ivory towerEditor’s Note: This week we’ve featured two posts (here and here) which discuss the impact that large commercial publishers are having on libraries. The question was raised in our Comments–if “big deals” and sometimes ruthless business practices are problematic for libraries and the academic community as a whole, then why continue to do business with them? As Rick Anderson responded, the marketplace remains somewhat distorted, with poor signaling between those paying for journals and those using journals (his post discussing this in detail is worth reading). Back in 2013, Rick also addressed the question of whether it would be possible for academia to reclaim scholarly publishing from commercial publishers, and we present it again here to continue the conversation.

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.


20 Thoughts on "Revisiting: On the Likelihood of Academia “Taking Back” Scholarly Publishing"

Great revisit. It’s worth remembering of course that Scholarly journal publishing began as a private commercial exercise. Although Henry Oldenburg was secretary to the Royal Society, the Philosophical Transactions began as his own venture with his own capital. It didn’t become an official journal of the Royal Society until many years later.

So it could be argued ‘taking back’ would actually be ‘taking from’

Of course the structure and funding of academic institutions and research are very different now. But so are academic publishers. They have each co-evolved to provide arguably the best possible balanced systemic solution to the current needs of all those actors involved.

If and as those needs change of course then so will the solutions. Probably, though not inevitably, from commercially minded entities.

What higher education needs to take back is the responsibility for assessing the value of academic work. This is the lever that commercial publishers have used to extract valuable work from academics at little or no cost. With OER and self-publishing technologies on the rise, the value of publication is being eroded. Being published is no longer prima facie evidence of scholarly validation.
This has given rise to post publication peer review efforts such as Merlot. Should these schemes scale up to compete with commercial publishing, we may experience significant change in the way that scholarly work is shared.

Just to clarify one thing: I don’t think getting published, in itself, has ever been seen as prima facie evidence of scholarly validation. What has been seen that way is getting published by a journal or publisher with a reputation for picking the best scholarship. There really is a meaningful difference between having your book published by Oxford University Press and having it published by the Edwin Mellen Press, and there’s a meaningful difference between having your article accepted by Nature and having it accepted by Joe Bagadonuts Biology Review. Those meaningful differences can be inferred without reading the book or the article–where it’s published tells you something. It doesn’t tell you everything, of course, and it may not tell you everything you need to know, but it does tell you something meaningful. That’s what publishers have always sold to authors in exchange for copyright or a publishing license. It’s still what they sell to authors, and in the scholarly realm I don’t see the value of that arrangement being significantly eroded by self-publishing systems. Dissemination is easy and has relatively little market value; certification is hard and has great market value.

But, being published in a reputable peer reviewed journal is what creates value! As for post reviewing, that is like Monday morning quarter backing.

You publish an article and it is dismantled and the author abused and all the author can do is give a Roseannadanna Sorry!

University Presses (many run out of university libraries) have existed for over 500 years, and yet all are subject to the dominance of the Impact Factor.

Misuse of the Impact Factor does not stem from commercial publishers, nor from any publishers at all. It stems from academia and funding agencies and their problematic use of it to drive career advancement and funding decisions. Any use of the Impact Factor by journals is purely reactive to the emphasis that academia has placed on it. We only care about it because you care about it so much. You must cure the disease, not treat the symptoms. Creating another set of new journals in the same Impact Factor dependent environment will make no difference. Changing the way that universities and funding agencies assess the work of researchers cures the disease, and publishers will adapt accordingly.

Yes, addiction to chasing impact factor is a problem that resides with academics, and they need to be determined to fix it, or it won’t happen. But like any addict, they need help. The problem is that their addiction is fed by many commercial publishers; like drug dealers, they are essentially ‘selling’ an elite status symbol to addicted authors through inordinately high author (article processing) fees, and to libraries through excessive subscription costs for allowing reader access.

Part of the problem therefore resides with commercial publishers: Many of them and their editors are more concerned about preservation and elevation of journal impact factor, and competing with other journals for IF status, than they are concerned with dissemination of discovery. High impact factor generates profit for commercial publishers because there is a market willing to pay dearly for it: authors clamoring to find ways to pay for high article processing fees to open access journals; and libraries gouged by high journal subscription fees for reader access. In contrast, university libraries, as publishers, are more likely to be concerned with the dissemination of discovery. It’s what defines a university.

Not all researchers will be anxious to walk away from elitism; addiction can have a powerful hold. But for the brave and forward-thinking, having university libraries become the principal publisher of university research will motivate and enable researchers to experiment broadly with different models for identifying and using peer-review filters that are optimal for the progress of science and discovery, and to foster a new merit culture based on ‘author impact factor’ that is earned, rather than journal impact factor elitism, purchased from a profit-hungry commercial publisher.

Again, I think you’re looking in the wrong place and looking too much on the surface, rather than getting to the root cause of the problem you’re trying to fix. There are tons of journals out there run by mission-driven society publishers and mission-driven university presses. This has not significantly altered the publishing landscape in terms of its reliance on the Impact Factor. There are many journals that actively decry the Impact Factor and yet they are still subject to the same market conditions. And I’m sorry, but I can’t see university libraries being any more anti-IF nor any more committed to its elimination than the publishers who are signatories of DORA or journals like eLife or those from PLOS. What you’re talking about is already happening in the market and it is not changing the reliance on the Impact Factor. As PLOS ONE’s Impact Factor has risen and fallen, so have its article submissions, despite their open disdain for the Impact Factor.

Publishing is a service industry. The commercial publishers that are so successful are that way because they are good at supplying what their customers want. Change has to come from the top, it can’t be dictated from the bottom. Libraries don’t get to dictate to funding agencies and hiring/tenure committees.

