Ivory Towers
Ivory Towers (Photo credit: James F Clay)

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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


43 Thoughts on "On the Likelihood of Academia "Taking Back" Scholarly Publishing"

I would think the mechanism for this happening is already in place, and at least in the case of OUP, has been in place for over 500 years. There’s an entire network of university presses, owned and controlled by universities. There’s a tremendous number of research society owned journals, owned and controlled by the research community. There’s no need to build an entirely new infrastructure and put new burdens on libraries and faculty. If you really want academia to control academic publishing, then stop sending articles to and stop reading journals from commercial publishers.

Where you suggest that the currently “outsourced” roles played by commercial publishers would require replacement with academicians, there’s really no reason why they couldn’t continue to be outsourced to professionals, just professionals in the employ of the universities themselves. That’s how the most successful university/community-owned presses work (and I include PLOS in that group–they’ve done a tremendous job of hiring really smart publishing professionals and getting out of their way).

That said, the market has spoken, at least for the moment. There seems little interest from the research community on this (whatever happened to the Elsevier boycott, by the way?). Commercial companies thrive by being really good at what they do. Most researchers I work with have no idea who owns a given journal, or who publishes it. The question never crosses their radar. They care about the journal itself, and what it offers, not the source.

The question seems to be what Rick means by the “Academy” which is a vague term at best. His examples are libraries and departments so perhaps university presses and especially scholarly societies do not count. I would say the entire debate is fueled by vagueness.

David, you’re right that the academy has significant control over the publication of scholarly books, but the focus of my piece is actually on journals and journal articles — I thought I had put in some clarifying language to that effect, but maybe I failed to save the new draft. Hmm.

You also point out several good reasons why the academy seems to me unlikely to “take back publishing” in any decisive or large-scale way when it comes to journals.

I was talking about journals though, not books. OUP and CUP each published around 300 journals. Duke University Press publishes another 50, University of Chicago Press around 60, University of California Press another 50 plus. There are lots of self-publishing societies, and a large portion of the journals published by commercial houses like Elsevier, Wiley and Springer (including BMC) are owned by research societies and institutions who contract out for publishing services.

The alternatives exist, but this is not a priority for most of those selecting a venue for publication.

Self-publishing societies are not, for the most part, academic units, so they’re not really relevant to what I’m discussing here. And while UPs could theoretically be called “academic units,” it would take quite a shift of resources for them to pick up the slack if journals currently being published by non-academically-affiliated publishers were to be migrated to them. So I think you and I agree: the options exist, but for a variety of reasons they don’t seem to be particularly attractive to those whose decisions will shape the future of this business.

It’s an interesting line to draw–if a research society is made up of academic researchers, run by and for the benefit of the research community, why would you want to exclude them from any such movement as this? Again, it makes more sense to take advantage of existing infrastructure than to start from scratch.

I don’t want to exclude anyone from anything — but the question I’m considering in this piece is whether or not it seems likely that academic units will “take back” scholarly publishing from traditional publishers. Societies are traditional publishers, not academic units. Having members and readers who are academics doesn’t make you a part of the academy (defined here as “colleges and universities”), though it certainly does make you part of the larger community of scholars.

Fair enough–I tend to think though in terms of the “research community” rather than just academia. A great deal of research is done by commercial companies and by government entities. So any system would probably need to spread its nets in a fairly wide manner.

It’s important to look at both the university press and the society from another perspective. University presses are associated with individual universities; while it is true that more of them publish scholarly books than scholarly journals (both are scholarly publishing, and the distinctions between them are beginning to blur), they do NOT necessarily focus on disciplines prominent at their parent universities, and they do not primarily publish authors from their parent universities. This is important to think about because libraries are in the same position relative to the academy: they’re associated with an institution, not a discipline. Non-commercial scholarly journals, however, are organized in a completely different way: primarily by societies, that is to say, discipline focused. To my mind, that is a much more sensible way to organize and manage and conduct the scholarly conversation within a discipline; and I would argue that these societies _are_ part of the academy in the large sense. Their editors and boards are scholars, even if they hand off publication mechanics to a commercial publisher. I point all this out because when we speak of “taking back” publishing by the academy, and especially journal publishing, we need to be careful to think about the structural implications, how the scholarly conversation in a discipline is either consolidated or fragmented as an unintended consequence. There is in fact a strong trend for libraries to be taking over (which in some cases means “saving”) their sibling university presses; at the recent AAUP meeting there were quite positive reports from many on how well that is working out. But this should not be assumed to mean that the library is necessarily publishing the work of scholars at that university (in that case they’re mainly not) or even that there is any meaningful discipline focus. Let’s not leave out the ESSENTIAL role of societies in this conversation: they organize around disciplines rather than institutions, which I think is a fundamental consideration. Libraries (and university presses) are institution-specific and discipline-agnostic; societies are discipline-specific and institution-agnostic.

