africa-466602_640Scholarly publishing, like any industry or profession is subject to interpretation, from within, from without, from adjacent industries and from random people walking down the street. As the discourse surrounding scholarly publishing increases, we thought it would be informative to Ask The Chefs: What is the biggest misconception people have about scholarly publishing?

Joe Esposito: I wish to exercise my right to take the Post-modern Fifth on this one: I refuse to answer because it would imply that there is a “me” that could be incriminated. One can only have a gripe about a misconception if there is a reasonably agreed-upon conception in the first place. Scholarly communications is not like that; few things are. It’s big and hairy, not unlike the elephant probed by the iconic blind men. Touching the trunk we say that scholarly communications is all about research funding; putting our hand on the massive belly, we say that scholarly communications is all about large institutional practices; as we pick up the tail, we say that scholarly communications is all about distribution and access. None of these perspectives is necessarily wrong, but they are all incomplete. It’s a fool’s errand, I believe, to seek the Unified Field Theory for what is essentially a social enterprise.

Meanwhile, sipping our Post-prandial Fifth, we might ask why the blind men are men or why we are privileging pachyderms.

Kent Anderson: There’s a lot of competition for this spot, so given the multi-point tie at the top in my mind between winners like “scientists don’t run scholarly publishing” (yes, they mostly do) to “publishers don’t do much” (yes, they really do), I’ll pick one that seems a little more muscular and enduring than the others — the misconception that scholarly publishing is essentially like other forms of publishing (music publishing, newspaper publishing, magazine publishing, mass media digital publishing). 

This misconception pops up in surprising places, from board members who want to run luxury car ads to editors who want to write cute headlines and run news operations to librarians who dislike having to pay for unpopular (i.e., low-usage) content to marketers who can’t quite message the audience correctly because of this same misconception.

We spend time comparing ourselves to iTunes or the New York Times or Vanity Fair or the Huffington Post or Facebook. Not only are these comparisons mostly misleading and uninformative, but they also can obscure what we do really well. In fact, from a technology standpoint, business model perspective, infrastructure aspect, and expertise angle, we are miles ahead of many of the industries we spend time comparing ourselves to. Magazine publishers don’t have their version of ORCID or CrossRef or COUNTER. Newspaper publishers don’t have their version of CHORUS. Our digital transition hasn’t been easy, but it didn’t lead to thousands of layoffs in a short time period like the music industry’s transition or the newspaper industry’s transition.

We also publish non-commodity information, generally. In addition, since science and scholarship are better if not judged as popularity contests, low-usage titles need support. They may generate the next breakthrough we all need in energy or health. For most of the others we compare ourselves to, low-usage signals a problem. For us, we need to keep these shoots growing.

Not only are we a unique and interesting type of professional publishing, we’re vitally important to high-end knowledge generation and may rightly claim to have navigated the digital waters better than most information industries. But we can’t relax. It seems to have served us well to be a bit anxious. 

Rick Anderson: Different people have different misconceptions, obviously. The one that I hear most frequently in my line of work, and that I think is the “biggest” in terms of the distorted view it helps to perpetuate about scholarly publishing, is the idea that scholarly authors generally care first and foremost about reaching the broadest possible readership. This is demonstrably untrue, since authors eagerly, constantly, and in growing numbers compete with each other to place their work in publications that have limited audiences and that only grant access to those who pay for it. Authors who care primarily about reaching the largest possible number of readers would never think of publishing in formal journals — they would put their work online and place it in the public domain (which can be done easily and instantly by applying a CC0 waiver). The fact that they don’t typically do this — that instead, they deliberately place their work behind paywalls — indicates that their primary goal is something other than broad readership. Importantly, it also suggests that outreach and evangelism efforts towards authors that focus on helping them reach the largest possible readership are putting the cart before the horse. First you need to understand what authors actually want, and if you find that they don’t want the things you believe they should, then you need to start by helping them to see the desirability of what you think they should want. (And of course, if you fail in that attempt, there are always mandates.)

David Smith: People. Not just scholars. It’s tempting, VERY tempting to talk about how scholars seem (in general, not the small numbers that publishers heavily interact with) to not fully grasp the complexity of the ecosystem in which they operate, attributing power and capabilities to publishers that do not exist in reality; not perceiving the things that publishers enable or facilitate. We should take a long hard look at why this is so (TL:DR we collectively suck at PR).

