COLIN STEELE. Who Owns Australian Research?

Feb 21, 2018

Who owns the results of Australian research? Certainly, not Australian researchers, as they, and their institutions, continue to give away publicly funded research to multinational publishers. As a result, Australian research is largely locked up behind expensive multinational publishing firewalls, constituting a form of information feudalism.

Why hasn’t the Internet disrupted the economics of scholarly publishing, as it has bookshops, telecommunications, dating services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, and a great many other commercial operations. When Tim Berners-Lee pioneered the web, he hoped it would facilitate scientific communication and the dissemination of research.

Universities and Research Councils increasingly over the last four decades have played into the hands of multi-national publishers by locking research evaluation into historical print paradigms and metrics. The academic journal is, after all, a seventeenth-century invention and its print/digital format is well past its use by date.

Publishing metrics used in university league tables, feedback into issues, such as overseas student recruitment by universities, and further distort rational discussion on the costs and structures of scholarly publishing.

Five multinational companies, Elsevier (part of the RLEX group with over 30,000 employees), Taylor & Francis (part of the Informa group), Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage now control over 50% of academic journal publishing. In 1973, these publishers only controlled 20% of the journals and 30% in 1996. In psychology alone, these five players now control 71% of published papers.

Elsevier, with now over 2500 journals, Springer Nature and Wiley- Blackwell now represent about half the US$10 billion GDP scientific publishing industry. Elsevier, the journal and research information division of RELX, has reported 2017 revenues of £2.47bn (A$4.37bn), up 7 per cent on 2016. Adjusted operating profit was also up 7 per cent to £.913bn ($A1.616bn). Underlying growth was 3 per cent.

It has been compared to an oil company that is given oil for free, in this case, Elsevier’s publisher oil is academic articles. An academic as an author, usually funded by both an institution and the taxpayer, gives away his or her research because of publish or perish and research evaluation pressures, in the process, usually renouncing their copyright. Subsequent article peer review evaluation is also undertaken for free by academics due to misplaced academic collegiality.

The publishers then sell research, back to the universities who produced them, to be read behind firewalls, restricting wider public access in the process. It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff, or as one commentator has put it, a form of Stockholm syndrome, where academics, research councils and universities are locked in an unequal relationship with publishers.

British university libraries pay around £200 million per annum to buy back their research in scholarly journals, Australian university libraries pay around AU$260 million, Canadian University libraries a similar amount in Canadian dollars and the 125 research libraries in North America spend more than $US2 billion dollars.

The multinational publishers have also been commercially adept, supporting national research evaluation infrastructures and buying up competitors and services like Google and Facebook. Costing transparency of the so-called publisher “Big Deals”, bundles of unrelated journals sold in often million-dollar plus packages, is negated by universities accepting individual confidentiality contract clauses. Several countries, including New Zealand, have seen successful FOI costing requests, but not in Australia.

And do we actually need all those articles and who reads them? A December 2017 Nature article reported that the Web of Science database records 39 million research papers published from 1900 -2015, with a staggering 21% not being cited at all. Another 2017 report claimed that up to 50% of the 8000 articles published daily are only read by their authors, peer reviewers and journal editors.

Article annual global growth rate is growing at 3-4%. Publications and associated metrics have become the symbolic currency of scholarly value. Who benefits from this global publishing deluge, other than multinational commercial publishers?

No one is disputing that scholarly publishing has real costs. The crucial issue is what constitutes reasonable publisher profit levels and, importantly, who owns the research produced by universities and research organisations.

One wonders, given that Australian governments constantly emphasise the need for financial efficiencies in higher education, whether the huge amounts of funding, both direct and indirect, involved in the creation, publication and distribution of Australian research might be a higher priority for relevant government and university bodies.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated at a Melbourne Institute Forum in November 2015, “Everyone I talk to thinks that the problem is that academics have got – their incentives are very much associated with publish or perish”.

A significant problem is that universities in Australia compete against each other and don’t cooperate on scholarly communication issues, like the German Rectors’ Conference, who are currently engaged in a long struggle with Elsevier to make German research open access within a reasonable cost framework.

Australian universities follow the short term research evaluation money trails rather than embracing long-term national structural change to improve access to Australian research.

The National Scholarly Communication Forum has long argued for a unified collective approach to scholarly publishing and communication issues. Its last Forum, Improving Access to Australia’s Research – Policy Frameworks, held at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on 31 August 2017, highlighted the need for improved and coordinated policy leadership. Presentations available at

Key points that emerged from the NSCF:

  • Improved policy leadership is paramount to achieving long-term change to improving access to publicly funded Australian research. Australian public policy in this area has lagged behind initiatives globally, especially the UK and Europe.
  • Australian Government, Research Council and university approaches to scholarly communication frameworks are fragmented across departments and research councils and universities.
  • There is a strong case, perhaps by the Productivity Commission, for a national examination of cost transparency in the use of public funds involved in scholarly publishing. The Productivity Commission’s Report on Intellectual Property Arrangements, Recommendation 16 on Open Access, provides a framework for relevant organisations to discuss unlocking Australian research. (Interdepartmental progress, however, to date has been bureaucratically slow in implementing action).
  • Improved access to Australian research is essential to maximise educational, economic, cultural, social and health benefits, to maximise Australian taxpayer investment in research and to ensure Australian research, both in text and data, is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable, for the public good.

Colin Steele is Emeritus Fellow at the Australian National University and Convenor of the National Scholarly Communications Forum 2005- 2017.


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