Sorry, by “David” I meant David Crotty (I entered my comment in the wrong place).

To David Wojick: by “the academy” I mean colleges and universities.

I take it then Rick that scholarly societies do not count, which seems a narrow definition indeed. But a university press like OUP is a counter example to your statement that “to my knowledge no academic unit is publishing scores or hundreds of journals” is it not?

Scholarly societies don’t count because they are not, for the most part, located within the academy (though many of their members are). OUP is indeed a counterexample — but it’s not representative. OUP is a very large (ca. 6,000 employees) publishing corporation with a .com domaine. If OUP takes over a journal, I’m not sure that really counts as the academy “taking it back” from the realm of commercial publishing.

For the record, OUP is a not-for-profit, a department of the University of Oxford. While there is certainly some separation between the two, and OUP is definitely run more like a business than a university department, we do answer to the academics at Oxford. Any undertaking, whether publishing a book or taking on a journal has to pass muster with a panel of academic delegates for approval.

OUP is technically a not-for-profit, yes. But come on. It’s a multinational corporate publishing giant (and a very good one). And while its affiliation with Oxford is real and meaningful, I think it would be a real stretch to characterize OUP as an “academic unit” in the sense I’m using the term here. But even if we were to agree that OUP is an academic unit in the same way that a physics department is, the case of OUP is so exceptional that I don’t think it tells us anything useful about the likelihood of academia “taking back” publishing in any kind of comprehensive way in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I disagree. If, as you suggest, the way to go is to replicate what’s in place and outcompete it, then you need to use the same methods the big commercial publishers use to such an advantage. If scale is such a great advantage (and it is), then you want an operation with scale. Essentially, you build groups that do the same things as the big corporations, but do so under the control of, and for the benefit of the academic community.

I think OUP and CUP serve as superb examples of how you’d actually get this done.

OUP and CUP do serve as great examples of how to get this done, but I don’t think they serve as examples of what other universities are likely to do in the future. Both OUP and CUP benefit from a centuries-old tradition (and infrastructure) of in-house publishing at their host institutions. Very few other universities have anything like the available capacity that would be needed to get something like OUP going on a similar scale today. You’re right that in order to do this you’d have to “build groups that do the same thing as big corporations.” And that’s exactly why I think it’s so unlikely to happen widely; most universities that I’m aware of are struggling to find classroom seats for their students and to renovate their labs. I just don’t think they’re likely to invest in the replication and subversion of an already-functioning publishing system that most academics (rightly or wrongly) seem to feel works just fine. In other words, I’m not saying that academia lacks the capability; I’m saying it lacks the surplus capacity or (failing the availability of surplus capacity) the will to redirect resources in the amounts that would be required to “take back publishing.”

I agree. Having worked at a university press that was seen by the administration as essentially another department of the institution, we constantly ran into problems–the other departments, all engaged in research and teaching, were there to spend money, while the press was there to make money. You can’t manage both groups simultaneously under the same sets of rules and oversight. Joe Esposito has written eloquently about these contrasting management needs many times on this blog.

But I do think there’s perhaps more life in consolidation and scale than you do. You are right that OUP and CUP have evolved over centuries to what they are now. But for example, OUP serves many smaller university presses by providing warehousing and fulfillment services. Because of our size, we can offer better rates than the smaller university presses can get on their own. For the reader, author and librarian, these sorts of arrangements are invisible, but they can greatly help make a university press operation more financially viable.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean partnering with an already existing big university press. One could easily envision a conosortium of smaller university presses pooling their resources to make a larger Voltron-like entity (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltron) without losing their own individual branding or control over their operations. Because scale is so increasingly important, and doubly so for open access publishing this to me seems like the logical path to take.

One could easily envision a consortium of smaller university presses pooling their resources to make a larger Voltron-like entity without losing their own individual branding or control over their operations.

Yes, I can envision something like that happening — though I’m not going to hold my breath. (Nor am I sure I’d characterize the resulting program as an example of academia “taking back” scholarly publishing. But I admit that when you start talking about UPs, the lines that separate academia from the commercial marketplace are less than perfectly straight and solid.)

OUP and CUP act exactly like commercial entities only with the massive (and many say unfair and distorting) advantage of the tax advantages of charity (in the UK) status.

OUP a charity: you’re having a laugh.