But there’s a bigger and far more important misconception. Scholarly Publishing is about the artefacts of research; the advances, the breakthroughs, and the mis-steps along the way. The fact is that people overwhelmingly do not realize that research outputs are mostly incremental, variably definitive, and subject to refinement and revision and refutation as more information comes in. People all too often think that research is spurious or irrelevant to day-to-day concerns. And this enables narratives that are very damaging to humanity. The vaccine controversy; Climate change; Whether “it” causes or cures cancer; Makes you fat; causes health problems, the list goes on. I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. But we need to work hard to counter this, to enable people to better understand the power of the scientific method.

Alice Meadows: The biggest misconception people outside of our world have about scholarly publishing is that it’s boring. Nothing could be further from the truth! Frustrating, depressing, annoying? Yes, but only sometimes. Fun, thought-provoking, inspiring? More often than you’d think. But boring? Almost never… Despite it apparently being a Chinese curse, I think we are lucky to live in such interesting times. Our industry has changed almost beyond recognition since I started in scholarly publishing — thankfully, since it probably was a bit boring back then! 

For people in scholarly publishing — and in scholarly communications more broadly — I think there’s a misconception that our community is irreconciliably divided. Given the sometimes polarized and polarizing differences of opinion between a few loud voices on a few key issues (open access, publisher profits, embargoes, etc) — including on The Scholarly Kitchen at times — it’s easy to see why people perceive us this way.  And sometimes it feels like they’re right. But in my experience the vast majority of librarians, publishers, associations, and others who work in scholarly publishing are well-informed, dedicated, and collegial. Some may hold strong, and sometimes strongly opposing, views but we all share a common purpose — to serve the research community. Our differences may make for interesting and sometimes frustrating debate, but ultimately most of us have more in common than you might think at first glance. 

Michael Clarke: The biggest misconception that people have about scholarly publishing is that it is (perennially) on the verge of being “disrupted.” STM and scholarly publishers, you see, don’t understand the internet, despite being among the first media producers there. They don’t understand the way the Internet works, despite being among the first to actually figure out how to make money online, developing a site license for content as early as 1998 (site licenses existed for software but to my knowledge no one had then applied the concept to publications). They are dinosaurs, despite having developed sophisticated digital platforms with standardized and interoperable metadata (DOIs, ISNIs, ORCIDs). Despite this, scholarly publishers (who have been digital first since before the New York Times even knew enough to know that it wasn’t) are characterized by news and tech media as hopeless brontosauri with their tails caught in a tar pit as the meteor approaches. I guess if you predict a meteor strike long enough you are eventually bound to be right. But in this instance, I’ll short the meteor and go long on the sauropods. 

Phill Jones: No doubt, some of the other chefs will point out that in much of the debates around publishing, access and its associated costs, there’s an assumption among some people that things like organizing peer review and globally distributing content via the internet costs either nothing or very little to do. That’s a fairly obvious area of misunderstanding but I think a more fundamental area of confusion (one that perhaps at least partially responsible for the frustration) is the definition of the word ‘publisher’ itself. Commercial publishers, learned societies, and university presses have a lot in common, but they also have significant differences in terms of both form and function. This conflation of multiple types of businesses under the single term leads to enormous amounts of confusion in discussions surrounding scholarly publishing reform.

For example, there is a persistent misapprehension that large commercial publishers want to maintain the subscription business model for it’s own sake. The reality is that commercial publishers have been experimenting fairly aggressively with open access for some time now. After all, as large businesses with lots of products, they can afford to experiment. From where I’m sitting, the biggest roadblock for open access today is the concern that learned societies (who often publish only one or two journals) have of losing the revenue source that pays for all the conferences, travel grants and summer schools that the society provides.

Angela Cochran: I think the biggest misconception is that peer review is free or cheap because the editors and reviewers are volunteers. At a time when journals are receiving more and more submissions, peer review management is actually getting more expensive. When I talk about managing peer review I am including journal management/editorial board management too because apparently those outside of an editorial office don’t see that expense either. That’s okay because we are supposed to be invisible.

Peer review management involves systems that are huge and complex. The more journals you have the more work it requires. These systems are not free to use and it’s important to note that rejected papers carry an expense in cost but also staff and editor time. In addition to the systems, which have certainly made peer review management much more efficient, there are also staff peer review coordinators that assist the editors in keeping papers moving through the system. These staff members also QC papers and field questions from authors, reviewers, and editors.

Added “recently” to the job of journal editorial departments are CrossCheck reports (which are not free) and the enormous amount of time spent on ethical issues and investigations. One of my staff members spends about 15% of her time reading technical papers against similar papers and highlighting where they overlap. Two other staff members spend about 25% of their time investigating, emailing authors, and discussing ethics issues and their resolution with editors.

Lastly, even volunteer editors are often provided either an honorarium or in our case at ASCE, a small amount for administrative support so they can have an on-site administrator help with their workload. We also pay for travel to editorial board meetings and editor workshops. 

