Is the academic model broken?
There is a minor furore at present within academic circles over the activities of Elsevier, the publisher.
Claims are being made that they offer their books and journals to libraries at very expensive prices, or bundled up into large packages, which means that the costs to academic institutions is ever rising.
The frustration is caused because the content of the journals is provided by academics, who write the papers.
The quality of the journals is created by the academics, who review and comment on the papers.
The editor and editorial board, who are academics, set the tone and style of the journals.
The papers are often provided to fit a given format, so that the majority of the typesetting is done by the academics.
And all the academic effort is given for free: the protest is therefore at the exploitation of publically funded research and publically funded academics by private companies for profit.
It used to be that the costs of typesetting, printing, publishing and distribution were substantial, and hence publishers needed a margin to cover these costs. All those have more or less disappeared - vast numbers of library subscriptions are to electronic editions, and the financial profiteering has come into question.
However, this is not the only part of academic life that appears to be broken.
So many academic activities seem to be based on the dual contradictory premises that they value my opinion and perspective, but do not expect to pay for it.
I've recently been asked to provide views on whether people should be promoted in other Universities - for free.
To do this, I need to read some of their papers, see how influential they have been, assess their impact, grant-getting ability, and so on: a non-trivial task, at an hourly rate of zero.
For conferences, I'm asked to review papers - I review for approximately a dozen different conferences a year, doing multiple papers per conference.
Publishers ask me to review book proposals - though I have recently changed how I respond to these requests: they offer derisory incentives - a couple of free books, or a few quid, and so I've taken to dividing my hourly rate by the amount they are offering, and asking if they really want my opinion based on the 4 minutes of my time that they're offering.
They seem to be asking other people, now. And the list goes on.
One might argue that we're already paid to do these actvities, as part of our everyday job - but I think that argument is losing traction. With the imminent introduction of large fees, we will rightly be held to account for providing a quality education to students, and so there will inevitably be an increased focus on our teaching activities.
For most of us, we are academics because we love to do research, and so we need to write grant proposals, and undertake research projects that, hopefully, benefit society.
This all makes sense for publically-funded people to do: what makes less sense is for us to give our time away to other organisations, especially commercial ones, for free.
The solution is, potentially, simple: academics start to value their time and therefore charge other people for using it.
The publishing models would have to change. The reviewing and professional commentary issues would alter: people would be asked only when necessary and when their view really is valued.
This would save a lot of time, and allow us to focus on the core aspects of our work: teaching and research. What a pleasure that would be.