Over the past twenty years I’ve engaged in more discussions, and read more articles and reports, and listened to more presentations about the present and future of scholarly communication than I can possibly count. For me, each of these conversations, documents, and presentations serves as a single point in a large and growing mass of data. Looking at it in the aggregate, this data set reveals certain patterns. One of the patterns that has recently become clear to me is that the scholarly communication community — a huge, globally and ideologically diverse group of people and organizations — is struggling collectively to make a choice between two mutually incompatible options. The difficulty of that choice is compounded by several factors, one of which is the fact that neither of these mutually incompatible options is perfect, and yet our community will eventually, inevitably, choose one of them over the other. Another factor contributing to this difficulty is the fact that there is not a universal willingness to discuss openly the necessity of the choice or even the reality of it.

colored scarves in a market

At this point we’d better acknowledge an important truth: that we need to be careful to avoid false choices. Life is full of them. The choice, for example, between aligning oneself with the political Left and with the political Right is a false one; there’s no reason why you can’t agree with the Left on some issues and with the Right on others. There’s no need to choose between being a dog person and being a cat person. There’s no need to choose between liking classical music and liking reggae.

And just as it’s important to avoid false choices, it’s also important — essential — to acknowledge that not all choices are false. Sometimes we really do have to choose between two things. This is the case when one option rules out or can’t logically coexist with the other one. One such situation is the one that I want to discuss here.

The struggle that is playing out right now within the scholarly communication ecosystem is the struggle to choose between pluralism and monoculture.

In the pluralistic scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces some mixture of open access (OA) and toll access models. In the monocultural scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces only OA, and eliminates toll access altogether. (Theoretically, of course, it would be possible to have an all-toll-access scenario as well, but that hasn’t been a realistic possibility for years. OA is here to stay and there is no reason at all to believe that it will ever go away, or that it should.)

We have to choose between these scenarios because as a matter of simple logic, they can’t coexist; one of them will eventually win and one of them will lose.

Not all choices are false. Sometimes we really do have to choose between two things.

It’s important to note that most of the people and organizations promoting and advocating for either of these scenarios are fully in favor of open access. Although I’ve heard credible rumors of genuine opposition to OA within certain segments of the scholarly communication ecosystem, I have never personally encountered any organization that opposes it in principle, or more than a tiny handful of individuals who oppose it. Even those organizations most commonly held up as anti-OA boogiemen (*cough* Elsevier *cough*) tend strongly to have demonstrated their support for OA in the most concrete of ways: by, you know, enthusiastically adopting it — and, in some cases, by having done more to advance it than most other groups who are in favor of it.

The problem is that when those who support the monocultural scenario talk about OA, what they often actually mean is “universal and mandatory OA.” When someone is characterized as “anti-OA,” I find that what that means most often is not that the person or organization in question actually does oppose OA, but rather that they are willing to accept other access models in addition to OA and therefore don’t support the pursuit of a scenario in which OA is the only option available.

What this means — and it’s absolutely crucial that we be clear on this — is that the choice our community is struggling to make is not a choice between OA and not-OA. The choice is between a pluralistic and democratic system and a totalistic and authoritarian one.

Anticipating that someone is going to say, “there you go again, creating a false dichotomy and ginning up a conflict where none exists,” I have to emphasize again the difference between false dichotomies and true ones. Open access vs. toll access is a false dichotomy; you can have (and indeed we do now have) a system that is characterized by both open access and toll access models. So that’s not the choice we’re currently struggling with. What we are struggling with is the choice between universal and mandatory OA and non-universal and optional OA. That’s not a false dichotomy, but a real and logically inescapable one: you can’t simultaneously have universal and non-universal OA; OA can’t simultaneously be mandatory and optional.