There is more (for the sake of saving space here, I may elaborate more in a separate post), but the bottom line is that peer review is not free. Yes the reviewers are volunteers but systems and staff are required to ensure that things go as well as possible.

Karin Wulf: Among my peers, humanities scholars, the biggest misconception about scholarly publishing is that journal publishing could be or should be “free.” Despite lots of experience with peer reviewing, even with editing, there is still a lack of understanding about the expenses and revenue associated with producing journals. One source of the confusion is surely that so many journals are now tucked into larger university presses and so the actual costs of any particular journal’s production can be a bit hard to distinguish. But a larger source of confusion is the notion that so much of journal labor production is already “free.” Peer reviewers do not get paid by the journal, and many faculty editors are “paid” for their service by their university administration through course releases or a stipend. The costs of copyediting, typesetting, proofing, preparing for online as well as print, and then printing are hidden when most readers view a journal online and that labor and skill seems to require little more than what it takes me to type this up on my laptop. And the drumbeat about skyrocketing journal pricing makes even a much-less-than-break even journal like the one my institute publishes seem like gougers. I have written about this, spoken about it, offered careful analyses and yet still I hear this very regularly even from people who have heard me and others discuss it before.

Ann Michael: Some observations. I’ll try not to get too philosophical, but I’m not making any promises.

  1. From reading this post, reading many of the comments that occur on this blog and others, seeing some of the conversations that are happening as part of the Open Scholarship Initiative as well as other list serves and private email communication channels, and generally listening to presentations at a variety of conferences and closed meetings, it seems as though many of us are guilty of evaluating the entire elephant (to go back to Joe’s metaphor) from our perspective standing 2 inches away from it. It’s bigger than it looks and has more moving parts than any one of us can see.  From our view, it is difficult for any of us to understand another’s perspective of the same beast, let alone derive any bigger “truths” if we don’t share information and work together.
  2. We tend to describe “scholarly publishing” with one broad brush. We over simplify our points and descriptions, causing the issues and facts to blur. What’s true in one discipline may not be true in another. So people can have legitimately differing yet perfectly justifiable positions because they are talking about different parts of the beast. What’s worse, the elephant doesn’t represent scholarly publishing. Scholarly publishing is more like all pachyderms (some are elephants, rhinos, hippos, etc.). So some of us aren’t even looking at an elephant!
  3. Scholarly publishing is important. It impacts researchers, scientists, clinicians, patients, populations, and individuals. Because of its importance, discussions get emotional and sometimes those emotions get in the way of logical, analytical, and productive discourse. Emotion does have a place in the discussion, but it would be wonderful if it weren’t the first place we went.
  4. And finally, the loudest voices tend to be those at opposite ends of the spectrum. The opposite ends are useful in determining the scope of the issues we need to resolve. However, they often silence the middle. Sometimes this is because those interested in compromise or those that see value in opinions that differ from their colleagues are intimidated (they don’t want to get slammed by #3 above). It may be because any position that does not represent one of the polar opposites is immediately discarded and sometimes considered sacrilege by both sides. Not jumping in may not be because of fear or cowardice, it could be the result of simple math. We all need to pick the hill we’re willing to die on, don’t we?

Now it’s your turn. What do YOU believe is the biggest misconception people have about scholarly publishing?

Speak your mind – and be nice 🙂



Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

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49 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: What Is The Biggest Misconception People Have About Scholarly Publishing?"

The biggest misconception about “scholarly publishing” is that it adds a value to research articles that cannot be added by the unmediated effort of scholars themselves.

Many of the functions in scholarly publishing are conducted by scholars themselves — editors, reviewers, statisticians.

The most important ones indeed! So what is the value added by the “publisher” other than a brand associated with prestige?

I’m only responding because I’m succumbing to this sensation:

All of your answers are available, by the way. You just need to do some homework. But here’s a starting point.

What is the role of a university? It organizes scholars for dedicated work, mostly teaching and research, while providing students with a path to their own success. What is the role of a specialty society? It supports scholars and their careers and ambitions, while creating a community. What is the role of a publisher? It organizes scholars to evaluate and prioritize research reports and other intellectual outputs, creates destinations and incentives for research reports, and provides services to the scientific and scholarly community so that each individual researcher can be more productive and doesn’t have to attend to these things themselves.

Each of these is integral to the construct we call “science.”

For some interesting reading that could answer many of your questions:

Happy reading!

