use a screener such as Finviz to check the operating margins of all the publicly-listed companies on the New York Stock Exchange. There are several hundred companies with operating margins above 40%, such as:

You may recognize some of these brands.

A few more things to note:

  1. Capitalism won the cold war, and capitalism is based on private companies maximizing their profit.
  2. A firm is usually better off charging what the consumer is willing to pay.
  3. You don't have to be part of an elite few to buy shares in Informa, Elsevier, or Wiley.
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    I wasn't aware "elite few" has a negative connotation (non-native English speaker). But still, this whole "write papers, go through the arduous process of publishing them, and then buy shares if you want any proceeds from sales" is beyond nonsensical to me. Besides this post is not motivated by money, but by what is fair. My original question, as it still stands, was to other academics here: in such a case, why don't we publish in other open access journals and boycott the ones that refuse to share profit? – learnerX May 2 '18 at 4:45
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    The line about capitalism is beyond ridiculous. Next you're going to tell us that OP's question is an attack on the American Way of Life™ and that OP is a dirty communist traitor? – user9646 May 2 '18 at 7:41
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    Publishers make huge profits by exploiting the perverse structure of the academic publishing market, and the lack of direct competition with one another. (You cannot replace a Nature article with a Science article.) Generalities about capitalism are not helpful for understanding this. – Sylvain Ribault May 2 '18 at 8:00
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    @Allure I agree with Sylvain. Publishers own little monopolies. You can't obtain the same article from different sources. This is one of the models discussed recently to turn academic publishing more fair, more than one seller for the same article. Moreover, publishers usually 'force' universities to buy bundles with several uninteresting journals raising up the price of individual journals. – The Doctor May 2 '18 at 8:42
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    A burger is mostly interchangeable with any other burger, a smartphone is mostly interchangeable with any other smartphone. Journal articles are not. I am surprised that this needs explaining. If I can't get a big mac because McDonald's will only sell it as part of a "bouquet" that is 90% manure and wooden chips, then I will buy food elsewhere. If I can't get access to a specific article, then this makes a hole on my knowledge that I cannot always easily fix. – user9646 May 2 '18 at 12:20

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