Those who are inclined to resist binaries in principle might be tempted to think that there’s a continuum of values between monoculture and pluralism, one that looks like this:

But in fact, this isn’t true. In reality, there’s only a spectrum of pluralism. The difference between monoculture and pluralism is binary: either you have one model, or you have more than one model; that’s the binary distinction. Once you have more than one model, you might have few or you might have many; that’s the spectrum value.

So a better representation of the discontinuous spectrum from monoculture to pluralism would look more like this:

If we can’t have both an OA monoculture and a pluralistic culture of OA and non-OA models — if, in other words, a choice between those two options is logically inevitable — how will the choice be made?

I suggest that this question is an important and urgent one — even more important and urgent than the question of which option the scholarly communication community will ultimately choose.

The question “How will we choose?” is more important than the question “What will we choose?” because the answer to the “how” question will shape much more than just the access landscape. The answer to that question has implications not only for the processes we will follow, but also for who will be given the choicemaking power. You can’t separate the process question from the power question; will the power to choose between these scenarios be placed more or less democratically in the hands of all members of the ecosystem, all of whom have some degree of influence over the outcome, or will that power be granted only to a subset of the ecosystem? If the former, what might that democratic decision-making process look like? And if the latter, who will decide who gets the power?

The scholcomm community is not struggling to choose between “OA” and “not OA,” but between “universal and mandatory OA” and “non-universal and optional OA.”

A democratic approach would involve leaving authors, institutions, funders, publishers, and other members of the scholcomm ecosystem free to consider multiple options and choose between them, thus allowing them to vote with their feet. I know it’s not very hip these days to speak positively of free markets, but the reality is that while free markets do some things quite poorly, they do other things quite well. One of the things a free market of ideas can do quite well is demonstrate the diversity of beliefs and desires of a community. When members of that community are genuinely free to choose for themselves between two mutually exclusive options, we’ll usually get a pretty good idea of what the majority of the community really wants and believes is right.

Another option is for powerful individuals or groups within the community to use their power to make choices on behalf of everyone else. Is there anyone in the scholarly communication ecosystem that has that kind of power?

Yes, of course there is. Those who wield the most institutional power in the system are funders and governments. Funders control the money that is the lifeblood of scientific research, and governments are able to impose their will by legislation and regulation.

Are either governments or funders pushing for mandatory universal open access? Some certainly are, but not many. Despite the publicity surrounding public-funding mandates like Plan S and private-funding mandates like those of the Gates and Ford Foundations, relatively few national or private funders — so far — seem inclined to impose such requirements on the researchers they support. In the US, only those two private funders (though large ones, certainly) require immediate and full OA publication; the largest government-based funders require only public access (making articles free to read but not necessarily free to reuse) and — as of this writing, anyway — allow embargoes of up to a year. Without significantly more global momentum in the direction of OA on the part of those who have power over authors, a universal flip to mandatory OA will remain a theoretical end point towards which we move without ever actually reaching it.

What currently looks much more likely is a future scenario in which different countries and funding agencies adopt varying kinds of open access policies, depending on the needs, goals, and preferences of their constituents — and in some cases adopt no explicit open access policies at all, leaving institutions, disciplines, and authors with the leeway to determine for themselves what they believe makes the most sense.

Without significantly more global momentum in the direction of OA on the part of those who have power over authors, a universal flip to mandatory OA will remain out of reach.

One objection one might raise to this scenario is: what about the readers? What about members of the general public, who have the least power of all in the scholarly communication ecosystem and whose access to (and freedom to reuse) scholarly content would be determined entirely by others? Shouldn’t they have a voice?

They should, of course, and they do. If they believe that the government should (or shouldn’t) put laws or regulations in place making open access mandatory, then they need to make their voices heard — in democratic countries they have representatives in government who need their votes and whose job is to legislate and regulate for the good of their constituents and of the country. Only some of them will get what they want, of course, because that’s how democracy works. If they think that funders should (or shouldn’t) condition their support for research on the willingness of grantees to adopt open access, then they should make those opinions known to them — though individual citizens probably can’t expect big private foundations to care much what they think, since those foundations are only vaguely accountable to the citizenry.

