An Open Letter to Elon Musk: Buy the Academic Publishers

Dear Mr Musk,

I see you’ve been on a spending spree lately. I splurged the other day and bought myself some new socks. You bought Twitter for $44B USD.

You’re a businessman and I’m sure you expect to make a profit from this purchase. But I also think—correct me if I’m wrong—that you’re prepared to take a financial loss if that means safeguarding the bedrock of a democratic society: the right to a free exchange of ideas.

If you are still keen on flexing your “corporate social responsibility” muscles, I have a proposal for you.

Buy Elsevier. And Wiley. And SAGE. And Taylor & Francis. And Springer Nature. And every other major for-profit academic publishing house.

The current model of publishing scientific research is so broken that I don’t know where to even begin.

We academics do all the work: we collect the data, we write the papers, we review the papers, and we edit the papers. We are responsible for the production of science and quality control. The work we do is largely inimitable: no one else has the knowledge, skills, and ability. You’d think we’d get paid a pretty penny for such knowledge-intensive work. You’d be wrong. We do it for free.

But it gets much worse. We do the work for free, and then we have to pay to access the research. Articles are placed behind publishers’ paywalls. Universities pay vast sums of money to access the research they produce. If we want to make our research “open access,” we have to pay thousands of dollars in fees. No wonder the profit margin at the large publishing houses is higher than Apple, Google, and Amazon. And what do the publishing houses really do? They typeset the articles and convert them to PDFs.

I know that there is no easy solution, and that basic research is a “public good” that no one wants to pay for, but from which everyone benefits. But what if—hear me out, Elon—what if a different model were possible?

I’m no businessman, so I’ll leave it to you to work out the details. But imagine a model in which peer reviewers and editors are paid for the work they do. Imagine a model in which all published research is open access by default. Imagine a model in which the end-users of our research—industry players, governments, and other institutions—commissioned and funded the publication of research. Maybe there is also a role for major philanthropists like yourself.

Something needs to change. We can’t continue with this madness. We need disruptive innovation badly, and I suspect that you’re the right man for the job.

Call me. Let’s talk.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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