Remedying the corporate parasitism plaguing the world of academic journals
A noxious corporate parasitism is creeping over the emerging world of academic journals. While allowing for the broader distribution of an academic scholar’s writings, the emergence of digital magazines have also led to the noxious practice of charging ‘rents’ in their elaboration. Failing to contribute royalties to the authors who actually generated the work in demand, a whole series of distributor chain suppliers charge fees for their access and acquisition. This practice is noxious on two main levels: they take only partial advantage of the benefits conferred by the digital medium, but they they also fail to provide any financial remuneration to the authors who created the articles in the first place. These parasitic corporate practices have to be reformed.
I am always shocked, though not surprised, at how corporations try to have it both ways in the new digital era. While they try to take advantage of the inherently larger markets that are implied by the world wide web, they also try to couch their products within the existing framework of the physical realities of the prior technology, in this case books and journals. I recently became aware of a distributor that charges a fee for a user to ‘rent’ a digital book; the greater number of books downloaded by the students at a university setting, the vastly larger amounts of fees the distributor will receive—without paying a single cent in royalties to the book’s very authors.
It is pretty clear in the aforementioned scenario that the distributor is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they drastically expand their potential demand via its relationship to academic institutions internet access. On the other hand, they limit the availability of the object at hand as if it were a physical book. As well all know nowadays, a thousand page PDF documents can be easily downloaded with the click of an icon, enabling the reader to access the document at any time and place they so wish to do so, including decades after the original download was realised. If you have ever enjoyed the pleasure of rereading an old book as a more mature intellectual, you will know what I am talking about.
I am not stating that publishers and distributors do not have a right to generate some type of income from the services they produce. All of us who have had the privilege of having served as a digital distributor are very well aware of how meagre the funds are that are thereby generated; cents on the dollar. (It is for this reason that one of the first warnings I was given when entering academia is that it would be unlikely to make much money from the sale of books.) The inherent difficulty of many topics lead to greatly reduced demand, and typically only specialists in those respective fields will be the ones obtaining a copy of the work at hand. Publishers are well within their rights to charge an honest price for the services they provide.
There problem herein lies with the manner in which these fees are generated. Typically large agglomerators take a huge piece of the pie, leaving those lower down the chain receiving only left-over breadcrumbs. This is no different from the phenomena being seen with Amazon and other large distributors in what I refer to as the ‘Home Depot” effect. It is much more efficient for a consumer to go to the largest store possible, which will have the largest number of products to suite one’s need, than the smaller local warehouse who may or may not have the tool one requires. Savings are also introduced in the larger agglomeration when various products are needed, in that they save the consumer time and money that would have otherwise been spent going to other stores in search of said items.
There are many other problems with the existing system, and they are so numerous that we will refrain from going into these in any more detail—preferring to focus on their solutions. It is important, however, to note that at heart: distributors are too cheaply obtaining goods which can be all too easily distributed digitally, and whose only justification are the series of laws and institutional practices which contextualize such exchanges.
The solution to achieve fair remunerations in the domain of digital journals and publishing, however, was solved more than a decade ago by Steve Jobs in the creation of iTunes. If you are going to charge money for access to digital content, you have an obligation to pay to the very authors that originally created this content in the first place.
It is somewhat shocking that the academic world has yet to incorporate this simple and obvious statement into its practices. While some might mischaracterise it by stating that it is simply the ‘creep of corporate culture into academia’, in fact it is just the opposite. There can be no doubt that corporate creep set in academia many years ago via its existing distribution practices. While academic institutions (i.e. universities) receive state funding for their services, they do not freely provide knowledge to the communities they serve-a critical point in Aaron Schwartz’s opposition to the manner in which digital journals were distributed. Academic institutions are currently run as corporations, failing to see their moral obligations within the democratic systems in which they operate.
What is shocking is that the new digital era allow for very easily distributing these responsibilities and benefits along the supply chain. This is one of the core reasons for the rapid adoption of ’the digital’: the ease within which information can be stored and transmitted. There are many ways in which these principles could be imbued into the very heart of the system, one of these being bitcoin. Only one copy of an article is ever created, which is then widely distributed throughout the world, the book itself maintaining a register of all transactions and hands through which it has passed.
It’s time for a substantial reform to the world of academic journals.