What this all boils down to is a responsibility on each of our parts, both as individuals and as members of organizations, to assert ourselves and make our voices heard (whatever our perspectives or positions may be) and not to allow ourselves to be silenced or intimidated by those who wish to decide for us what our future must look like (whatever their perspectives or positions may be). One way or another, the scholarly communication ecosystem is going to choose between pluralism and monoculture. What that choice will be, and how the choice will be made, is up to us — unless, of course, we allow those in power to decide for us.

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.


53 Thoughts on "Will the Future of Scholarly Communication Be Pluralistic and Democratic, or Monocultural and Authoritarian?"

Yes, it IS a false choice. Academics could self-publish. The fact that no one does this is an interesting question that we could debate. Let me ask only one question to start that debate: Why don’t tenured academics self-publish (papers, not books)?

Academics largely follow the rules that their institutions and funders set for them that will result in career advancement and funding. Those rules require the publication of research results via neutral third parties that can ensure (or at least largely ensure, success varies journal to journal) a fair evaluation of the work by experts. If authors were to self-publish, it’s unclear how one would arrange for that neutral evaluation by third parties, or any evaluation at all. As we’ve seen countless times, without a driving force behind it, the peer review process generally doesn’t happen.

You’d also lose all of the technological enhancements that journals offer (one can’t really expect researchers to learn and employ all the latest metadata standards for example), you’d lose the permanent archiving and preservation that journals offer, you’d lose the marketing efforts of journals which authors generally appreciate as they help get their works recognized and read more widely, you’d lose the signaling that comes with publication in a particular journal to the reader (is this relevant to my field, what level of rigor was the work held to). I could go on…(https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/02/06/focusing-value-102-things-journal-publishers-2018-update/)

One could argue that researchers could do all of this stuff themselves, but most of it is an enormous timesink which would take the researcher away from doing what they really want to do, which is research. Researchers could also fix all the plumbing in their laboratories rather than paying a professional plumber to do the work for them, but it’s not really a productive use of their time either.

This is enormously helpful, David, Thank you! As a thought experiment, imaging a platform that could perform all these functions (i.e., obviate the need for the “plumber”): Would investigators use it? (BTW, obtaining peer reviewers could occur the old-fashioned way: You could ask people to review your paper).

There was a big movement around 2008 or so in the heyday of Science Blogs where many thought these would replace journal articles, but it never came to fruition. And there are continuing attempts to tweak things in ways that are more platform-based rather than journal-based — though I would suspect that the big commercial platforms with the largest potential for investment and marketing would eventually be the winners of such a move.

I’m not sure we can rely on researchers to find their own reviewers. Most would be tempted to find a sympathetic ear, rather than finding someone who can be critical and objective. There have been attempts to separate out the peer review function from publishing in a journal, so one could imagine an article being fairly reviewed and then posted on an author’s website, but they haven’t really gained any traction (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/09/25/portable-peer-review-rip/).

One of the other key functions of journals is to filter the literature. Rather than a big pool of everything, it’s helpful to have a sense of what’s relevant to your own work and what’s likely to be of high quality or interest. If instead you had a single, mass platform, or simply threw everything up on the internet, discovery and prioritization would be really difficult.

Another enormously helpful observation. I remember the early days of the blogosphere very well. I hope there’s a PhD candidate out there somewhere willing to investigate why it never amounted to anything vis-a-vis self-publishing (my view is that the blogosphere was swallowed by the other social media). Regarding the sympathetic ear, as I’m sure you are aware, many journals ask authors to hand-pick reviewers (by definition, sympathetic ears – I mean, who is going to ID a rival?)

Finally, yes, the filter function is one that academic publishing solves (sort of). I suspect this is a technical problem that clever minds could solve, if properly motivated to do so.

