How publishing cartels kill higher education

Friday November 9 2018


A graduation ceremony: African universities find it difficult to compete with global giants due to limited funding. PHOTO | FILE 

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Cartels strangle higher education. Cartels strive to keep students from lower income nations and lower budget universities in their economic lane.

Cartels lock out students and faculty from lower income nations from accessing knowledge critical for learning, science, industry, and societal advancement.

Who are these cartels? Highly profitable global academic publishing companies. They created and sustain a brilliant yet sinister abusive catch-22 business model.

They spend hundreds of millions of Kenyan Shillings each year promoting their academic publications, primarily journals.

By promoting their journals, they convince academic institutions to only hire and promote faculty who publish in their high impact and highly rated journals.

So, faculty must submit their research to the publishing houses but receive no compensation in exchange for the publishing firms publishing their intellectual property.

Then, the global publishing companies sell the research back to universities for huge individual article fees of usually Sh3,000 or more for each research article read or sell expensive annual subscriptions to thousands of journals to each university.

Essentially, they pay research faculty nothing for their research, get universities to demand their faculty to publish in their journals, and then sell that same knowledge back to the universities. They sell content that they got for free.

Even respected newspapers are heavily influenced by the cartels. The most respected name in global university rankings, the UK’s Times Higher Education, partners with one of the most allegedly aggressive opponents of open and free access to knowledge, Elsevier, to influence how university research output is evaluated and ranked.

The global publishing companies try to control all points of the knowledge value chain. Nearly all the most famous and high-prestige journals are run by global publishing powerhouses. The SAGE publishes the Journal of Management.

Wiley-Blackwell publishes the Journal of Finance. Elsevier publishes thousands of journals including Econometrics and Statistics, Composites Communications, Development Engineering, European Journal of Management and Business Economics, Journal of Innovation & Knowledge, etc.

The exorbitant costs of accessing research by the global publishing cartels yields very few users of knowledge. According to Elizabeth Marincola of the African Academy of Sciences, each scholarly article gets read an average of 2.4 times.

Given the enormous amount of time and resources put into researching ways to improve science, industry, and society, only getting minimal views of new and cutting-edge research hurts humanity’s progress.

The world’s wealthiest universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge each individually spend billions of Kenyan shillings every year on subscriptions to the big publishing companies who produce the thousands of research journals.

But how can our Sub-Saharan African institutions of higher learning compete when entire operating budgets for whole universities are usually smaller than just the library journal access budgets of the biggest wealthiest global universities?

Even Harvard University recently publicly complained about the huge price gouging of publishing companies for access to knowledge. The answer?

Here in Africa, we do not compete on a level playing field. When the average Sub-Saharan African college student pays roughly four per cent the annual fee of American students, as an example, our African universities cannot afford to pay the cartels in order to access the knowledge. So, our students learn less comprehensive and more outdated knowledge.

As a way to level the playing field, Russian hackers post the global publishing companies’ content free on their “Sci Hub” website. But, accessing these hacked articles is ethically questionable since the material is stolen.

But academics themselves are sick of the cartels and are fighting back directly and ethically without the help of hackers.

Kenyan universities and research institutes, including KCA, USIU-A, Strathmore, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation(Kalro), and the International Livestock Research Institute (Ilri) are among global education, donor, and research entities pushing back and actively supporting open access publishing.

Also, the European Union, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other funders, now require recipients of their grants to only publish in open free to access publications.

Open access journals are those still peer reviewed for high quality but can be downloaded and read for free for anyone in the world.

Kenya’s progressive librarians, such as Mary Ngure, hold forums for students and researchers to learn how to access and publish through open access platforms. Open access journals here in Kenya include the African Journal of Health Sciences, East African Orthopedic Journal, Journal of Language, Technology and Entrepreneurship in Africa, and African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, among others.

So, let us push all research funders to require open access publishing. Let us encourage faculty to publish in open access journals as requirements for promotion. In so doing, we can advocate against cartels that limit access to knowledge in order to eliminate the information gap and improve the quality of higher education on the continent.

Article by Scott Bellows