Of all the things we’ve outsourced, the evaluation of scholarly writing is least defensible. I include in this all publishers who must at least be financially self-sufficient. This would include university presses and scholarly organizations as well as commercial publishers. This factor shifts the focus away from merit and toward sale-ability.

How exactly is a peer review process, where the evaluation of scholarly writing is done by members of the research community, and a decision is rendered by an editor who is a working researcher “outsourcing”?

Peer review is done by members of the academy, but the initial evaluation of submissions and the subsequent peer-review process is typically managed by the publisher. If the academy were to pull those functions away from publishers, it seems to me that would represent a pretty significant undertaking.

Do you mean have a university peer review committee decide what to submit for publication and to whom?

I can see the university using outside reviewers but there would still be a perceived conflict of interest with the uni running the review, because they want their people’s stuff published.

I can imagine a peer-review system whereby reviewers are authorized only to review articles for other institutions’ journals (not for those published by their home institutions). But such a system would impose yet one more layer of complexity and managerial oversight — adding one more barrier to the possibility of academia “taking back” scholarly publishing.

Evaluation of submissions and the subsequent peer review process may be “managed” by the publisher, but the actual evaluations and decisions being made are being made by the Editors in Chief, the Associate Editors and the Editorial Board. What you’re talking about then, is the back end machinery and systems used to facilitate the work of the academics who are making the evaluations. It would be a huge (and expensive) undertaking for universities to take back all the scut work from publishers, but I’m not really sure why they’d want to do so.

Agreed. I don’t think they do want to do so, and I doubt that they can be forced to. That’s why I doubt that we’ll see academia “taking back” scholarly publishing anytime soon.

As you know, P&T committees rely, in part, upon the publication record assigning more or less weight to a citation based on the perceived prestige of the publisher. In addition to publications, we cite reviewer and editorial work. In other words, we all feed at the same trough.
We thus have an interest in the perpetuation of that organization whether it be a commercial or non-profit entity. Most of us do all this without an iota of monetary compensation. So where’s the motive?
The motive is to maintain and extend the prestige of that entity because, to do so, feathers our own nest. Promotion and tenure, review and editorial work all translate into higher salaries, greater security and all sorts of potential compensation beyond the professor’s institutional paycheck. It’s simply the way that this game has been played for generations.
All of this places pressure on reviewers and editors, especially in the larger commercial publishing sphere, to consider factors other than the merits of the scholarship before them.
Thus P&T committees are relying almost exclusively upon the sometimes self-serving judgements of external entities in coming to a decision as to whether a colleague’s scholarship is meritorious or not. This is outsourcing.

Again, is this “outsourcing” (defined by the OED as “obtain (goods or a service ) from an outside or foreign supplier, especially in place of an internal source”). If the evaluations are made by academics and the subsequent citations are made by academics, isn’t the academy making the call here?

There are indeed external pressures, and relying on something like the Impact Factor is not an ideal means of evaluating the work of a researcher. But aren’t the “external entities” making judgments you mention actually “internal entities” in many, if not most cases?

In journals merit and sale-ability are the same thing. The screening is by relevance and importance, which is merit.

There is a bit of straw-man-ship to the construction of these alternatives to the status quo. Assuming that the locus of publishing shifts to individual institutions, their libraries and departments assures a non-competitive, non-threatening publisher. Why not posit an academic organization on the scale of EduCAUSE that assists institutions large and small to create and disseminate all manner of academic publications, including but not limited to academic papers, textbooks, anthologies and so on – all digital of course.
An academic collective could enhance quality and reduce costs. Those costs are contributing to an existential threat to higher education so reducing them is a survival move.

Why not posit an academic organization on the scale of EduCAUSE that assists institutions large and small to create and disseminate all manner of academic publications, including but not limited to academic papers, textbooks, anthologies and so on – all digital of course.

One can certainly posit such a thing; I’m not saying it’s impossible. But for the reasons I outline in my piece (among others), I find such a development pretty unlikely.

Hi – I’m neither a scholar nor a a strictly-academic publisher (although I am a publisher). It would seem to me that today’s digital publishing tools empower societies and other such entities to easily “take back” the publishing of scholarly journals, without sacrificing formal peer-review, etc. Online publishing is not only cost-effective and technically-easily to implement, it is also the preferred way, at this point, to disseminate scholarly work in the most widespread and affordable manner possible, making important work available to the relevant academic and research communities without adding undue strain to already strained library budgets. In the absence of paper subscription administration, printing and mailing requirements, I really don’t see what a commercial or university press brings to the party. The paradigm has shifted. For what it is worth – Ed Renehan, New Street Communications, http://newstreetcommunications.com

It would seem to me that today’s digital publishing tools empower societies and other such entities to easily “take back” the publishing of scholarly journals, without sacrificing formal peer-review, etc.

