Greedy Publishers III: Oxford University Press



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I did not mean to write another installment in this series, but Oxford University Press recently published a volume on War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, which got me really incensed.

It’s another example of a ridiculous pricing policy of another greedy publisher, even though it’s a university press. The volume looks quite interesting and is closely relevant to my research interests. But there is no way I am going to plunk down $84.65, even for an excellent book, but especially not for an edited volume. I am not sure at all that I will want to read all chapters in it, and I don’t need this “thick damned book” (582 pages) taking up space on my book shelves. There is no option to buy it as an e-book!

I learned about this volume because I discovered a link to two chapters authored by Brian Ferguson, who probably realized that very few people would buy the book. So he scanned (!) and posted his own chapters on his web page.

It’s not even a galley, which would be machine-searchable. This defeats the whole purpose of scholarly publishing. Why commit to a book that few will buy and then, instead of posting a well-typeset and searchable digital article on line, post an inferior analog text?? Is the OUP’s cachet really worth it?

For that matter, why is OUP pricing their books so ridiculously high? Don’t they want to sell more books? I thought that they were a non-profit publisher. Why are they so greedy? Another recent and egregious example is The Oxford Handbook of the State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean which is priced at $118.49, and also doesn’t have an e-book version.

Why are they doing this?

End of rant.

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Martin Hewson

We need some open access e-book scholarly publishers (and more open access e-journals too). Foundations and other granting agencies should get behind this. I have heard of one called Open Book Publishers Maybe there are others.

Peter Turchin

Martin, thanks for the link. I checked it out, and it looks quite reasonable. It’s not open source, because you have to purchase books there, it looks like an alternative to ‘greedy publishers.’ Books are quite reasonably priced. If you publish a book with them, you are expected to contribute 2-4K pounds. An e-book will cost you 6 pounds, and a paperback 16 pounds. That’s not so bad, especially since they claim that they employ professional copy editors and typesetters. The operation is based in Cambridge, UK, which inspires more confidence than various vanity publishing houses from India (sorry about ethnic stereotyping).

Amanda Turrington

I don’t think $85 is unreasonable for an academic book. For this collection, that seems quite a reasonable price. And in my experience, Oxford is one of the good guys when it comes to book pricing. They have the least expensive textbooks in the area I teach in. Finally, you can get this book free through interlibrary loan if you’re an academic. And it’s on at least one of Oxford’s digital services (I can get it as a searchable ebook through my library). Think before ranting next time.

Peter Turchin

I went to the OUP site. They say that there is an e-book available through your preferred e-book provider. I checked the Amazon again. No e-book. So where am I supposed to look? And how much does it cost?

I completely disagree that $85 is a reasonable price (it’s $99 on the OUP site). The authors are not being paid anything, I am pretty sure. Why should we pay $85 for something that should cost $6 to produce as an e-book? Even if I was much richer than I am (or had more grant money), it would still stick in the craw.

Yes, academics can get it through the interlibrary loan. But you are stuck in the old way of thinking. First, we have to wait 2-4 weeks to get the book. Then, if I want to keep copies of chapters that I need, I will have to xerox them. And it is still not a searchable copy. And I already have too many filing cabinets full of dusty reprints.

Present-day technology allows us to keep all the reprints we need stored electronically on the hard disk. If you don’t want to read it off the computer screen (which I prefer not to), you can dump it to a larger e-book or tablet, sit in a comfy chair and enjoy, just as you would enjoy a book.

Most publishers nowdays refuse to publish edited volumes. And they are right. It doesn’t make sense given the present-day tech.

Finally, I agree that OUP is not the worst. They are pretty uneven – pricing some books reasonably, others ridiculously. I don’t know how they make these decisions.

And don’t get me started on ‘inexpensive textbooks’…

Peter Turchin

One more thing. Your comment is very parochially academic. But given how much controversy is currently surrounding the issues addressed by Fry’s book (whichever side of the debate you are on), there is a great potential for it to become a bestseller. But the general public will not buy it at the ridiculous price of $85. The editors of the book made a poor decision to go with the traditional publishing route. As a result, their book will be read by many fewer readers than it deserves.

Igor Demić

A propos the first book (that one I’d like to have too) it’s available on Ebrary, probably accessible from most of US universities… for free. The only drawback is you can just “borrow” it for 7 or 14 days 🙁 It’s also available through Ebsco ( which is a better solution because you get to access it anytime you want.
The second book (also a gem 🙂 is available as html ebook on Oxford Handbooks Online ( also available through many universities. I hope I’m not crossing the line when saying that htmls could be easily merged to a PDF.
Concerning pricing, I just have to say that the prices might be high for people from “western academia” but for the people from developing countries…well I probably wouldn’t ever be acquainted with cutting edge science the way I (humbly think that I) am if there were no people, friends of mine, from US and other western countries who were so nice to scan chapters and in some cases the whole books for me.
The consequences and ramifications of this topic professor Turchin initiated are huge, and I think this shouldn’t end here.
One more thing, professor Turchin might find funny. In many of his paper the fact is mentioned that historically, before the major social revolutions there has always happened the increase in number of highly educated professionals. There is a strong correlation between the emergence of e-books and the enormous increase of book prices. Could this be some kind of buffer against the increase of numbers in this “perilous group”. I talked to some people about this and they laughed. I’m not saying that this is some intentional strategy of an economic class – (social) evolution teaches us that no conscious agent is needed for this kind of “cunning of reason”.

Peter Turchin

Thanks for these links, Igor. I followed them, but so far I have been unable to read any of the chapters even on the computer. It turns out that my library is signed up for the Oxford Handbooks, or at least it appears to be signed up, because when I try to log in through the library portal, OUP still wants me to register (and pay) for access. There is probably a way around it, I’ll check with our librarian.

No luck accessing the chapters via other approaches you suggested. Ebrary (ugh, what an ugly name) promises to show the first two pages of each chapter, but so far I haven’t been able to see even them. I probably need to be more persistent – after trying two or three ways to get around the wall, I gave up.

I applaud your ability to get around this hurdles! But I guess you are more motivated than me. Are you based in the former Yugoslavia somewhere (probably Serbia?). You are absolutely right about the price being excessive for people leaving outside N America or W Europe. I refuse to pay more than $50 for a book not because I can’t afford it, but because I don’t want to reward greedy publishers. But for most scientists living in Asia, Africa, or South America $50 may simply be beyond anything they can afford.

Igor Demić

Serbia indeed 🙂
What I know about Ebrary etc. is from the experience with it from my (Belgrade) university. One can use their services, but can’t ‘own’ the electronic books they provide … at least not legally. If you gain access to Ebrary or Ebsco, or other providers of DRM protected ebooks, you’ll have to install Adobe Digital Editions to be able to read them. Again, you’d have to read them pretty fast, 7 to 14 days, depending on the type subscription. As concerns OUP Handbooks site, most unis subscribe to Oxford Scholarship Online, which doesn’t have Handbooks in their offer 🙁

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