Thank you Ken for taking the time. I assure you I have done my homework and read both of your pieces when they came out. But I can also assure you that none of these reasons is why we try to publish in traditional journals. As I just replied to David bellow, researchers are obsessed with publications in journals only to promote their careers. When (and if of course) we manage to change the author reputation system and dissociate it from publications in journals, all other arguments regarding the importance of traditional publishers will simply collapse.
You can now go back to bed 🙂

> What is the role of a publisher? It organizes scholars to evaluate and prioritize research reports and other intellectual outputs, creates destinations and incentives for research reports, and provides services to the scientific and scholarly community so that each individual researcher can be more productive and doesn’t have to attend to these things themselves.

Some (/many?) people believe that traditional academic publishers are not adequately fulfilling this role, so the original question still stands. Publishers might do 96 things, but which of these things are actually helping to organise scholars, evaluate research, create good incentives, etc?

Well, you’re welcome to create something better. If the barriers to change and innovation are as low as you believe, and everyone is seeking some other way, and the functions of publishers are so easily dismissed, you should have a pretty easy job ahead of you.

I’m not sure why you would suggest that I think improvement is easy. My only point is that the original question seems fair and it could be answered in a more constructive way than a dismissive “All of your answers are available…You just need to do some homework”.

That list of 96 things and many of the comments about it remind me of a response that was made toward complaints of bloat in Microsoft Word. Why is this program getting so big, it was asked? Most people only use 5% of the program’s features. The response was that yes, most people only use 5% of its features, but no two people use the same 5%. Because something doesn’t fit into your workflow or meet your needs doesn’t mean that it isn’t important for the needs of someone else in the ecosystem (see point 1 in Monday’s post ( There are a lot of players and a lot of moving parts here. Not everything is done just for the direct sake of the scholars themselves.

This my reply to this comment and the one above by Kent. Publishers obviously look for business opportunities and scholars try to promote their careers. The rest of the “players” are also motivated by private interests. That’s in line with the current level of human consciousness. The issue is that we should start trying to move beyond individual interests, look at the big picture and investigate models that would provide the biggest benefit for humanity as a whole. I think it is clear that our common objective should be to raise research standards and boost scientific quality. The current model allows mediocre research to stay afloat and is convenient for scholars and publishers alike. It allows survival, but is an obstacle to progress. Kent, if it were easy we would already be doing it. It is big paradigm shifts that require a lot of energy to fight inertia that push systems forward. It will take time and effort, but we will inevitably get there.

It strikes me that you are looking for a much larger societal change, if not a change in human nature itself, rather than just a change in the academic career system. Best of luck to you.

Research is supposed to be a mission for discovery, facilitated by dissemination through pre-publication peer-review, and a reputation economy built from post-publication merit (e.g. citation) ranking. Sadly, however, researchers (yes, of course, because of human nature) are largely motivated instead by a mission for elitism, facilitated by editors who use pre-publication peer-review filters as a censorship tool to preserve and elevate their journal impact factors, to compete with other journals for IF status, and to feed researcher addiction to chasing impact factor elitism. The main point here is that traditional journals are needed for the latter mission, but not for the former mission, should researchers choose to embrace it. Cultures can change dramatically when enough people start choosing to do the right thing.

A lot of this broad idealistic fervor is focused on scholarly publishing because publishing is a well defined target.

Yes, it is easier to ask someone else to change than to set one’s own house in order.

Just a final remark in reply to David’s (Crotty) misleading comment bellow.

It would be naive to “ask someone else to change”. This has never been nor will ever be my intention. I am just investigating the deepest motivation for our choices in order to help everyone make more conscious and therefore responsible decisions. Whatever you decide on this —or any other issue— is your own matter and directly reflects your personal understanding of life and reality. After all, every choice is a choice between fear (power, prestige) or love (collaboration, caring for others) and, thankfully, choices are free!

And I agree with David (Wojick) that in the grand scheme of things, benefitting authors —and therefore most arguments in favor of the current system— is absolutely irrelevant.

David C, your comments seem to be dismissive of the idealists. This is often a weak strategy, politically. STEM journal publishing is becoming a regulatory regime and governments can be sensitive to social movements. These folks are arguing social and scientific good. Shorter embargo periods and lower APC caps are obvious political responses, basically strangling the industry. These arguments need to be met.

It was not my intention to be dismissive of the rather noble intentions here. What I am trying (perhaps poorly) to say is that publishing is not at the root of the issues being described. What Pandelis is talking about here is the academic career structure and the entire system of research funding. There are more people who want jobs and funding than the system will support, hence, over the last few hundred years, a competitive ecosystem has evolved. Publishing reflects this system, but is not directly responsible for the behaviors the system both inspires and requires.

