A couple of years ago, my fellow Chef Kent Anderson responded (quite strongly) in this forum to an opinion piece by George Monbiot in which Monbiot characterized academic publishers as “the most ruthless capitalists in the western world” and as “parasitic overlords” and called for scholars to “liberate the research that belongs to us.” Kent’s response, for its part, characterized Monbiot’s piece as a “rant” and as “uninformed, unhinged, and unfair.” As one might imagine, his posting generated a very long and sometimes fascinating comment stream.
Fast-forward to last month, when I wrote a post about what I believe to be “signal distortions” contributing to a very weird set of economic dynamics in the scholarly publishing industry. At the end of that piece I mentioned that there are some who would clearly welcome the “taking back” of scholarly publishing by the academy, and I promised to share thoughts about that. (For the rest of this post, the phrase “scholarly publishing” should be understood to refer mainly to scholarly journal publishing. The academy already competes directly with commercial publishers in the book realm.)
The question I’d like to address here is not whether we in the academy should “take back publishing” from the commercial scholarly publishers, but rather what the options for doing so might be, and whether any of those options seems feasible at the moment (whether or not desirable).
In considering this possibility, it seems to me that the first question we need to address is: would academia take back scholarly publishing by competing with traditional publishers (i.e. doing it better than publishers do it) or would we actually exclude commercial publishers from operating in the academic marketplace—saying, in essence, that there is no longer a legitimate marketplace for commercial publishing of academic work (i.e. doing it instead of letting publishers do it)?
Doing It Better: Replicate or Forego
The competitive approach is, I believe, a real option. Scholarly publishing based in libraries or in university departments or colleges would not have to look exactly like traditional publishing, as long as it continues to provide authors those services that they demonstrably value (review, editing, certification, dissemination, and archiving) as well as the things that readers demonstrably value (quality signaling and access). A non-commercial, academically-based system could succeed as long as authors and readers both feel that it does all of those things, and does them as well as traditional publishing does.
This road would itself require us to choose between two general strategies: either replicate all of the value-adds currently offered by traditional publishers (while perhaps adding some new ones as well), or decide to forego some of them—either because we don’t actually agree that they provide value, or because we don’t feel the value they provide is worth the cost. Replicating them would be simpler in that it would not require both creating and building consensus around the acceptability of an entirely new system, but it would be more difficult in that it would require members of the academic community to take on all the roles and duties that commercial publishers fulfill under the current system. Those roles and duties have been effectively outsourced to the commercial marketplace for centuries; bringing them under the canopy of the academy, while certainly possible, would represent an enormous undertaking. More about this in a moment.
Doing It Instead: The Coercive Option
The exclusion option would be difficult if not impossible. To prohibit firms from participating commercially in the scholarly-communication economy would require either that all scholars and scholarly institutions independently reach the same decision not to participate in commercial scholarly publishing (not terribly likely) or that they agree among themselves to unite to keep commercial publishers out of the system (which is also extremely unlikely and could constitute illegal collusion).
Another path to the exclusion option would be for government to legislate it. The law could theoretically prohibit commercial publishers from being involved in scholarly communication, though such legislation would probably have to apply only to works based on publicly-funded scholarship. The emergence of such legal restriction seems unlikely for a variety of reasons, including:
- Laws that constrain publishing options would be somewhat at odds with free-speech protections.
- There is a strong tradition in academia of authors retaining control over their written work (despite its having been produced while in the employ of an institution).
- Providing separate systems for the publication of publicly- and privately-funded research results would be unwieldy and probably highly unpopular.
- Many scholarly authors (rightly or wrongly) have no quarrel with the existing system and would see little point in altering it so fundamentally.
The Real Monopolists
When Monbiot bemoaned the “knowledge monopoly” as “unwarranted and anachronistic,” he was objecting—whether he knew it or not—to a system in which monopoly control is enjoyed first of all by the author. The current system is one in which authors generally trade monopoly control of their work for the prestige and added value that come from formal publication. Excluding commercial publishers from the academic marketplace would mean taking away the scholar’s right to decide where he or she will publish. Scholars tend not to support systems that take away that right, which is why so many institutional OA policies are not mandates in fact, but rather statements of organizational preference.
Funder mandates have more coercive power, of course, and represent a third option that seems slowly to be gaining ground. But mandates such as those put in place at the NIH and other federal granting agencies do not represent any transfer of power or control to the academy—in fact, just the opposite.
The Real Barrier
If we take it as given that of the three options outlined above—replicating, foregoing, and excluding—the one most likely to be accepted by authors is replication, then the question that remains is not whether academia could do it (the answer is almost certainly yes) but whether there is any reason to believe that academia is likely to do so at the current scale, absent coercion. To my mind, the real barrier to academia “taking back publishing” is the simple fact that academics are already quite fully employed and it’s not at all clear that a critical mass of them considers the existing system to be so broken that they would be willing to redirect significant resources to in-sourcing the functions currently fulfilled by commercial publishers.
There are libraries, departments, and other academic units publishing journals now, of course, and I think that’s a healthy development. But not not very many are doing so, and to my knowledge no academic unit is publishing scores or hundreds of journals the way many publishers do–the economies of scale available to Elsevier, to pick one example, are simply not available to any university’s chemistry department. In order to establish a major publishing enterprise, the unit would have to redirect significant resources away from other important functions. On the other hand, it’s true that there are many, many more academic units in the world than there are publishers, which means that no individual department would have to publish as many journals as, say, Wiley does in order for the system to continue at scale.
But maybe the current scale of publication isn’t worth preserving. Is it possible we just don’t need as many journals as we currently have? This proposition is somewhat belied by the constant growth in submissions that publishers report every year (for example this one, this one, and these). Clearly more and more research is being done, and more and more articles are seeking a home. While meeting that demand wouldn’t have to mean a constant proliferation of journal titles—after all, PLoS ONE reportedly published more than 23,000 papers itself in 2012—it would certainly require some other highly scalable solution, and the idea of any individual academic unit taking on a publishing project on the scale of PLoS ONE seems pretty silly.
What does this boil down to? My sense is that, for better or worse, we are unlikely to see a major shift in academic journal publishing out of the commercial sector and into the academic one anytime soon. Not because there aren’t downsides to the existing system, but because those who are freest to make meaningful decisions (authors and publishers) are the ones least likely to find fault with things as they are now and unlikely to see great value in either taking on (authors) or giving up (publishers) the roles that have accrued to them over the past few centuries. I may well be wrong. I guess we’ll see.