Overnight Reading: The Future of Academic Publishing

Here’s some overnight food for thought from Michael P. Taylor, research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol:

“By any objective standard, academic publishing is a very strange business indeed. It became established at a time when all publishing was on paper, when duplication and delivery were demanding problems, and when publishers provided an important service to researchers. Now, as the Internet is dramatically changing other forms of publishing, academic journals seem stuck in the 1980s, with results both comical and disastrous.”

Read Taylor’s thoughts in full at TheScientist.com.  An editorial hat tip to Ron Roizen for bringing this to our attention!

2 thoughts on “Overnight Reading: The Future of Academic Publishing

  1. Taylor leaves out one major roadblock to an academic’s leaving for-profit publishers for open-access publication:

    The demands of Tenure and Promotion committes force younger faculty members into the “established” journals

  2. Although I am a Managing Editor of Points, my day job is print culture history, so I’d like to add a few thoughts to the claims Taylor makes here. First off, as now seems to be a rule in the academy, this article takes the world of hard science and acts as if it is the world in toto. This critique of the political economy of academic publishing *in the sciences,* with all its attendant inefficiencies and absurdities, is quite true– but it is not really germane for the humanities (thought it may become more so). Humanities research costs and funding structures are completely different, as is the financial underpinning of humanities journal publishing and said publishing’s attendant profit (or loss) structure. This is not to say that academic publishing for the humanities is not “broken”– having just learned that a piece I submitted to a top journal in Septemeber 2011 has been accepted, and will be published “within the next 18 months,” I can say with confidence that heroic measures are called for. But it would be nice if discussion of the issues by people concerned with them could attend to the fact that one size–the big science size– does not fit all,and that solutions to the academic publishing problem that act as though making things right for science will solve *everybody’s* problems will most likely have unintended negative consequences for humanities researchers.

    On a different note, Taylor questions what seems to be the university’s perverse willingness to pay more under the current scheme to publish in traditional journals than they would have to in an unabashed “pay to play” open source journal. He notes:

    “while it may cost a fraction as much money to publish in an open-access journal, those savings are not rewarded to the researchers. With open-access publishing, the researchers must pay those fees out of their own grant money, or with department funds, while subscription bills are footed by the university libraries, which have completely separate budgets. So, even though, under an open-access publishing regime, for every thousand dollars that a researcher or department spends on author fees, the library could save eight times as much in paid journal subscriptions, the division of budgets within universities (and the fact that until all publishing is open access libraries will still have to continue subscribing to paid journals) is inhibiting this transition.”

    He is correct that university accounting procedures are one inhibiting factor, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of the goods and services that are actually being bought and sold here. It seems as if the university is “wasting” money by buying into the traditional scholarly publication structure only if you assume that what expenditures procure is publication. This is in fact not the case. University administration and, indeed, academia as a whole, is willing to invest (literally and figuratively) in traditional publishing because with it they buy entire pre-fabbed systems of gate-keepers, vettors, and other guarantors of cultural capital– structures of expertise and distinction that cannot be replicated within any one institution. There are arguments to be made for dismantling those structures– they are certainly imperfect. But the university–and again I’d note it’s not just the evil administration, but all of us who have been acculturated to academia’s institutional norms– is deeply invested in them. Until other modes of gatekeeping have demonstrated their viability and/or the university just abandons its investment in cultural distinction (which certainly seems possible), continuing to invest in the existing modes is not un-rational. I mean, do you really want decisions about your tenure or promotion to be crowd-sourced?

    As I have noted on this blog before, traditional academic publishing does seem to be at an impasse. But talk about its “brokenness” and how to address it really needs to take these factors, among others, into account.

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