If you remake the system of scholarly publishing, it will not solve the inherent issues that are caused by the career and funding infrastructure in place. Take publishing out of the picture and the same pressures still exist and something else will just move into the same space and exhibit the same problems.

Rather than treating the symptoms, one must treat the disease itself. Reform the academic career and funding structure and publishing will have no choice but to adapt to the new system put in place.

And that is why I have said above that the problems that Pandelis is trying to solve here are much bigger than publishing, and that while publishing makes an easy target (everyone hates publishers after all), it’s a distraction from the actual issues he’s trying to solve, issues which are much harder, and require taking on those in power in academia and at funding agencies, who are going to be much more difficult targets. Those for whom the current system works quite well are going to be difficult to convince, and they are the same ones who hold all the power.

I could not agree more with David C’s last comment. If you read again my comments you will not find any signs of “hatred” towards publishers. Instead, I mention that the primary “target” should be the “author reputation system”. In fact, with your permission David I may cite this comment of yours in future talks about scholarly reforms.

Feel free to cite, but to be clear, I’m not advocating for widespread change in academia. As a publisher, I’m a step outside of the career/funding system, and don’t feel that it is my place to dictate to researchers and administrators how they should run their livelihoods.

Unmediated basically means it won’t get done. Go look at bioarxiv and count the number of preprints with no comments or reviews. Take a look at F1000 Research and count the papers with partial or no peer reviews. Without someone actively driving the process, it doesn’t happen.

Time is a researcher’s most precious commodity. I have yet to meet a successful researcher with a lot of spare time. Most are under an increasingly unbearable load of obligations, teaching, grant writing, committees, mandates, policies, etc., and that’s all on top of the actual main function of their jobs, doing research. We know that researchers outsource anything that they can–no one in the lab washes their own test tubes, they hire someone else to do it, no one sequences DNA themselves anymore, you send it out and have someone else do it in order to save time and effort. Publishing is much the same, an outsourcing of things you need to have done but don’t want to spend enormous amounts of time doing yourself.

I know few scientists who want to increase their workload, and particularly, to increase it by doing things that take away from time spent doing research. Most are a bit resentful of the time they have to spend away from the bench writing up and submitting a paper. The idea of massively increasing that timesink by requiring them to do all the functions that publishers provide is likely not going to be met with enthusiasm. Researchers have deliberately made a career choice, to spend their time doing research. If they wanted to spend their time chasing down late peer reviewers and copyediting, they likely would have made a different career choice.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe your OpenScholar program will indeed convince researchers to take time away from the bench/clinic to do administrative publishing work. That still won’t fulfill many of the things that publishers offer–who will build better online systems and platform improvements, services like ORCID, CrossRef, CHORUS, FundRef iThenticate, systems for providing peer review credit, citation and usage tracking, altmetrics, registering DOIs, connecting data to papers, semantic tagging, SEO, heck, even customer service for when your posted paper doesn’t render right in someone’s browser? There’s an awful lot that publishers do (, and many of the services are not just aimed at researchers. Hard to see researcher taking on many of these activities on top of their already busy schedules.

Actually we spend a lot more time trying to publish in journals than we would if we simply self-archived. I remember Rubriq made a rough estimate of the time and money lost for resubmissions after rejections. So time is not an issue. As for the services publishers provide, first most of them can be now offered for free by platforms with very low maintenance costs, and second they are not the reason why we want to publish in traditional journals. To put it bluntly, we do it for fame and money, and publications in “big” journals promise just that. When we manage to change the prestige system all other arguments regarding the importance of traditional publishers will simply colapse.

Actually we spend a lot more time trying to publish in journals than we would if we simply self-archived. I remember Rubriq made a rough estimate of the time and money lost for resubmissions after rejections. So time is not an issue.

But there is a difference between idle time waiting for publication, and time that is actively spent doing the work of publication. If you submit an article and have to wait 6 weeks to get reviews back, you can spend that time doing more experiments or writing your next grant. If instead, you spend all day, every day of those six weeks doing publishing work (finding peer reviewers, chasing down late reviews, editing, DOI registration, reference checking, typesetting) then you won’t be doing your “real” job. You are confusing what can be a slow pace of publication with actual time spent working on publication.

And if you simply self-archived, you would have an undifferentiated and unreviewed literature. Most researchers don’t want to spend even more time sifting through rough manuscripts that no one has vetted. Again, you’re asking for even more time taken away from research and more time spent doing the work of editors.

When we manage to change the prestige system all other arguments regarding the importance of traditional publishers will simply colapse.

Or traditional publishers will adapt to the new system that is put in place (and make no mistake, there will always be a system) and will do just fine supplying the services that are needed to make it run. See Michael Clarke’s point above about disruption.

