Monday, 14 July 2014

Milking the cash cow – how publishing houses suck academics dry

Rosabelle Boswell, The Guardian

In the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, where I live, I usually dodge cows on the way to work. Cows are also in the suburbs, grazing on street corners, meandering across soccer fields.

Last week I met a retiree who said she had moved to a job in the university administration because her "udders had dried up". Puzzled by this statement but not taken aback by the cow metaphor, I asked what she meant and she said, "As an academic, I felt like I was strapped to a milking machine and [gesturing with her hands] that I was being sucked dry. I didn't want that anymore, so I joined management." Amused by this, another academic piped up, "Now that you're retired, one could say that you've been put out to pasture!"

South Africa is an emerging economy, even so, the government invested 22.2bn rand (£1.23bn) – 0.76% of the GDP – in research and development (R&D) in 2011-12. The percentage to be spent on R&D will increase to 1.5% of the GDP in 2019. This means that more research funding will be released for use in higher education and for the production of research papers, patents and books.

Currently, South African academics do not produce the volume of research papers that their counterparts in the global north do but this situation will change, as the investment in research and development increases.

Today, South Africa has 25 public universities. There are historically "white" and "black" universities as well as merged universities, which combine universities and vocational entities.

During apartheid "black" universities received less funding than "white" universities, however all South African universities derive an income from government subsidies. These are generated via articles published in (mostly) European and North American journals, which are indexed on internationally rated publications' lists. Panels of experts in the government assess the articles submitted for accreditation.

In this system, articles attract one point (a subsidy of about 170,000 rand). Book chapters attract a third of this subsidy amount, while opinions, blogs, book reviews, forum articles do not generate any income. At some universities, part of the subsidy can be claimed by the academic, while at other universities the entire amount goes into the university coffer.

The university "manages" this research income by offering some funding to the academic to attend an annual national and/or international conference. Some funding is also offered for national research. However, the amount paid to each academic is usually the same, regardless of writing output. A poor and rapidly declining exchange rate also means that South African academics pay more for visas, conference registration fees, accommodation and travel.

Once published, many academics will also pay to gain access to their own publication. The publishing houses pay nothing at all. I was once asked to fork out $35 US for my own research article. The editor said that I was being offered a special and limited discount as the author. I did not bother to reply. Why should an author pay to get a copy of her own work?

For the same reason some colleagues avoid all journals that request page fees. Worse, some South African universities pay thrice for the privilege of publication – once for the cost of research, a second time for the page fees and a third time for institutional access to the journal.

Presently, many South African students struggle to pay their university fees. Government's national student funding scheme (NSFAS) contributed 8.5bn rand to students in 2013. Even so, many drop-out because they cannot sustain themselves on the student grant. Income generated by publications could support more students. South Africa deserves more for its investment in research and in publishing houses.

As an anthropologist, my time is spent on fieldwork, teaching and postgraduate supervision. The work requires difficult research and high level thinking. Recently, in the Academic Freedom Committee, my colleagues and I produced a document on academic values in which we discuss the necessity for humility, honesty, service and dedication in scholarship.

Many South African universities honour such values. Therefore, it may be time for them to pursue an international agreement that secures the publications' income of universities and academics. If they don't, publishing houses will continue to tell us stories about printing, distribution, marketing and administration costs or to put it more academically, they will continue to justify not remunerating universities and ultimately academics.

If nothing is done, promising scholars may not enter academia and brilliant ones may leave. The grass will have to be greener on the other side.