Current trends in academic publishing and where things might be heading

WARNING! This post may well be out of date already, and if not now, then quite possibly by the time you’ve finished reading it! Not because it’s long, but because things are changing very quickly!

This is my attempt to identify some of the big changes that are happening in academic publishing, and to point to where I think things are going. This is not based on extensive research or systematic reviews of literature, nor amazing insider-insights through industry contacts (my industry contact seems as uncertain as me about much of this)… it’s more a combo of gazing into a crystal ball, and well not exactly wishful thinking, but perhaps my instinct to resist cynicism and hope for a palatable outcome.

Open access

What’s the change? There is more than a groundswell of opinion that academic research should not be locked away behind pay-walls, but freely available to everyone. A crude summation of the logics and values at play here goes something like this:

1. The view from the ‘outside’… Where taxpayers pay for research (through government grants etc) they shouldn’t pay to access the outcomes of that research. The person just diagnosed with cancer should be able to go online and read about treatments and the latest trials without being hit with a bill for doing so. After all she ‘paid’ for the research in the first place through her taxes.

2. The view from the ‘inside’… Hey! There’s heaps of money being made in academic publishing but none of it is coming to me, the poor academic who wrote all the stuff in the first place! So I’m going to thwart those greedy publishers by publishing in open access journals (even though I still make no money!)

In practice what this means is that some researchers or their institutions are now paying a fee to publishers to make their articles open access (no fee, no ‘free’ access for others). Or, some journals (often the more ‘indy’ types) ask authors to pay a fee up front (no fee, no publish).

Where do I see it heading?

Hard to call. Like most of the changes I discuss here, the status quo is pretty much a big mess, and difficult to predict. I’ll start with the most certain: the journals that are both free-to publish and free-to-access will soon be extinct. Often hosted on university websites, it’s hard to see how these will survive the cut and thrust of contemporary higher education funding. Either these will end up charging to publish (as happened with one that I published in while it was still free, phew!), or they’ll get bought out by commercial publishers (when they are established enough that the publishers think people will pay to access content, or pay to have the content opened ‘freely’).

What about stopping people having to pay to read research when they paid for it through taxes, or have some other innate ‘right’ to access it? This argument has gone a fair way in the UK, such that now some funding bodies build in costs for paying the open access fee to publishers. The political winds may mean this catches on, with funding bodies basking in the warm glow of ‘everyone can read what our researchers publish’ feelings. But don’t I see this becoming the norm. Why? Several reasons.

  1. Because it doesn’t change the fact that people are still paying for access, they’re just paying as a collective one step further upstream.
  2. Who wants to read what’s in journal articles anyway? Are there really masses of people desperate to read academic papers? I very much doubt it (even in medical fields). Academic papers work to inform academic debate and are not our most effective or primary means of engaging wider non-academic audiences. (I expect you may disagree with me here). And anyway, will making all our papers open access actually improve things for the masses? I’ve been doing educational research for over a decade now and I still find many if not most papers pretty hard going. Hey, I struggle with understanding and motivation a lot of the time, and I’m paid to be interested in this stuff, and extensively trained to read it, with a masters degree, doctorate, years of practice and thousands of references in my endnote. Why should I expect the proverbial woman or man on the street to be jumping at the bit to read this stuff? And even if she or he is keen now, send them a few dozen papers and see if they’re as keen later on. My guess is Game of Thrones or re-reading Harry Potter will probably look more enticing. I’m not about denying access to knowledge to people. I do doubt whether open access journal articles will result in masses of the masses relishing in their newly found right to roam the academic literature for free.
  3. Because universities paying for open access when they already pay to subscribe to a journal is a hard pill to swallow. Harder still when universities in many countries are facing unprecedented budget cuts, perceived threats from MOOCS (though I think we’ve been unnecessarily spooked by MOOCS, as a sector, but don’t get me started), and uncertain futures. There simply isn’t the proverbial money down the sofa for universities to start paying for open access or paying to publish in the first place. And academics aren’t going to do it out of their own pockets. At least, I’m not.
  4. And research funding bodies are often facing funding cuts, too. And why should they give out less money for research because they’re having to pay more to make it free? Is it better for cancer patients to read journal articles for free, or for that open access fee (which is often not inconsiderable) to have paid for more research to develop and trial treatments? I’m just saying…

The question is, who’s going to blink first? Universities aren’t universities if they’re not producing publications. Commercial publishers can’t exist without profits. And academics are, of course, greedy money-grabbing tight-arses, who refuse to pay a mere few hundred or thousand dollars for every paper so the plebs down below can read their inaccessible waffle. I haven’t blinked yet. Have you?

But there are other changes afoot, and more reasons why I think paid-for publishing or paid-for open access are not going to become the norm very soon.