Re: the filter function being “solved” by academic publishing. Keep in mind that for the purpose of knowledge dissemination, there are two layers of filters. Layer 1 is the academic publishing/peer-review process. But layer 2 is the purchase and preservation by academic libraries. The whole point of the OA movement in the first place was that out-of-control prices was causing layer 2 to over-filter high quality research from the reach of many scholars for budget rather than quality reasons. If you’re at a rich Western university that has never had to cancel a journal for budget reasons, you haven’t experienced that filter, but the rest of the world has had its ability to contribute to human knowledge hampered by that price filter. Since such contribution requires two parts, being able to read what came before you, and being able to publish what new work you have to offer, I can see the argument that OA APCs solve part 1 but introduce a new problem for poorer researchers for part 2. But great minds are still working to solve that, eg ideas on this blog about submission fees, various proposals to subsidize those fees for poorer researchers, etc.

I would never suggest that journals in any way “solve” the filter problem on their own. But it is more helpful to have more filters available that one can pick and choose from to help meet one’s needs.

Sorry, Phil, can you explain how the availability of self-publishing makes the choice between universal/mandatory OA and non-universal/optional OA a false one? I’m not seeing the connection but I realize that I’m probably missing something in your comment.

It could be I who misunderstand YOU, Rick. My apologies. David (above) and Sandy (below) appear to have understood the gist of my question.

Well, actually, in some fields top scholars have decided to self-publish through blogs. This is true in economics, where those top scholars are annoyed at the long delays in getting articles published and are able to have such a following that they can go it alone. It is also true in law where the journals are run by law students and peer review is not practiced anyway. So it is dangerous to make generaliuzations across the board.

I did not know that! I’d love to see examples, Sandy. Can you point me toward any? From now on, I’ll stop talking in absolutes about self-publishing.

I think I mentioned some in one of my many articles about OA, but it may take me a while to track them down. Meanwhile, consider that some people are so well known that everybody in the field wants to know what they think. These people are already at the top of their fields, have nowhere to go upward on the academic ladder, and therefore do not need the validation of peer review to gain an audience. Just think, for example, of a modern-day Albert Einstein. Do you really think he’d need validation through the journal system after he had published all his ground-breaking papers? People would flock to his blog in droves. A modern-days example in economics might be Robert Schiller. Law professors, as I said, get no academic credit for their journal articles through peer review because it does;t exist in their scholarly landscape. As for David’s point about archiving, remember that it is not the publishing houses themselves that supply this service but the cooperative ventures that have been set up explicitly to provide this service to all publishers. A library IR would be a much safer place for long-term storage than a publisher’s website.

Your mileage may vary on that last point. Many major publishers are contracting with services like Portico and LOCKSS/CLOCKSS to maintain dark archives in case something very bad happens to the publisher’s site/the publisher’s business. Maybe the huge ARL libraries’ IRs have backups as good as that, but many, like my own small-university in-house IR, has to my knowledge no backups at all that are off-campus, so really giant natural disaster type event that wipes out both the server building and the other building on campus that has the backup tapes, and it’s all gone.

Melissa makes a good point about smaller college IRs, which suggests that such libraries should join or form consortia so as to be able to offer such services directly or through a PORTICO-type system. My main point was simply to suggest that commercial businesses are much more likely to go out of business than academic libraries are. How many colleges close compared with business closings? Not many, I’d guess.

This is a very insightful essay. I must take exception to one of the examples, however. You say that one need not choose between being a dog person or a cat person. I beg to differ. This decision is critical. There is no middle ground. So I ask you, Anderson, which side are you on?

This is begs the quote from the wonderful, sadly deceased Christopher Hitchens:

““Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.””

Scholars don’t “live” in the entire scholcomm ecosystem, they live within just the portion of it that is relevant to their discipline and their level of status within that discipline. For chemistry scholars for instance, their high-status article publishing options are still close to monocultural paywall and libraries are nowhere close to being able to cancel anything due to OA competition. Yes, I cherry-picked the absolute worst field in adoption of OA. But I think your essay will be more true in 5 years than it is today, where there are still pockets of only-non-OA-options for some scholars in some fields, and not just in chemistry.

