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The Banking Royal Commission and the price of everything

Roger Atkinson

Well, not necessarily the price of everything, but the Banking Royal Commission is likely to prompt more intense scrutiny of prices and possible 'rip offs', for many kinds of goods and services, in all sectors of our economy. If the big banks and others in financial services have been getting away with 'Money for nothing', as evidenced in a recent ABC 4 Corners program[1], could we find similar bad behaviour in other industries? In particular, should information technology (IT) in higher education and academic publishing be included in such scrutiny of prices? Of course, the answer has to be 'yes', because inquiring into everything is an academic trait, even though IT in higher education and academic publishing is only a small part of the world's IT and publishing industries. But it is complicated, as the rest of this musing attempts to illustrate. We can identify instances where 'Money for nothing' occurs in IT in higher education and academic publishing, and more broadly, instances of over-pricing. However, unlike banking, in IT and publishing we frequently obtain 'Something for no money', that is we do not pay for a service we use, an important distinction drawn in concluding this musing.

Firstly, 'Money for nothing', where one prominent example is 'predatory open access journals' [2, 3, 4]. Typically, such journals ask authors to pay a modest charge for open access, online only publication, and promise a fast path through peer review and publication processes. However, the 'nothing' provided part is usually no peer review and no copy editing, which may enable a fast path, but very often leads to poor quality articles and little attention from readers. Related to 'Money for nothing' is a much larger problem which could be characterised as 'Much money for not much', or simply, over-pricing. Though matters may be improving with software prices, headlines such as these will seem familiar to many readers:

'Software is officially a rip-off in Australia - so what can you do?' [5]
'Two years after IT Pricing Inquiry, Australians are still being slugged up to 30% more for goods' [6]
'Adobe Has Raised Creative Cloud Prices In Australia By Almost 250% Since 2014' [7]
'Subscription Software Is Death By A Thousand Cuts' [8]
To investigate over-pricing in journal publishing, consider a specific example, Review of Educational Research (RER)[9], which is a well-known, prestigious journal, able to characterise itself in a 2017 Editorial with the sentence, 'RER remains the premier review journal internationally' [10]. There are a number of RER prices to consider, including prices for subscriptions (individual about US$52; institutional, e-access only, including all previous issues, about US$485), obtaining an individual article if not a subscriber (US$36), and obtaining open access publishing if not an author (US$1000) [9]. How can we evaluate these prices, and form an opinion, is this 'over-pricing', or 'reasonable pricing'? That is a rather large research question, so all I can do in a brief musing is pick out some of the most interesting aspects of the context, which can point towards some potential research designs and possible findings. Taking a few liberties with the Royal Commission way of investigating, we can imagine some lines of 'attack', and the corresponding lines of 'defence'.

To illustrate, imagine some days of witness statements on the prices of subscriptions. Counsel leading for the 'attack' may present graphical data showing steep rises in subscription prices during previous decades, and seek to demonstrate that the rises represent an unreasonable exploitation of a quasi-monopoly, and that production expenses have fallen, not risen, as the publishing industry has benefited from incredible cost reductions due to advances in information and communications technologies [11, 12]. Counsel may argue that the publisher should give back, via lower subscription prices, to the authors and peer reviewers who are not paid for their work, noting also that in getting publication, authors gave away their intellectual property rights. In response, counsel leading for the 'defence' may seek to show that subscription prices are in accord with industry standards for a highly successful and influential journal, and represent an appropriate return on investment for the society that founded RER in 1931, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) [13]. The AERA members who were authors and peer reviewers for very many decades built a premier review journal, and the flow of subscription income which (presumably) they receive via the publisher SAGE helps to advance the Association's objectives for promoting educational research. AERA members can select RER as one of their complimentary benefits of membership, and RER also provides to others, whether individuals or libraries, a number of kinds of discounting of subscription prices [13].

Moving on to this imaginary commission's session on open access publishing, counsel for the 'attack' side may lead with evidence about OA's ever-growing influence, and seek to show that RER is a poor contributor, always in an 'Arrière du peloton' position. Counsel may cite RER Editorial 87(1), 2017, which makes no mention of open access, though in that issue the editorial [10] and all 7 articles are open access, thereby contributing one half of the total number of open access articles now available in RER's archives, from inception in 1931 to end 2017. The same editorial has one paragraph under the heading 'Accessibility', but it does not mention the greatest possible contribution to accessibility, open access. It refers mainly to dissemination 'to the broader communities through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets'. However, counsel for the 'defence' may respond vigorously, showing that RER offers open access for an APC (article publishing or processing charge) which is lower than APCs for most journals, excepting those that may be characterised as 'predatory journals', and that RER authors' right to not opt for open access must be respected. Counsel will show that both publisher SAGE and AERA can evidence extensive and important support for open access options being provided by RER's sister journals and related others. Counsel could point out that authors seeking open access with a cheaper APC could choose RER competitors, such as Taylor & Francis' Open Review of Educational Research, APC US$900, compared with RER's US$1000 [14].