  1. Institutional repositories: the content (ie pre-proof version) of many papers can already be made freely available to anyone who can be bothered to read it, through institutional repositories. The cancer patient can read your paper, just without the fancy doi numbers and typesetting etc, without paying anything. But institutional repositories are proving a bit slow to catch on, unless institutions mandate their staff to submit.
  2. Maybe the publishers have not quite blinked, but squinted. One BIG publisher has recently released its embargo on the pre-proof version of a paper (the one the academic typed and was accepted by the editor) – we’re now free to put these documents on our blogs, departmental websites. If you don’t know which publisher this is, do some digging!
  3. Heaps of stuff is already open access, although it shouldn’t be if you pay attention to the copyright. If you’re any good at ‘the internet’, it’s not hard to find free versions of papers you’re ‘supposed’ to pay for. Not every paper is freely available this way, but lots are, and the number isn’t getting smaller. I expect academics publish their papers this way out of ignorance of copyright, naivety, as a way to give the evil publishers the proverbial finger gesture, or to enhance their citations and h-index. Or maybe because they lie awake at night worrying about all the people also lying awake because they found an article on the latest poststructural deconstruction of liminality, or a miraculous formula for predicting nearly-prime numbers, and they couldn’t afford the $30 fee to read it.

Vanity publishers, predatory publishers, and the in-between

Vanity publishers are nothing new – paying someone to publish your work (particularly in book form). What is new is the fact that the ‘publish or perish’ climate in academia is leading some researchers to secure their moment in the sun by flexing their credit cards rather than their intellectual muscles. Will this become the norm? Screw peer review. Screw the big commercial publishers, screw the fact it won’t end up on amazon and no-one will ever know it exists, I’ll pay this lovely boutique press to print 200 copies of my book. I think not.

Predatory publishers. “Dear Dr Dr Hopwood Nicholas. I recently read your paper entitled… and know you are an expert in this area. I invite you to submit a manuscript in this new international, peer reviewed journal, with this stellar international editorial board…” Click the url and something’s not quite right. Not only is the email clearly automated (“Dr Dr Hopwood Nicholas,” pah!) but this journal has a mysterious 10 volumes published in the last 2 years by academic celebrities you’ve never heard of who are citing works you’ve never read… Need I say more?

The in-between. I’m not going to name names. You know who they are. They’re the ones saying they’d like to publish your PhD as a book, before they’ve even read it, or who manage to conduct a ‘thorough’ review of your manuscript in about 8 seconds. An interesting business model for now. Is it the future? Put it this way, if I were playing the stockmarket, I’d be selling my shares in these companies quicksmart.

 

Peer review

Another trend, or perhaps a fad, is to claim that peer review is broken. Peer reviewers are getting it wrong, causing embarrassment for journal editors and their publishers, who have to retract papers, apologise to the public, and lick their wounds as their reputation takes a knock (forget the stupid authors who did dodgy research in the first place, they should have been caught earlier!).

Peer review is also showing symptoms of ill health, and the prevailing winds do not look favourable. Most reviewers aren’t paid, but the ‘rewards’ for doing reviews are slim. Our university employers want us to do more, better, faster, for less, and doing reviews isn’t counted very highly (or at all) in the grand scheme of things. So we feel we have less time to do reviews, meaning we may do fewer of them, and do them less well when we do say ‘yes’. Neither are good for our disciplines – the fewer people who do reviewers, the narrower (and more tired, frustrated) the gates controlling and supporting the expression of new knowledge become.

Peer review has historically happened under a cloak of anonymity, often ‘double-blind’, where neither reviewer nor reviewee knows who the other is (as if it’s not often blatantly obvious, or we can’t take an educated guess or do a bit of digging on google)… this anonymity has well-rehearsed benefits, but also results in some otherwise decent and professional folk unleashing torrents of abuse at their peers.

In natural science fields now it is becoming increasingly common for reviews (and authors’ responses to them) to be published, and even for the reviewers to be named. This, it is argued, makes the whole process more transparent, enhances the quality of reviews (referees are more careful writing comments when they know they will be made public), and enables readers to see how the paper came to take the form it reached, and what doubts or criticisms were raised along the way.

Of all the trends I reckon this is the most likely to catch on. It doesn’t have huge cost implications, or many drawbacks as far as I can see (though I admit I’ve not looked hard enough into this and haven’t yet experienced it in my field so I may well revise this view later!). I can see it spreading through the natural sciences pretty quickly, particularly in the current climate where retractions appear to be becoming more common, and there is seemingly strong sense that because some  reviewers are getting it wrong the peer review system can’t be trusted. Even if peer review isn’t ‘broken’ and therefore doesn’t need fixing, this is an interesting idea that seems to have legs. I can imagine the social sciences coming round to this (or perhaps not fighting when norms from natural sciences are inherited or imposed on us). Who will be the last ones standing on the island of opacity as the waves from the sea of transparency lick higher and tides of change push forward? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Humanities? Anyone? Anyone?