I completely agree that the reality for any individual scholar will always be more specific than the characteristics of the ecosystem as a whole. (Another example would be a scholar working in a field that depends primarily — or entirely — on funding from an agency that requires immediate OA publication. For a scholar troubled by that, it will be cold comfort that the system as a whole is more diverse in its requirements.) But this particular piece is about characteristics of the system as a whole.

Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking post. As scholarly communication and scholarly publication seem often to be used interchangeably, just noting that “the struggle that is playing out right now within the scholarly communication ecosystem is the struggle to choose between pluralism and monoculture” refers I think to scholarly publication; scholarly communication covers a much broader range of interactions and processes, from the informal up to formal publication. Might the post title be a bit misleading?

Good point, Irene. You’re right, I think, that we too often use “publishing” and “communication” interchangeably without discussion or explanation. Arguably, all publishing constitutes communication–but does all communication of scholarship constitute “publishing”? It depends on how one defines “publishing,” I guess.

Publishing involves making information/content publicly available, so I’d argue that not all communication of scholarship constitutes ‘publishing’ as much remains out of the public domain, eg informal conversations between researchers about their work, seminars, working papers. And there is the distinction between ‘publishing’ and ‘publication’. Having sat in many meetings where mission statements and taglines have been discussed, I can attest to how many hours can be spent choosing the appropriate terms/words!

Agreed. So in the context of my post, “scholarly communication” should generally be read to mean “scholarly publishing,” alongside some kinds of scholarly communication that might not universally be characterized as “publishing” — deposit in an IR, posting to a preprint server, etc.

One of the troubles with scholarly communication is that we are all hypocrites.

I think Elsevier is over-priced and poor value. But their editorial service is actually pretty good most of the time. So I have published there and with the other big publishers. In doing so, I hurt libraries who have the find the money to pay their ever-increasing subscription fees.

I hate APCs and think they have contributed to predatory publishing, which has in turn slowed open access adoption. Yet I recently published with Frontiers.

I think self-archiving is also a dead end for open access. I have never used a green OA article in my life. But I religiously self-archive all my papers with my institutional repository and factor self-archiving policy into my submission decisions. All of this results in costs to my institution and usage statistics which show it was all a waste of time (mostly 5-10 downloads per paper, and never more than 50).

So my publication record supports pluralism but I only ever make (or can make) publishing decisions that are partially consistent with my values and beliefs on scholarly communication. Does this mean that the scholarly communication future that I can expect will only ever be partially what I want (publishing OA at no charge to me in respected journals)?

Dear Hypocrite —

To the degree that the decision-making processes that govern scholarly communication (and/or scholarly publishing) remain more or less democratic, I think it’s safe to say that the result can only be a partial version what any one of us wants. The only way for anyone to get everything they want is for them to have sufficient power to impose their will on everyone else.

There is no free lunch and I for one do not want to pay for you to publish something that can mostly benefit you.

As the author of the AAUP (now AUP) Statement on Open Access when I was its president in 2007/8, I have always had the feeling that university presses in this country (though not in Canada, Europe, or Australia) resisted going the OA route, and while a few like California, Purdue, and my own former press at Penn State set up seem series for OA publishing, they did not go all the way to become OA publishers, and even today there is only one press, at Amherst, that is fully OA. So I’d say that within this subset of publishers there is no real debate going on as to the choice Rick posits here. That could all change, of course, if one key set of funders decided otherwise, viz., the parent universities of these presses most of whom have long provided hefty subsidies for their presses. A collective decision by all these universities overnight could change the landscape. The dichotomy also has an escape valve, does it not? Deepen a publisher that operates under the fully and mandatory OA model is not going to prevent any author from using POD technology to produce a print version of an article or book, is it? The author will have to pay for this added benefit, but is there going to be any rule that this is not allowed under any circumstances? I think not. When we set up the OA series in Romance Studies at penn State, one concern authors had was they they wanted to be able to hand their grandparents a copy of their book. What publisher is going to be heartless enough to say no? There is, however, a limitation on this scenario. Some books cannot be reproduced in print in their entirely. E.g., I am the author of a 186-page history of the swimming and diving program at Princetoin University. Because it includes links to videos, websites, and other kinds of supplementary materials, no print version can be adequately produced that serves the reader in the same way as the electronic version. (This history is available OA, by the way, through Penn State’s and Princeton’s IRs.)