The tools are certainly there, yes. What is not there, I think, is the surplus capacity amongst academic faculty. In order for them to take on the labor that is required to put those tools to use, academics would have to stop doing some of the things they currently do. For most academics, I don’t think that prospect is more attractive than simply sticking with the current system.

It’s a point I’ve made elsehwere–scientists hire someone else to wash out the dirty test tubes because this frees up time for them to do what they really want to do, perform experiments. Researchers likely could replicate all the dull, grinding, day-to-day work that a publisher does, but that would likely leave the little time for their “real” jobs.

Please allow me to play devil’s advocate as I envision journal publications continuing to become dinosaurs as fast, convenient, mobile access to Internet publications and research are written in easy to understand style for everyone to understand, even the general public looking for information to drive everything from health decisions to food choices and gardening . Just as cable TV and news media struggle to compete for a viable market share, scholarly journals seek a space and audience on the Internet. Perhaps universities need do nothing but wait for the demise of journal publications as the scholarly journal readership shift to quick, global, evidence-based new knowledge acquisition online.

Linda Carl is a professor for the Kaplan University online

That functionality is important, but it is not, in any way whatsoever a replacement for the functionality offered by journals. Journal articles are deliberately not written in an “easy to understand style for everyone to understand.” They are written for a professional audience with an assumption of a familiarity with the concepts of the field. Journal articles are meant for the specialist working at a high level and are often filled with jargon and difficult to penetrate for the lay reader. This is a deliberate choice. Asking every researcher to write up their results for a lay audience is incredibly inefficient, requiring each to write up the equivalent of a textbook for each result (should every molecular biology paper start with an explanation of DNA?).

Unless the library relies on Mellon or some other foundation to fund any new venture, most libraries struggle to just fund their day to day operations. I just don’t see many libraries with the business experience or commercial skills to become a real publisher. Taking on a new role with University support is not likely to happen. Even the many University Presses have a difficult time expanding their business. Universities are not good venture partners. Commercial publishers have little to worry about in the near future.

Interesting discussion. My first question is does the academy or whatever you call it have any desire to “take back” academic publishing? In my experience, probably not. The academics are just that academics and not publishers, and publishers are well publishers. David C, if I am correct you are an academic who became a publisher and there are publishers who became academics but does one really have time to be both?

David C. talks about the possibility of forming “a consortium of smaller university presses pooling their resources,” which leads Rick to respond that he won;t be holding his breath. Excuse me, gentlemen, but hasn’t Project Muse already been invented as just such a consortium? It was Muse that made it possible for smaller presses like Penn State (with a dozen journals) to make the transition from print to digital successfully (and is now trying to replicate that feat by adding ebooks to the aggregate mix). As for history, I believe it is accurate to say that before WWII most academic journal publishing was done by university presses and scholarly societies, not commercial publishers. Indeed, if you review the history of university presses, you will see that they were originally established (at Johns Hopkins, for example) precisely for the purpose of publishing scholarly journals, which at that moment in time (late 19th century) did not have a sufficient market to attract interest from commercial publishers. The great mistake of universities was to let commercial publishing entrepreneurs like Robert Maxwell enter the business after WWII rather than scaling up their already existing publishing infrastructures. Now, of course, the commercial journal publishing sector dwarfs that of university presses, and it is a real question whether the existing network of presses could scale up sufficiently to take over the tens of thousands of journals now issued by the commercial sector. Regarding societies, remember that some societies decided to outsource the publishing of their journal(s) to university presses rather than becoming publishers themselves; for example, Penn State Press published the annual Book History journal of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) for its first decade. (It is now published by Hopkins.) So, I’m not as pessimistic as Rick about the possibility of “taking back” academic journal publishing, but I agree that until commercial publishers start deciding to abandon the business in favor of investing their money elsewhere, a shift to the non-profits is not likely to happen in any major way.

Most new value-adding space relevant to publishing seems to be developed by non-publishers or non-traditional publishers. The opportunity for academia is maybe not to fight over existing assets – most of which were developed in the current ecosystem and would suggest an imagined past.

Rather, maybe the opportunity is to develop and redefine value-adding components in choke points of future ecosystems. That could be seen as ‘taking back’, pardon the semantics, but maybe there’s a tendency to think of existing assets and systems, when in the words of Wayne Gretzky, one should …skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

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