Mittwoch, 21. November 2012

Fabrizio Serra and the "science business"

a contribution
by Michelle Beghelli

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist: This has been the title of an article by George Monbiot published in The Guardian already in August 2011 dealing with vast fees charged by academic publishers to access research paid by the public.

Montbiot demonstrated how incredibly expensive it became to universities, public libraries and other institutions to buy scientific journals researchers need in order to keep their knowledge up to date and to spread the results of their own studies. Their institutions are in most cases funded by public money (this means by tax-payers). It is also public money which has to be spent to buy the results of their research, published in prestigious and prominent journals – which are of course an absolute must for academic libraries. This sets academic publishers in a stronger position (Libraries are forced to buy their products) and put them over the normal “market laws” (they will buy at any price, for they simply need these journals).

This is extremely visible if you want to access an online article outside from a university library. You will have to pay dozens of $, in order to read an article. As a reaction to such “unfair” business, the Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers started a petition trough the site in order to protest against one of those monopolist Publishers, Elsevier.

Cosmic prices by Fabrizio Serra
If someone expects this happens in the Natural Sciences only or is a topic restricted to online access, a short look to the price list of the Italian publisher Fabrizio Serra may change your mind. Serra publishs every year dozens of journals dealing with Linguistics, History, History of Literature, Archaeology and so on.

Prices differ (sensibly!) for the Italian “private” buyer (if you don’t live in Italy, you will pay a lot more) and for Institutions.
To make an example, the archaeological journal Mediterranea, with pictures in black and white and soft cover, costs “only” 595 € for an Italian “private” buyer (845 € for “foreigners”: just a little fee for postal delivery?), but to an Institution - university, library etc. - prices are between 1.410 € (one thousand four hundred and ten Euro) and 1765 € (one thousand seven hundred and sixtyfive Euro) depending by the number of IP addresses allowing to consult the digital version the Institution 'wants' to buy (price list 2012). Sorry, it is not possible for institutions to buy just the printed, “paper” version. But obviously, anyway, the private customers are just a few: the greatest majority of the buyers of such a specialized scientific publications are institutions.

One could claim that these prices depend on production, print and distribution costs: though, how is it possible other journals with even better quality (e.g. coloured pictures, hard covers etc.) and sometimes smaller number of printed copies (which make the costs arise) can be sold for 25, 30 or 40 €?

The Italian junior professor Claudio Giunta (University of Trento) showed  a great commitment in spreading and sharing Fabrizio Serra’s prices policy through articles published online on his own weblog, on national newspapers (such as the daily newspaper of Economics Il sole 24ore [April 15th 2012]: La cultura che fattura. Ancora sul costo esorbitante delle riviste accademiche) and scientific journals. Claudio Giunta noticed that some of Fabrizio Serra’s journals increased their prices of the 1.000 % (one thousand per cent) in the last ten years.

He compared Fabrizio Serra’s journals prices with many other Italian and European ones, finding out that much more “prestigious” and prominent scientific journals cost some times one tenth of Fabrizio Serra’s ones ( [February 2nd 2010]: Quanto (ci) costa la cultura accademica? - complete pdf version here; See also

This “cosmic fees” (as defined by George Monbiot), and the endless enrichment of Mr. Serra is possible because scholars need to publish, and obviously they want to do it in the most “visible” and “prestigious” journals.

Journal ranking creates 'publishers oligarchies'
But what contributes, in Italy, to define what is “prominent” and what is not? According to Prof. Maria Chiara Pievatolo (University of Pisa,, a certain impulse to the formation of these “publishers oligarchies” was given by the Anvur (Agenzia nazionale di valutazione del sistema universitario e della ricerca), a national association for the evaluation of the quality of Universities’ scientific production, which structure and rules were decided by minister Mariastella Gelmini and approved in 2009-2010 by Berlusconi’s Government.

As the association compiled a list of “important” journals of every field of research, each paper published in one of them will obtain a better “ranking” in the evaluation of the author’s scientific production, ranking which will be useful when applying for a job in Italian Universities. As a result, professors and researchers prefer to publish in the listed journals and consequently Libraries “must” buy these publications…which let some unfair Publishers free to savagely increase their prices.

Coming back to Fabrizio Serra, Prof. Claudio Giunta reports in one of his articles that the reaction to this situation chosen by some institutions (whose number is constantly increasing in Europe) is simply to stop the subscription to the journals ( among them the University of Trento, the University of Turin and the Roman Society of London.

A decisive role in the struggle against this foolish waste of public money must be played, anyway, by scholars themselves.
As Jean-Claude Guédon (Université de Montréal) ironically commented,
">[…] scientists are essentially schizophrenic beings: as authors, let me call them Dr. Jekyll; as readers, they become Mr. Hyde. Sad as it may be, librarians generally meet Mr. Hyde rather than Dr. Jekyll, especially when he comes into the librarian’s office complaining about recent subscription cancellations. On the whole, Dr. Jekyll is a good deal nicer. However, he seems a little bemused by the economic dimensions of his published lofty ideas, or he treats such mundane matters with benign neglect. When he publishes an article in a journal, Dr. Jekyll is very attentive to its visibility, its authority, its prestige […]; on the other hand, Dr. Jekyll generally turns a blind eye to the costs of the journal where he publishes, even though his reader side suffers from that very price.

Scholars, researcher and Professors, thus, should try to avoid to publish their articles in journals whose cost is so incredibly high (there are many other, fortunately still the majority, running a normal or “fair” prices policy!). On the other hand, Institutions should stop the subscriptions to this kind of publications. This can contribute, in the future, to sensibly reduce the “appeal” of the journal as a “prominent” publication (if it is in no Library, nobody can read the articles), but for sure, for present times, we could bet the average taxpayer would be happy about it.

RGZM library cancelled abonnements
The Library of RGZM in Mainz is quite important for archaeological researchers in Europe. It counts more than 150.000 volumes. Every year dozens of scholars come from all over Europe to work with this library.
Recently the library of the RGZM joined other Institutions in Europe and stopped all the subscriptions of Fabrizio Serra’s publications. This will allow the RGZM to save ca 20.000 € per year.

This money can be used to buy hundreds of other journals, books and catalogues – in the end increasing, among other things, the “mass” of information available about Italian Archaeology. A letter addressed to Fabrizio Serra Publisher has been sent explaining all the reasons of this decision. Many Libraries and Institutions in Germany have been invited by RGZM to join the initiative, and we really hope that they will.

We will be glad to let you know further information on how the story goes on. In the meantime, if you are thinking to publish an article somewhere, you should have a look to the price of the volume: in this times of crisis, a very expensive publication risks to be bought by nearly nobody…

Michelle Beghelli is a doctoral student at the RGZM working on early medieval sculpture ("frühmittelalterliche Flechtwerksteine") in the region Trentino-Sudtirol

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