Epistemic Systems

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Friends de-united? Academics, publishers, and open access

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An unfortunate feature of some of the recent debates about open access and the role of publishers, culminating now in the widely publicized boycott of Elsevier journals, has been the way in which the amount of light cast about has been matched or exceeded by the quantity of heat simultaneously liberated. Perhaps it’s inevitable: even rational people feel strongly about these things. My own standpoint on academic publishing matters is, I think, distinct from some of the most heavily represented academic and commercial positions, and could perhaps be characterized as citizen-centred.

As someone who in the past has carried out R&D within a non-academic setting, and who sometimes engages in what I suppose should be called independent research, I’m all for open access. It really is frustrating to go to the website of some journal in order to find that all-important article (quite probably written by someone whose work is supported by one of the taxpayer-funded research councils), only to be greeted by a big fat paywall. The experience soon becomes familiar, however, whenever one seeks journal content from any of an army of publishers large and small, ranging from the generalist and overtly mercantile to specialists affiliated professionally in some way with a particular discipline. At (typically) around £30 per article download (approx. $50), independent research – or even the simple exercise of pure curiosity, or an old-fashioned desire for self-improvement – that connects closely with the current literature is not a pastime for the impecunious.

That said, I’m sceptical that academia, at the collective and institutional level rather than at the level of individual researchers (amongst whom I count many good friends), is invariably the innocent party in all of this. Sometimes in the groves of academe one sees something of the self-interestedness and closed shop protectionism of a medieval guild, and current debates should be viewed in the context of a publishing model that gives academics near-exclusive control over what gets published. A plausible case could probably be made for saying that one of the journal’s functions has been as a weapon with which to exert control over disciplinary territory. On the academic side of the drawbridge, the thinking often seems to be, roughly, that so long as my institution can pay the subscriptions, paywalls aren’t a problem for me.

Latent in this issue of disciplinary control is the complex topic of peer review. I shall save looking at that for future posts. For now, I want just to observe that academic hostility to publishers is largely a modern phenomenon. SPARC was formed as recently as 1997 – and that development came from the library community rather than directly from researchers. Computers have much to answer for, of course, and for a combination of reasons. In sum, however, they boil down to the fact that when journals were physical objects as well as intellectual ones, their production required the application of tangible, physical skills, such as typesetting and printing. (Yes, a university press was once precisely that. Oxford University Press stopped its own presses only in 1989.) Coordinating the activities of all those specialist trades took time and knowledge that publishers could supply. It took money too, of course. The printed journal had to be paid for, and since it would be accessible only locally at the places to which copies were distributed, it made sense to aggregate all the production costs and recoup them via subscription charges, paid primarily by the institutional libraries that constituted the bulk of customers.

Then came the personal computer, word processing and desktop typesetting. Authors were generally content to limit their efforts at styling their articles to what could be accomplished using basic word processor capabilities. Was that because typesetting turned out to be unexpectedly arcane and surprisingly difficult to do well, or just because publishers wanted to typeset journals their way and didn’t want to have to unpick each author’s attempt at attaining an aesthetically pleasing article? I’m not sure, but I guess the latter. Still, an awareness of DTP probably made a few authors wonder whether they couldn’t do more of what the publisher did. (And in mathematics, TeX and LaTeX actually did put typesetting in the hands of authors.)

In the early 1990s the Web arrived, capitalizing on the infrastructure of the internet. Global information dissemination had never been so easy. People began to ask how essential all that nice styling stuff was that publishers do in any case. And then, do we really need printed journals? Thus we reach the present day, when on the face of it the case for the publisher has never looked so dubious. Learning that Elsevier makes profits of 40% on STM journals does little to strengthen the case, but when you come to think about it, the issue of profit might be something of a red herring. Other suppliers to and participants in the scientific research process than publishers are rarely castigated for daring to take more in revenue than is needed to cover their costs. That NMR spectrometer? It came from a profitable company. Your reagents supplier of choice? Probably not a big loss maker. And the maker of the laptop on which you’re writing up your results? $7bn net profits in Q4 of 2011, I gather.

So why should publishers’ profits arouse such ire? Presumably because it is felt that now, in the digital era, publishers contribute essentially no value at all. However, if it really were the case that publishers contributed precisely nothing, wouldn’t their profit margins be stratospherically higher than current levels? Alright, it could be that all those thousands of people working for publishers really are just sitting around drinking coffee all day, but if that were the case I suspect the shareholders would have found out by now. No, more likely is that the majority of those publishers’ employees (many of them graduates with a fondness still for their original academic disciplines) are doing substantive jobs that make a real contribution to the dissemination of academic research findings in a form which, with the occasional sorry exception, provides a sound basis for further research. Undoubtedly many of the skills involved are less materially grounded than the old crafts of hot-metal typesetting and printing, and for sure the costs of producing an all-electronic journal are considerably lower than those involved with printed journals. But it would be a mistake to think that journals – even electronic journals – cost nothing to develop, publish, maintain and extend. If profit truly is without honour then maybe we should think seriously about the public sector taking over the job of journal publishing. But a small voice in the back of my head wonders by how much overall publishing costs would actually fall. My suspicion is that the like-for-like publishing bill would end up roughly the same as now – maybe slightly less, perhaps slightly more – albeit with some of the costs redistributed to the point of near-invisibility.

OK, for the sake of argument I’ve adopted a deliberately charitable stance towards the commercial sector. There is that uncomfortable sense in which publishers sell back material to its very creators (amongst others). But I really do think we should keep such issues as the profit levels, seeming monopoly status, or apparently flexible ethical values of any one company separate from the issue of open access. If the regulatory framework within which academic publishers operate now seems shaky or defective then fine, let’s go about fixing it. Open access, however, is a distinct issue relating to a transcending idea: that knowledge is one of the glories of humankind, and the world is enhanced when it is unconfined. Some have suggested that there never was a business model for academic publishing. I don’t believe that. For many years, academics and publishers made a great couple. On the one hand publishing was (as it remains) an intellectually satisfying business, based on meeting academic needs; on the other, there were disciplines to be founded, defended and extended. There was a quid pro quo, in other words. The electronic age undoubtedly presents challenges, but I think those are shared more widely than many suppose. What isn’t clear to me is the degree to which a world in which control over the production and consumption of knowledge lies solely in the hands of academics is better than one in which some of that control is shared with publishers. A different but perhaps more interesting question is, how can we make knowledge creation a more genuinely open and participatory, and less paternalistic, process? We may have to think beyond journals, and of openness to more than merely the outputs of research.

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Written by Alex Powell

February 13, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Posted in open access, publishing

One Response

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  1. “But I really do think we should keep such issues as the profit levels, seeming monopoly status, or apparently flexible ethical values of any one company separate from the issue of open access.”

    I half agree. That is, even if the dominant STM publishers were not profiteering immoral monopolists, there would nevertheless be an unanswerable case for open access.

    But because the dominant STM publishers are profiteering immoral monopolists, the urgency of the case is advanced. The current situation is so bad that we can’t just wait around for the ultimately inevitable dominance of OA; we have to push for it now.

    Mike Taylor

    February 14, 2012 at 11:22 pm


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