If peer review is broken, why not pay reviewers? Then they’d review heaps more papers, treat the process seriously, and do it all on time too. Brilliant idea! Except there’s no money. Even if there was some money to pay for this (which there isn’t), it would be like saying “Hey, you know that thing you used to get for free? Well screw you! You’re going to have to pay for it now!” (the fact that this is precisely what has happened in relation to undergraduate tuition fees in many countries is not lost on me, in case you were worried).

Let’s say we do find some extra cash down the back of the lecture seats (which we won’t; I looked, it had already been pillaged by the big publishers, greedy tenured academics, overpaid managers and busybody bureaucrats), I don’t think it would make any difference. In fact it might make things worse – if people were incentivised to do reviews for money, it could distort things quite significantly. And I like to believe that academics still do things for the good of their discipline or field rather than for money anyway. So even if it was a good idea (which it isn’t) and there was the money for it (which there isn’t), it wouldn’t catch on.

Democra-truth

This kind of brings together all the issues so far. The idea that universities should stop being so elitist in claiming their exclusive rights to knowledge. Forget the elbow-patched professors festering slowly amid their piles of self-citing, self-aggrandising and self-plagiarising books full of interminable critique and concluding that “everything is more complex than we thought, so there!”. Let’s storm the university and take knowledge back into our own hands! Vive la revolution!

Except, when made ‘democratic’ or left to the ‘market of the masses’ to sort it out, it doesn’t always go so well. Do some searching about errors in a certain large internet encyclopaedia and you’ll see what I mean. Furthermore, the masses will tend to agree around the knowledge they want to know, that they are comfortable with.

Do you really believe democra-truth wouldn’t end up being ‘media-mogul-truth’ instead? The media would have us believe there is a ‘debate’ about climate change, for example. If by ‘debate’ you mean overwhelming scientific consensus on a global scale, versus vocal and vociferous, cherry-picking dissent, then okay, you’ve got me. [If you’re one of those dissenters, you can still see the point I’m making, just choose any topic where the media holds palpable sway over public opinion]. But we often trust the public with other important things, like in judicial systems with juries, right? Yes, but see how that would work if the judges, clerkes, and lawyers were all pulled off the street too. Oh.

I strongly believe there should be places preserved and reserved where we can ask the really awkward questions that no-one else wants to face up to (particularly governments and the general public), and present the arguments no matter how unpalatable they may be. We also need to cherish the pursuit of knowledge and discovery without necessarily knowing where it will take us. No, I’m not sold on democra-truth (but of course I’m biased, my job kind of depends on universities maintaining certain kind of rights to generating and policing what counts as knowledge).

So, there you have it. As the pilot says when a huge storm appears on the radar screen: “Please fasten your seat belts, it may get a little bumpy”.

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5 thoughts on “Current trends in academic publishing and where things might be heading

  1. nickhopwood Post author

    Before you all go crazy at me! I’m not saying I’m against open access, or that knowledge should be kept under monetary lock and key for rich people or academics. I’m just not sure that the current ways of making it freely available work, or that journal papers are really what we should be worried about. Journal papers are very good for some things. General reading for everyone may not, I suggest, be a strong contender.

    Reply
  2. nickhopwood Post author

    I might also add, that in the unlikely event that people wish to read my papers but find they have to pay to access them, they can email me and I will be delighted to send them a copy (for free of course) and I expect most living academics would do the same (and be flattered too!)

    Reply
  3. richardjamesstephens

    I am currently in the process of getting a paper published (if and when it appears I intend to write another paper about the time and effort it has taken so far – after 2 rejections, it’s been 8+ months after submission to the 3rd journal, then another re-write, several forms to complete, and 20+ emails to at least half a dozen different individuals in the same organisation) but I was interested in the fact that when a preliminary unedited version was made available online (why do this?) I, as the first author, could only access it by paying a fee ($35.95)!

    Reply
  4. geraintduck

    Interesting article, and I do agree with regards to your comments on peer review.

    However, I feel there is one particular advantage to open-access that you have overlooked within your assessment, and that is its value towards text-mining.

    Under traditional publishing rules, and this is the case in most counties unless there is an explicit exception, there is no legal way to automatically access and examine paper content. With open-access, this becomes legal by licence.

    There’s clearly a variety of information about this on the web, but see here for example:
    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/value-and-benefits-of-text-mining

    Reply

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