Who is going to pay for hosting all this video etc.. in the long term? It isn’t without a cost and I worry that there is a built in assumption that OA fees will continue to rise (along with published papers) continually. What happens if a field or publisher collapses and there are no OA funds to keep earlier papers going? Currently something like 20% of weblinks in research papers die in the first 5 years, so I still think with multimedia supplements there needs to be careful planning for an OA future, particularly with books.

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Rick! It shines light on a very troublesome issue, particularly for those of us who are situated in disciplines in which huge funding sources are not available or even not essential (humanities, nursing, social work and others connected to a public service mission).

Oh, my word! Could this headline possibly be more slanted, condescending and hyperbolic?

I know the author knows at least as well as I (and probably in more detail!) that “researchers” are not a monolith. The academic ecosystem is made up of an incredibly diverse population of individuals, departments, co-ops, colleges (both independent and within universities) with widely variable numbers of practitioners, academic resources, undergrad and graduate student populations, government and private funding opportunities, and media attention. Each of those communities has their own needs, goals and desires in publishing their work.

The publishing world is more than the black/white version presented here. Much in the same was biology has more classifications than “whales” and “kumquats.”

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “the black/white version (of the publishing world) presented here.” I think, in fact, that I’ve presented quite the opposite picture of the current publishing world. Can you clarify?

What I mean by black/white is the seeming assertion that journal publishing must exist as either the “traditional” or “full open access” model.

OA will have (and probably already is having) negative impacts on smaller communities of researchers, less well-funded areas of study, authors who don’t wish to publish under Creative Common rules, academic societies whose activities are largely funded through journal activities, and small, independent publishers.

As with our political world, everyone is entrenched in their camp and vilifies the other camp, but neither seems to want to acknowledge the complexities and unintended consequences of their preferred approach. Due to the considerable and still unanswered questions about the long-term financial sustainability of OA only publishers, the marketplace of ideas will contact, not expand.

Some say information wants to be free, but the services needed for high-quality publishing are far from free. Even electronic ink is expensive.

What I mean by black/white is the seeming assertion that journal publishing must exist as either the “traditional” or “full open access” model.

OK, I see where the confusion lies. You think I’m arguing that journal publishing must be either “traditional” or “full open access.” But that’s actually the opposite of what I said in the piece, which was that “open access vs. toll access is a false dichotomy; you can have (and indeed we do now have) a system that is characterized by both open access and toll access models.”

What’s not a false dichotomy is “the choice between universal and mandatory OA and non-universal and optional OA.” The logical inevitability of that choice is what I’m discussing in this piece.

Pluralism can also be reached by allowing researchers to retain the rights to publish on a ‘closed’ venue as well as an Open Access version of the same paper through a platform of their choice: the (copyright and editorial) barriers preventing such practice are artificial constructs sustaining a monoculture of closed publications.

Open Access removes barriers; it makes pluralism possible.

Open access does indeed create new options, and thereby foster a pluralism of models–unless, of course, it becomes mandatory and universal, at which point it forecloses all other models. (In which case, of course, it’s not OA itself that has shut those models out, but rather the creation of a mandatory/universal regime. The same effect would exist if OA were suddenly outlawed and only toll access were allowed.)