University libraries are having trouble managing the collection within shrinking budgets and now you are advocating them taking on a very complicated business for which they have no training.

BTW the IF is created by those who use the Journals not by the publishers.

I agree — a worthy revisit! In the last couple of years, since the time when this post first appeared, there’s been some traction, albeit not (yet) a tectonic shift, in the growth of campus-based publishing operations, including (but certainly not limited to) the publications enabled by members of the Library Publishing Coalition and others, and announcements of new operations, publishing platforms, and publications run by libraries or other academic units seem an increasingly common occurrence. (See, for example, the story in last week’s Inside Higher Ed on the launch of the Lynn University digital press devoted to publishing textbooks: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/07/lynn-u-launches-digital-press-faculty-created-textbooks.)

I think it’s hard to disagree with the overall conclusion of the piece, 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.” But I’m wondering, given developments in this area, whether there’s anything in this post that, if he were to write it today, Rick would say differently. Or would he write it exactly the same way?

That’s a very fair question, Rebecca, thanks. I actually re-read the piece yesterday (knowing it would be posted today) with just that question in mind. And I think the short answer is no: there are indeed lots of exciting new projects (including the Open Access Network) that have emerged recently or are on the horizon, but most of them have yet to demonstrate proof of concept–or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, proof of sustainability. Many of the projects that have emerged recently are still dependent on start-up funding and have yet to emerge as real and going concerns. We also, I think, have yet to see proof of significance in most of these cases: certainly we’ve demonstrated that libraries can publish journals, for example, but I don’t think we’ve demonstrated that library-published journals can have a significant impact in the scholarly marketplace–though it’s still early days and it wouldn’t be fair to expect much impact yet.

So while the short answer to your question is “no,” I would qualify that by saying that in the context of the publishing economy, it’s still early days.

Fair enough, Rick! Thanks for continuing to examine the issues so thoughtfully. (And, of course, for mention of the Open Access Network!)

It seems very odd to me that there is no mention of university presses in Rick’s original article. He talks about “units” of universities engaged in journal publishing, but ignores university presses, which (as David Crotty reminds us) have been in the business of scholarly publishing for 500 years. Rick claims that scholarly journal publishing has been outsourced to commercial publishers “for centuries.” But is that true? Take a look at what happened in the US. University presses were first founded here in the late 19th century because scholarly journal publishing was suffering from a “market failure” problem. So Johns Hopkins set up a press to publish some scholarly journals in math and chemistry (the chemistry journal later became the flagship journal of the American Chemical Society). The “market failure” problem onbly disappeared after WWII when research funding for STEM fields rose dramatically and entrepreneurs like Robert Maxwell were clever enough to figure out how to make nice profits from this business. So I’d say the outsourcing rweallybegan in earnest, at least in the US, after WWII. University presses provide all the services that commercial journal publishers do, so there is no need for universities to reinvent the wheel. They can just take better advantage of the infrastructure already in place. The only question here really is whether universities are ready and willing to increase the scale of their journal publishing operations. I’m sure Rick knows all this history, so I am puzzled that he does not mention it and apparently thinks it to be irrelevant.

He talks about “units” of universities engaged in journal publishing, but ignores university presses

University presses are, generally speaking, organizational units of universities. So while I didn’t name them specifically as a category, I did include them on that basis.

I am certainly aware of the fact that many university presses publish journals, and that a few of them publish multiple journals. But (to repeat myself) to my knowledge, no academic unit (including university presses, except for a tiny number of outlier examples like Oxford) 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, or even to the great majority of university presses. In order to establish a major publishing enterprise, the unit would have to redirect significant resources away from other important functions.

So, yes: the academy is already publishing journals, and has been doing so for centuries. But my posting is about the great majority of scholarly journals, which are not published by academic units.

Of course universities can do a better job of publishing than those losers at commercial publishing houses: Universities are so much better managed! They’ve held their tuitions right at inflation levels, give or take a few hundred percent. They reward key employees appropriately, particularly football coaches, which ensures their loyalty. And, administrators have held the line on library budgets to ensure money is not wasted on a vastly increased number of journals. What could possibly go wrong with universities taking over journal publishing?

Seriously, there are good and bad publishers, both commercial and university. You have to judge each individually. There is no panacea.

The market for scholarly journals is declining and this will be the great driver of publishing soon. Once the folks who invest in the publicly traded publishers realize that the library expenditures will continue to shrink and the federal funding for research and hence open access publishing will continue to shrink as well, then these increasingly non-viable publishing models will decline as well as investors remove their monies. For a while, libraries became places where funds could be saved by going digital, but those savings have been normalized and the administrators’ demands for cuts are increasingly hitting research journals. And the open access funds from universities for publishing are paltry and not growing because they were really small pots of money granted to libraries from their overall savings. When one examines how librarians are cutting collections, they are using usage data, which makes their collections biased towards teaching rather than research. Soon the pressure to purchase individual titles from the big publishers will become too great for them to ignore, and I have heard librarians talk about buying single articles for researchers. To make matters worse, consortia at home and abroad are sharing titles, with and without permission, meaning that the new markets will not be as great as some once thought they would be.

Actually, no. The journals market is growing. It is not growing at the rate it once did, but it continues to eke out single-digit gains every year. Perhaps a crisis is coming, but it isn’t here yet.

Thanks you JE. Is that growth because of the expansion of the overseas markets? Is it decidedly STEM based? What source do you recommend to lift the hood on the trends?

Strongest growth is international in STM. The U.S. market appears to be growing in very low single digits. Best source is Simba, which markets marketing analyses. Also see the summaries from Outsell and the Wall St. analysts that track the public companies.

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