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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

Twilight for a Maxwell publishing scam?

ROBERT MAXWELL, the media tycoon who dropped off his yacht in 1991 after raiding his company’s pension funds, has had an influence well beyond the actions of his lifetime.

The way he used his networks of public and private companies to subvert normal corporate governance has led directly to various special committees and reports — Cadbury, Turnbull, Higgs — trying to impose good practices in corporate governance.

Mind you, the recent allegations regarding Conrad Black makes one wonder whether anything much has actually changed.

However, Maxwell was not only responsible for pioneering the plundering of the resources of his public companies, he was also one of the originators of a fantastically lucrative form of scientific publishing which still exists and is every bit as profitable to this day.

Maxwell’s Pergamon Press set the standard for modern academic publishing and the huge profits that he gained from these activities set him up, among other things, to buy the Mirror Group.

It is one of the greatest con tricks in the world. Academics need to write scientific papers; this is how the quality of their research output is measured. Publication of such papers in reputable journals is required by their employers — mostly universities.

As a result, no academic is ever paid a fee for submitting a scientific paper to a publication. The editorial process is also done on the cheap. The editors may be paid a small honorarium, but their various extensive teams of editorial committees will happily review submissions for no fee, just as long as they get the prestige of being identified on the editorial committee of a prestigious journal.

These days, even the typesetting of scientific papers is more often than not done by the original authors. All the publishers have to do is print up sets of the papers into journals and then sell them, at huge cost, back to the academics and their university libraries. It is not unusual for such journals to cost over £100 per copy.

Academics do all the work — they write the papers, typeset them, review and edit them and all for minimal or no fee. The publishers then sell the work of these academics back to their university libraries at enormous cost.

A committee of MPs has recommended that this model should be challenged and that academic institutions should switch to a system of placing scientific papers on the internet, bypassing the scientific publishers. This has alarmed publishers such as Reed Elsevier whose scientific publishing division made a profit in the last six months of £204m on a turnover of £631m.

And it may well be that Scotland might actually lead the way in this revolution. The Scottish Science Information Strategy working group, which represents the university libraries as well as the National Library of Scotland, is meeting on 11 October and is likely to recommend that all academic research papers created north of the border are made freely available on the inter net. Some methods of ensuring the quality of such publications will be required, but the cost of that could be built into the original research grants.

It might all be too late to deprive Robert Maxwell of his ill-gotten fat profits, but it looks as if the highly lucrative days of the academic publishers may he numbered.

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