On the matter of 'pay per view', obtaining an individual article if not a subscriber, counsel for the 'attack' side may claim that RER's charge of US$36 per article [9] is a relic from earlier times, when clerical workers had to locate a hardcopy original, photocopy the article, package it, post it, invoice for it, and process a payment. Such labour intensive work has been eliminated by technological advances, and these days computer programs and networks automate the delivery of a PDF file for screen reading, almost infinitely faster and cheaper. However, 'defence' counsel will maintain that 'pay per view' has to contribute an appropriate share of a journal's income stream, and not undermine subscription income; also, $36 is similar to charges made by many other journals in the high prestige ranks.

Leaving the drama of this imaginary commission, we should turn briefly to my second main topic, 'Something for no money'. The world's IT and publishing industries have made remarkable contributions of free services. We are not charged for our use of the Internet protocol suite, HTTP for web pages, SMTP for email, and very many other protocols [15], though of course we pay for our use of transmission media and routers, and sometimes for the content that is delivered to us. The pricing for open educational resources ('OER') is brilliant: free, though we may have paid indirectly through taxes and other ways for funding the creation of OER. Free ('open source') software is abundant, with perhaps the most notable example for HERDSA members being the Mailman software [16] used for our weekly Notices, and another notable being Moodle [17], the learning management system used worldwide. We have free use of Google, Google Scholar and other search engines and free databases; there are many free platforms or services that can be used for academic purposes, such as Second Life, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Skype; and free email (Hotmail/, Gmail, Yahoo, etc.).

However, some of these 'Somethings for nothing' may incur non-monetary costs that are now attracting increased scrutiny, as we can see for example in recent media attention to Facebook's selling of user data to dubious third parties [18]. As some commentators have pointed out, 'With Facebook you are the product, not the customer' [19]. Could such scrutiny, at present mostly at the level of parliamentary inquiries, may eventually reach the higher level of a Royal Commission, or threaten to do so?


  1. ABC (2016). Money for nothing. Four Corners, 7 March 2016.
  2. ABC (2018). Rise in 'predatory publishers' has sparked a warning for scientists and researchers. ABC News, 13 April 2018.
  3. Butler, D. (2013). Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing. Nature, 27 March 2013.
  4. Prasad, R. (2018). A curse to science. The Hindu, 12 March.
  5. Radcliffe, P. J. (2013). Software is officially a rip-off in Australia - so what can you do? The Conversation, 31 July.
  6. Dudley-Nicholson, J. (2015). Two years after IT Pricing Inquiry, Australians are still being slugged up to 30% more for goods., 23 January.
  7. Simpson, C. (2017). Adobe Has raised Creative Cloud prices In Australia By Almost 250% Since 2014. Gizmodo, 7 May.
  8. Caruana, A. (2017). Subscription Software Is Death By A Thousand Cuts. Lifehacker, 27 September.
  9. SAGE Journals. Review of Educational Research.
  10. Murphy. P. K., Knight, S. L. & Dowd, A. C. (2017). Familiar paths and new directions: Inaugural call for manuscripts. Review of Educational Research, 87(1), 3-6.
  11. Association of Research Libraries (2017). ARL statistics analytics. Graph 8.
  12. Burns, P. (2017). Academic journal publishing is headed for a day of reckoning. The Conversation, 6 November.
  13. American Educational Research Association (AERA).
  14. Taylor & Francis. Open Review of Educational Research.
  15. Wikipedia. Internet protocol suite.
  16. Mailman. Mailman, the GNU Mailing List Manager.
  17. Moodle. Empowering educators to improve our world.
  18. Hodge, K. (2018). It it's free online, you are the product. The Conversation, 19 April.
  19. Solon, O. (2011). You are Facebook's product, not customer. Wired UK, 21 September.
Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is longer than the print published version, as it includes references that were omitted for space constraint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2018). The Banking Royal Commission and the price of everything. HERDSA Connect, 40(3).

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