While I quite agree that the two potential outcomes you describe are mutually incompatible, I think the fallacy here is the notion that it is up to the “scholarly communication community” to “collectively make a choice.” You say that “our community will eventually, inevitably, choose one of them over the other.” But this implies that the “community” as a whole has agency, and it simply doesn’t. There is no mechanism by which all of the various players in the scholarly communication ecosystem can “collectively” choose anything. One of the futures you describe will come to be, but it will be because of the choices made by a whole host of entities, some commercial, some governmental, some not-for-profit, large, small, etc. You end your piece by saying that all of us have a responsibility to make our voices heard. I think this is exactly right, but heard by government agencies, professional societies, academic institutions, etc. – those entities that can make choices, not some quasi-mythical global community. The scholarly communication ecosystem will end up with pluralism or monoculture, but not because “it” made a choice. Appealing to the global scholarly communication community to make a choice is like hollering into a canyon – all you’re likely to hear are the echoes of your own voice, mingled with all of the other shouters.

You’re right, of course, and I never intended to imply that there exists a unifying mechanism by which the community (or, if you prefer, “community”) can speak with a unified voice. What do exist are members of the community with varying degrees of power to impose their will on others. What happens in the future will be substantially determined by those with the most power–notably, funders and governments. However, those of us with relatively less power can have an effect on the decisions of the powerful, if we decide to take the initiative and do the work to make our voices heard and exert what influence we have. The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s incumbent upon anyone who has a stake in the outcome of this binary “choice” (for want of a better word) to work for the option they want–and not to let themselves be bullied into accepting an outcome they think is unacceptable.

Completely agree with your final point. What bothers me about the rhetoric of the global community making a choice is that I fear it leads some people to think that endless discussions about the future they’d like to see is a substitute for the hard work of engaged, informed advocacy. That the community is so diverse leads me to believe that your pluralistic outcome is by far the more likely, although this doesn’t mean that there won’t be pockets where one’s choices are more constrained by someone else’s vision than one would like.

Agreed, and I certainly hope that no one read my piece as suggesting that talking about the future you want is the same thing as working for the future you want.

Interesting argument. However, I think that one finds that the funder and legislator are often one and the same. Additionally, I have argued that should the choice be OA or the highway then the author fee could result for many in a dead end road.


20 nonprofit colleges shuttered during 2016-2018 period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.Feb 10, 2019. I think the big challenge is funding for university library rather than the college closing. It seems that libraries are attempting to find themselves or create a reason for being by becoming publishing facilitators or publishers themselves. It will not take long for a legislator to begin to question why they are taking on the role of facilitator or publisher in light of budgets.

I like to go back to the written mission of a journal. Most journal missions are pluralistic, whereas the missions of the publishing platforms are more monoculture. Consider this statement from one journal’s mission: “The journal provides a forum for younger scholars making a distinguished debut as well as publishing the work of historians of established reputation.” This journal has been doing that for fifty years. They’ll be doing that for fifty more, but probably at a lower cost with more sharing.

For me, there is a totally different dichotomy at play to the one presented here. The 21st century battle is : do we continue to support the major academic publishers as they continue to buy up smaller publishers and dominate our respective fields and disciplines, or do we support alternatives which means retaining some control over publishing ourselves as academics? Both can offer OA, but the former have less moral and ethical integrity, because they charge our university libraries a fortune and retain copyrights [for toll publications] or charge authors large fees [for OA]. They have been less than pleasant about the big initiatives like Plan S, their execs earn a lot of money, etcetera. That is the real ‘dichotomy at play here. And of course it is nuanced, because not all corporations are equal, nor are all versions of academic control over publishing, and smaller publishers are also still in play. But I know where sit – as far away from Elsevier et al. as possible.

For me, there is a totally different dichotomy at play to the one presented here. The 21st century battle is : do we continue to support the major academic publishers as they continue to buy up smaller publishers and dominate our respective fields and disciplines, or do we support alternatives which means retaining some control over publishing ourselves as academics?