I am talking about the time spent trying to convince initial reviewers, reformat for a different journal, reply to new reviewers, etc. Finding suitable reviewers is also easier and faster for authors who know better than anyone the experts in their fields. That’s why editors increasingly ask authors to suggest reviewers.

As for the capacity of publishers to adapt to new systems they have already proven that with Gold OA.

Yes, that is indeed work, and there are many new developments in progress meant to reduce that work–journals that will not ask for revision, merely making a yes/no decision, format-free submissions and the like. Again, that is still less work than taking on everything else that is involved in publishing.

Finding suitable reviewers is also easier and faster for authors who know better than anyone the experts in their fields

And also much more susceptible to bias and conflicts of interest. Is there any value at all in having a neutral third party handle review, or should we each get to hand pick our critics?

As for the capacity of publishers to adapt to new systems they have already proven that with Gold OA

Absolutely! The big traditional commercial publishers are making a fortune off of OA. a great example of how adaptable the industry is and will continue to be.

Scholarly publishing is a service industry ( We do what we do because it meets the needs academia has asked us to meet. If academia decides on a new system, we will adapt to it.

Pandelis is right. If authors were not addicted to chasing impact factor prestige, most traditional publishers would go extinct. Self-publication for academics is now very easy to do for very little cost using electronic, open access platforms supported by their host university libraries — including with doi registration and peer review, and also including ‘branding’ represented by the host university name. With open peer review, authors can easily contact and make their own arrangements with good, reputable peer-reviewers. And by naming these reviewers within the published paper (after necessary revisions) — together with optional reviewer commentary — this provides public endorsement of the article by recognized scholars, and at the same time gives public recognition credit for the reviewers’ work.

Authors want priority and reputation. Academia is a reputation-based culture. Why strive to get into Harvard or Oxford over the University of [Rival State or Province Name Here]? Why try to get a job at a prestigious university? Why try to publish in a prestigious journal? These incentives run deep, and are integral to academic culture. What seems to be overlooked in these comments is that a lot of open review and sharing already goes on — yet journals remain important signals of what that all adds up to, in a reputation economy. If you can make academia into something that isn’t based on multiple layers of reputation (where trained, degrees, publication history, awards, prizes) . . . then you may be able to change it. However, what is the motivation to publish your research then? As Paula Stephan notes, publication is competitive, and penalizes shirking. Scientists and academics have outputs that are hard to measure. Publication motivates sharing of information, and reduces shirking. It does this by establishing priority and reputation.

I’m not sure if there is an “open mike” segment to this blog entry, but if there were I would say:

Speaking on behalf of the majority of librarians (my chosen line of work), the biggest misconception is the failure to recognize that the main customers or clients of the scholarly publishing world are authors not readers.

Of course, readers depend on scholarly publications to inform their research but not as much as authors depend on scholarly publications to disseminate theirs.

I think the whole Gold OA (for better or worse) business model recognizes this.

If the traditional reader-pays scholarly publishing business went entirely to an article-by-article basis, I assume that some editors/publishers would begin to look at each submission with an eye toward how much (if any) revenue it would generate. And I also assume that a lot of content wouldn’t be published based on extremely limited potential sales.

Alvin – it certainly is “open mike” and I think you make a great point.

The traditional model of publishing (subscription) was certainly geared toward readership and curating a body of content that was valued by a certain audience. It seems as though it was also geared toward the “I want to stay informed” use case versus the “I need to further my specific research” use case.

Open access is almost completely geared toward the researcher/author in two ways – first (depending upon acceptance rates – OA journals are not often 100% acceptance) they are in more control of the “buying decision” aka where they publish. And when looking for articles of relevance to their current or future research they can access those articles for free.

I do think there is a place for all of these use cases. Some “readers” sometimes find it hard to know what is the most important research – the most important things for them to be aware of. That doesn’t mean you can’t curate content post publication. But in the market research we’ve done, staying informed is still a valid use case.

I think this gets to Joe’s point about the elephant–who are the customers for journals? Readers? Yes, much of our efforts are put towards producing journals that readers want to read. But they don’t often pay the bills themselves. Librarians? Yes, they are often the ones making the buying decision, but they don’t read the journals directly themselves. Advertisers? There are some journals that bring in enormous amounts of advertising revenue, even some that are “controlled circulation” and freely distributed, so for many, advertisers are the customers. Authors? For OA journals directly and for subscription journals indirectly, to be sure. Research societies? For a publisher working with a society, much work is put toward producing a journal that the society makes available to its members as part of their membership package, so they must be seen as a customer as well. I could go on, but you get the point. There are many “customers” for any particular journal, and as was mentioned Monday (, “where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Interesting comment regarding the subscription model. It seems that before the subscription model there was well basically OA. You see when I started doing this publishing thing there were page charges and very low subscription fees. But, it seems that the authors complained about this model because it was an expense on them. So the publishers – both commercial and society/association – went to the subscription model in order to end this burden of cost and the authors applauded this act.

