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Daily RC Article 163

Academic Paywalls: Monopolizing Knowledge for Exorbitant Fees


Paragraph 1

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a ‘Keep Out’ sign on the gates.

You might resent Rupert Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges £34.95.

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Even libraries have been hit by cosmic fees. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities’ costs, which are being passed to their students.

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing and editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay through the nose.

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More importantly, universities are locked into buying their products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can’t publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all.

The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value because they “develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionized scientific communication in the past 15 years.” But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.” Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.

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What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism.

Big publishers have rounded up the journals with the highest academic impact factors, in which publication is essential for researchers trying to secure grants and advance their careers. You can start reading open-access journals, but you can’t stop reading the closed ones.

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In the short-term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly-funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating, a single global archive of academic literature and data.

This article delves into the issue of academic publishers imposing exorbitant fees for access to research articles, highlighting the restrictive impact on education and democratic decision-making. The piece critiques the monopolistic nature of academic publishers, who profit from content commissioned and funded by the public. Despite claiming value addition, the article argues that publishers hinder the dissemination of research with long turnaround times and high costs. The call for governments to intervene, refer publishers to competition watchdogs, and establish a free public database for publicly-funded research reflects a push against what the author terms "pure rentier capitalism" and economic parasitism in the academic publishing realm.
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