I guess it’s also worth pointing out that this is, in fact, not a dichotomy at all — it’s a false choice. We can have (and indeed we do now have) a system that supports both the continuation of commercial scholarly publishing and alternatives to commercial publishing that involve academics retaining more control over their work. (Not to mention additional alternatives that may or may not circumvent commercial publishing and that involve academics relinquishing all control over their work, as in the case of CC BY licensing.)

You, SP, might believe that people should reject one of those options in favor of another one, and if so, fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that the choice is logically required. Many of us, in fact, avail ourselves of both options all the time.

SP, as with most dichotomies, this one too is false. Some day, the authors will “go bare” (to borrow a term from the insurance industry) and walk away from publishers altogether. What they need is a platform to self-publish.

Phil, are you under the impression that authors don’t already have a platform to self-publish? It seems to me that such platforms are widespread and easily available (not to mention extremely cheap), and that people use them for self-publishing all the time.

Rick: Since man painted images on cave walls there has been self publishing. The platform prior to the computer was what one called letter writing, and in some disciplines note books. As mentioned below the challenge presented by self publishing is time.

Publishing and publishers came about because self publishing didn’t work! Further, word processors will not lessen the burden of producing acceptable manuscript nor make the work known to others!

Excellent point! Now… what if authors had access to functionalities/platforms that could substitute for whatever deficiencies caused self-publishing to fail? Functionalities that include “ability to produce an acceptable manuscript (assuming we can agree on what that means!)” and “make the work known to others”?

Phil: You can take all my assets and I could with effort regain that which you have taken and although it would take time it could be done. The operative word is time! Say what you propose is made available, To self publish would take time. A researcher researches because that is what s/he wants to do and dedicates the time it takes to do it. If they wanted to be publishers they would allocate their time to that task. Although there are very few either/or situations those involving time are in the realm of either/or because time is finite!

The problem is socialization into academia. We are taught by senior peers that publishing and editing and even helping edit scholar’s manuscripts in your own department, is not ‘core business’ for succeeding in hiring, tenure, and promotion. This could be changed, and is indeed different in other academic cultures than the global English-speaking/US one [think, Departmental produced journals in Latin America]. The fact that change in attitudes is slow, does not mean it shouldn’t happen, or couldn’t. But academics’ failure to change enables much of the commercial dominance by 5 or so quite greedy companies, and the ripple effect on library budgets and research publication costs [evidence of greed is what happens when one big publisher buys out a journal in my field – my evidence shows the APCs often go up fourfold – for no increase in service]. Since toll publishing is gradually reducing, at different rates depending on the field, the first point for profs like me to explain to the next generation is that there is such a thing as publication ethics, involving choice of outlet for your work, and to establish ethical criteria a little more clearly. Consider more than journal prestige and impact factor. Who owns it? where are their profits going? Are their fees affordable to mortals? Are they supporting worthwhile initiatives like grants to junior scholars, if they are a for-profit? The ,b>second point is to reward and encourage involvement by junior scholars in seeing work though to publication, in journal editing, management, refereeing, etc. in collaboration with well-meaning [rather than profit-maximising] publishing professionals/entities. Make it a part of annual evaluations and job service expectations. I have worked for 27 years in academic departments where neither of these points are really considered and it is really beginning to tick me off. Instead, academics have refused to recognise the ethical inequalities that exist in the publishing sector.

It may be worth reminding people that universities had it within their means to operate the scholarly publishing system as a totally nonprofit enterprise. In the late 19th century The Johns Hopkins University Press began by publishing journals in math and chemistry. Universities could have built on this promising beginning by ramping up their presses’ operations. Instead, especially in the wake of WEWII and the boom in government-funded research they chose to outsource much of STEM journal publishing to the likes of Pergamon Press run by enterprising people like Robert Maxwell. It did;t have to happen this way, and universities should realize that they only have themselves to blame for the way the system was allowed rot develop into the rapaciously commercialized system we have today.

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