As the OA movement grows and it will, I think we will find that those who are unfunded will not be published – we will be back to the page charge debate – and those who can attract funds will be published. Why even the mighty Plos has raised their rates and others are following suit.

Alas, that basic law of economics prevails: There is no free lunch!

So in essence Ann you are mistaken.

I don’t recall saying there was a free lunch.

What I am saying is that when you dissect “scholarly publishing” by the norms, practices, funding options, etc. of each discipline, content type, etc, different things will work in different places. As a result, OA will be another tool in the toolbox of research dissemination. It will not go away – neither will subscription. The audiences, use cases, and disciplines will settle in to what works best for them.

The laws of economics to which you refer are yet another broad generalization. The economics are different in different parts of this ecosystem.

There are a few important possible concerns with this “author as customer” model:

1. “Author” and “reader” are roles people adopt, not separate people. Scientists and scholars are readers roughly 100x more often than they are authors, and more scientists and scholars are only readers, and are never authors.

2. Catering to a narrower customer base centralizes the economics. Catering to the broader customer base decentralizes the economics. Centralized (clustered) economics means more risk and higher prices for each participant. Decentralized (spread) economics means less risk and lower prices for each participant.

3. If authors are the customer, there is the risk that publishers lose their independence to reject papers and send them away. This could weaken the signaling potential, and give too much leverage to funders, many of which are corporate and/or have intellectual biases. I’ve already heard stories of publishers who have asked editors to agree to accept more papers and loosen standards in order to make Gold OA work financially. Is that what we want?

4. Are you actually advocating that papers be evaluated based on how much revenue they’d generate? And that only those things that “sell” should be published? If so, I stand by the biggest misunderstanding I listed. This is not how scientific and scholarly publishing should work. Science is not a popularity contest, but a contest of ideas and evidence. Most evidence starts small, and often from an unpopular angle.

In addition to Kent’s point about a contest of ideas and evidence, that’s an infinite contest – we don’t know and are often terrible at predicting which ideas will be useful when. High quality scholarship usually cannot compete in a marketplace nor should we want it to- publishing has to be sustainable of course but that’s a different matter.

That’s a vey interesting argument, Kent.

I’d say that to a certain extent, the subscription model can result in the dynamic that Alvin describes. Collection managers in libraries base their renewal decisions on metrics like download counts, cost per download, and impact factor (the only function that IF was actually designed for). This creates competition to put together highly read, highly cited journals to demonstrate value to librarians.

This raises the question of what quality in scientific work actually is. If, by loosening standards, we mean that papers that lack rigour are accepted then that’s a bad thing, but if by loosening standards we mean that editors no longer put as much stock on whether a given article is likely to get cited a lot and just evaluate it on the quality of the science done, then I’m all for that.

All business models carry risk of distorting the scholarly record. I suspect it’s inevitable. The ones that you identify for OA are real risks, but it’s also important to acknowledge the risks of library pays or research pays models too. At APE, Bernd Pulverer, talked about how in recent decades there has been a shift away from dispassionate reporting and towards narrative and as a consequence, instead of trying to disprove their hypotheses, researchers increasingly look for experiments to ‘prove’ them. That presentation rung very true to me because I remember being accused of naivety for trying to follow the scientific method as I was taught it and being put under pressure to over-interpret results.

The reason why this is a misunderstanding is that the dynamic I describe is insidious and has been slowly getting worse for so long that we haven’t noticed it.

Thanks, for your comments, Kent.

I’m not advocating the evaluation of the marketability of papers. Rather I was trying (and perhaps failing) to create a thought experiment as to what might happen if scholarly content was sold “by-the-drink” rather than by annual subscription. If publisher revenue (advertisements and society fees aside) depended entirely on readers paying for content and it was sold one at a time, I thought it would follow that eventually certain publishers would begin reject certain manuscript submissions based in part on their best estimate of whether it will generate revenue.

My post was intended to point out that many librarians aren’t aware of the scholar-as-author part of the equation. Yes they are the same person but when librarians look at a scholar it is generally through the lens of what s/he wants in terms of reading material in the library.

We librarians are starting to hear otherwise (if we choose to listen) when during the increasingly frequent journal cancellation exercise, a scholar objects to a particular subscription being discontinued and the reason offered is not because they read the journal but because they publish there.

