On Publication: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The link to my Prezi: http://prezi.com/dfpaxbfejzk8/on-publication/

Worse than Rupert Murdoch?

In George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian, a British newspaper, entitled “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist,” he states that academic publishers are the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world.  He compares academic journals to Murdoch’s paywall for the Times of London, which charges one pound for 24 hours of access to the website.  In that time, however, the user can read and download as many articles as they would like.  With academic journals, the user must pay per article.  He cites Wily-Blackwell which charges $42 for access to one article, no matter it’s publishing date.

There is the option of going to the library to access the article, but the average price of an annual subscription is around $4000.  The most expensive subscription fee Monbiot could find was $20,390 for Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta.  Journals now account for 65% of academic libraries annual budget, which means that they have to buy fewer books to make room for the journals.

He points out that at least Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and most of the content on his sites is self-generated.  With academic publishing, the articles, peer reviews, and editors come to them for free, and the material they publish was commissioned and funded by government research grants and academic stipends, which we pay for.  To see it, we must pay for it again.

Monopoly isn’t just a game

The profit they make is quite high.  Elsevier’s profit margin was 36% last year.  Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley publish 42% of all journal articles.  Universities are forced to buy these journals, as academic papers are only published in one place and researchers must read them to stay up-to-date in their field.  There is no competition because papers can only be published in one journal.  In many cases, the publishers cajole the libraries into buying many different journals even if they’re only interested in one or two.

The publishers claim they must charge these fees because the costs of production and distribution are so high, and their brand name adds value to the research.  An analysis by Deutsche Bank, however, found that publishers add little value to publishing process and that if it were as costly and complex as they claim, it would be impossible for them to be making a 40% profit.  In addition, the long turnaround time many journals have can delay the release of finding by a year or more, doing very little to assist the dissemination of research.

Monbiot claims this is pure capitalism, “monopolizing a public resource than charging exorbitant fees to use it.”  This issue is bad enough for universities, but people not affiliated with universities have a much worse time.  Independent researchers must pay thousands of dollars to inform themselves about important scientific issues.  Monbiot refers to it as, “a stifling of the public mind.”  He goes as far to say it goes against the universal declaration of human rights, which states, “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Open-access publishing has some great resources, but it has failed to take down the publishing monopolies.  In 2010 Elsevier’s profit margin was the same as it was in 1998.  The reason for this is that big publishers own the journals that have the biggest academic impact, which researchers must publish in if they want to secure grants and advance their careers.  As Monbiot puts it, “you can start reading open-access journals, but you can’t stop reading the closed ones.”

Meaningless Waffle

Government have not done much to stop it.  The National Institutes of Health in the US has encouraged those seeking their grants to put their papers in an open-access archive.  The UK government, however, has done nothing.  Monbiot refers to their statements on the matter as, “meaningless waffle.”

He suggests that in the short-term, governments should investigate these publishers for holding monopolies, and they should insist that all papers written from publicly funded research be put into a free public database.  In the longer-term, they should work to create a single global archive of academic literature and data that would be peer-reviewed by an independent body and funded by the parts of library budgets that are currently being spent on journals.

The Plight of Books

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her article “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy,” begins by relating the tale of a book she had written about how the book was not dead.  The publisher had the book under review for ten months, and then sent her an email saying her book was good, but it posed “too much financial risk… in the current economy.”  This scenario highlights was Fitzpatrick thinks one of the most significant problems facing academic publishing today – an insupportable economic model.

During hard economic times, two university departments whose budgets are hit the hardest are university presses and libraries.  Any cut to libraries means further cuts to the press, because the high cost of academic journals means libraries manage their budget cuts by buying further books, as already discussed.  The effect on libraries is not felt as strongly because they are able to turn to consortial collection sharing, but the effect on presses is devastating.  For example, the Harvard University Press could previously count on every library in the University of California system buying a copy of each book they published.  Since 2001, however, the pattern has been the one library in the system will buy the title for all the libraries to share.  This same pattern has been established at almost every university system in the country, with the result being that by 2004 sales of academic books to libraries had fallen to less than a third of what they used to be.  The average university press receives less than 10% of its budget from its institution, meaning it is very dependent on the sales of it publications to keep it afloat.  Fitzpatrick thinks its because of this model that university press publishing is not sustainable in its current form.

The Living Dead

She describes the industry as being “undead,” because it’s still required in the academic world but it is not viable.  She argues that moving to digital forms of publication is not enough to save the industry.  In fact, she thinks it may cause more problems than ink publication currently has because of constantly improving software that becomes incompatible with older forms of text publication.

Since her experience with academic publishing, she has been working on two projects aimed at creating the changes she thinks are necessary for humanities publishing in the 21st century. The first is MediaCommons, which is a digital scholarly publishing network focused on media studies, that has been developed with the help of the Institute for the Future of the Book, the NYU Digital Library Technology Services group, and an NEH Digital Start-Up Grant.  They have many projects used to facilitate conversations about media, the longest running of which is In Media Res, in which five scholars a week comment on media text as a means of opening discussion.  They also have MediaCommons Press, which publishes longer texts for open discussion.  Some of these texts have moved beyond digital and are now being printed in ink.

Peer Pressure

Her second project, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, focuses not just on technological changes that need to occur for academic publishing to be successful, but also on social, intellectual, and institutional changes that need to occur for academic publishing to be accepted.  Fitzpatrick believes that until scholars believe that publishing on the web is as valuable as publishing in print, few will be willing to risk their careers on it, with the result that digital publishing will remain marginal, undervalued, and risky.

One of the biggest issues in digital publishing is how peer reviews would work.  Fitzpatrick thinks the current system of peer review is broken.  She views it as a back-room dealing between the reviewer and the publisher that excludes the author and impedes the circulation of ideas.  In her estimation, peer review serves mainly a gatekeeping function, as there is a limited amount of space in print and not every article can be published.  However, in the digital world, space is not a problem.  She says that the current system of peer review is not really applicable to digital publication, and says that a new form should occur after publication and focus on how the article has been received.  She says this new peer review system should consist of hits, downloads, comments, and inbound links.  She put the entire text of her own book online for open review a year before it was published, which she deemed an extremely successful experiment.

Fitzpatrick claims that blogs and online publishing networks are in many cases having a greater impact on the scholarly community than traditional peer-reviewed publications.  Although that may be true for the digital humanities, I do not believe that to be the case for any other discipline.

In the end, she says that the issue is not really obsolescence, but rather what our reaction to that obsolescence will be.  Rather than sitting back and complaining about what is happening to the humanities, we should take charge and figure out a way to make the humanities work in the digital age.

Discussion Questions:

1)    Do you think it’s worth it for libraries to buy journal subscriptions, even if the cost means they will have to buy fewer books?

2)    What are some problems you foresee with open publishing? Will the market eventually grow enough to entice major research to be published there?

3)    Should the current system of peer review be used in the digital realm? If not, do you think the system Fitzpatrick advocates should be the one we use instead?

A note on my Prezi:

I chose to start my Prezi with the larger theme, and then zoom in on the smaller issues one by one. I put them in a horizontally linear orientation to represent the progression of ideas and how they all relate to each other in some way. After the discussion of the first article, I zoomed back out to the larger theme before continuing on to the second article to reinforce how each article connected first to the larger theme, and secondly to each other.

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