In any case . . . . no advocacy here, just my thoughts on a common misconception about scholarly publishing.

“Publishing on the web is free!” Some chefs already have mentioned peer review, but there are a lot of other costs in serving a trustworthy, searchable, and permanent archive.

Had to add a second: “If it’s on the web, it must be true!” 😉

The term misconception may itself be ill-conceived. Whenever a social movement hits an existing social system, it is characteristic that each side attributes misconception to the other. In reality they are simply talking past one another, in effect talking about two different future worlds. As a result the issues quickly become very complex.

Kuhn described this phenomenon for the case of scientific revolutions, but it is also true of attempted social revolutions.

For example, can scholarly publishing be free? Sure, if we replace the existing journal system with one in which researchers simply post something about their results on their website, to be found by a search engine, for all to read and peer reviewed if anyone cares to comment. This proposal is actually relatively widespread in the movement. It need not involve any misconception, just the destruction of the present system, which revolutions are all about. Citing the value of the present system tends to be a very weak argument in the eyes of the revolutionaries.

This is not to endorse the present attempted revolution. Revolutions can be good or bad, succeed or fail. Moreover, a middle ground is the likely result, but not a certain result. The point is to try to understand what is actually going on and misconception may not be the best descriptor.

Michael Clarke wins the internet today. (Or at least this blog post.) Couldn’t agree more about “disruption.”

Scholarly works are not necessarily produced only by those in academia, nor are the works only distributed via what is defined as “scholarly journals. Once we recognize this, then one has to recognize that academics and “scholarly journals” are locked into a symbiotic relationship around the issue of “publish/perish”/promotion/tenure/funding. Think quantity, impact factors and others that become almost ritual that can force scholarly works to frame themselves within narrow confines that have grown calcified and drifted from the original purpose of scholarly admitted by many, even well recognized “scholars” and researchers as they follow a well choreographed performance.

Adding to what Karin said, I’ve found many people who have never worked for a publisher overestimating the costs associated with print publication (printing, binding, warehousing, etc.) and underestimating the costs associated with digital publishing (software, hardware, technical staff, etc.), so that they believe once publishing goes digital it should result in much cheaper prices for goods sold. This misconception helped create support for the idea that commercial publishers were overcharging customers for books when they sold ebooks for over $10. The same holds true for scholarly publishing and perceptions of pricing. If it’s digital, it mush be cheap to produce, right?

My nomination: that scholarly publications = publications by faculty working in academic institutions. Many people publishing scholarship (even in academia) are not faculty; many not working in academic institutions.

My second nomination: that scholarly publishing can be understood by understanding journal article publishing in STEM fields.

But if you read the revolutionaries’ comments above it is clear that it is precisely these definitions and concepts that are being questioned. As Kuhn put it, two different languages are being spoken.

On a scholarly note, Kuhn’s point was the focus of my Ph.D. thesis, as it says something profound about the role of language in human reasoning, and the nature of language for that matter. Does this make what I write here a form of scholarly publication? That may be the basic question at issue.

Not surprisingly, the exchanges above between the revolutionaries and the system defenders provide some fine examples of talking past. In particular the values cited for the present system are largely irrelevant to the revolutionaries. (Note: I do not use terms radicals or reformers because both are value laden, in opposite directions as it happens.)

In fact if one reads carefully it turns out that some of the values cited by the defenders for the present system are actually taken as arguments against it by the revolutionaries. The great depth of this cognitive dissonance is telling. It is just what Kuhn described when competing scientific paradigms collide.

In particular, the revolutionaries are claiming a knowledge diffusion model in which both science and society will benefit greatly if the present system is scrapped in favor of unlimited, efficient access. (High priced APC OA does not meet this standard.)

So in addition to authors and readers, there are supposedly a great number of non-readers who will become readers, or otherwise indirect beneficiaries of access. Under this scenario benefitting authors is irrelevant, as are most of the points raised by the defenders of the present system. In fact almost any discussion of the workings of the present system is irrelevant, so the revolutionaries need not understand these workings.

This is the standard logic structure of revolutionary debates.

From having read all the comments, may I add one more misconception? “Scholarly publishing deals only with the STEM disciplines where laboratory research and grant funding are key components.” Scholarly publishing also occurs in the Social Sciences and the Humanities where the rules are different. Especially in the Humanities, scholars seldom get grant funding of any significant amount and don’t depend upon laboratories. They analyze texts, and the best of them think about bigger issues such as good and evil and what does it mean to be human where empirical, provable answers may not even be possible.

Authors are paid.
I am sure I repeat somebody’s else thought but the threat is too long now.

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