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Why Hasn’t the Academy Taken Back Control of Publishing Already?

In recent years there has been a growing clamor for the academy to take back control of scholarly publishing. The academy has been poorly served by the large commercial publishers, this argument goes, whose interests are narrowly economic and fail to address the mission of the research community. Often this argument takes on a distinct anti-capitalist flavor, as though the place to start world revolution is not with the industries with real power (energy, telecommunications, defense) but with the tiny business of publishing, which facilitates the communications of a small group of people with one another. It’s possible, though, to sidestep the question of whether Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and their ilk have performed well or poorly as far as the interests of the academy are concerned and ask a different one: Whatever the merits of Elsevier, ProQuest, EBSCO, et al., what’s stopping academic institutions from taking charge once again?

tug of war

Before we dig into some of the reasons, let’s acknowledge that the “once again” is something of a restoration myth. When, exactly, did the academy “control” publishing? This question will naturally beget the response (bound to show up in the Comments section of this blog) that universities, through their university presses, formerly did much of the work now performed by commercial houses. That is not quite true for a number of reasons. First, commercial firms have always played a role in scholarly communications. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the largest publishers is that over the years they have bought up a great many commercial companies, some of which (e.g., Butterworth’s and Heinemann — Wikipedia: ”William Heinemann founded William Heinemann Ltd in Covent Garden, London, in 1890”) were substantial organizations. (Both Butterworth’s and Heinemann are now part of Elsevier.) Second, scholarly publishing today barely resembles the pre-Maxwell era: it is considerably larger, more sophisticated, and owes its scale and importance to a considerable degree to the relatively recent developments of Sputnik and the Cold War. Finally, the real shift over the past century is not from the academy to the commercial firms but from professional societies to commercial firms. It is the professional societies that are under attack today — from two sides: from the commercial firms that squeeze the societies out of academic library budgets, and from the open access (OA) movement, which denies the professional societies the revenue that formerly sustained them. Thus were the academy to take control of scholarly publishing it would not be so much a restoration as an innovation, but that is hardly a reason not to pursue it.

For the academy to take over, the first item that must be addressed is governance. When a university reviews its own publishing practices, it typically does so by appointing a committee comprised of faculty. In the world of publishing, whether of the traditional kind or any of the various open types, this pits that small committee of academic specialists against professionals. It’s not a good idea to bring a knife to a gun fight. This is not a comment on the talent or commitment of such committees but on the need for domain expertise. Too often the governance of academic publishing units lack real insight into the actual environment in which the publishing entity must battle and survive. It’s also something of a double whammy: not only do faculty-only committees lack publishing domain expertise but any change in governance requires those very committees to vote themselves out of office. This seems to me to be the biggest obstacle for the academy to assert itself in a more robust fashion in publishing.

A corollary to the governance problem is our old friend the Editorial Fallacy.  Faculty tend to think of publishers not in their capacity as readers and rarely as an ongoing enterprise but as the organizations to which they would submit their own work. A publisher, in other words, is viewed purely as an editorial shop. But editorial is only one part of what publishers do, and it is in all the other aspects — production, marketing, cost controls, strategic planning — that commercial firms win out. If editorial quality were all that mattered, university presses would be bigger than Google, Facebook, and Amazon combined. Putting the Editorial Fallacy to rest, even as an organization continues to vie for the very best manuscripts, is a necessary condition for the academy to become a bigger player in scholarly publishing.

Even if the academy could overcome the problems of governance, many attempts to increase the scope of university publishing dwells too much and even exclusively on OA. OA is very much a part of scholarly publishing today — and increasingly dominated by the large commercial firms, as you would expect — but building a successful OA franchise is a tall order. An OA program requires a complete rethinking of scholarly publishing, and it requires substantial buy-in from many entities (e.g., tenure and promotion committees) that have to date been skeptical about any publishing that does not participate in the traditional forms of the reputation economy. Some would say that it is meaningless to talk about the academy taking over scholarly publishing unless it works exclusively in OA formats, but this is simply not true. Is there anyone in the academy who does not respect the outstanding, if small, programs at the university presses of Cornell, Columbia, and Chicago, among many others? These programs are mostly of the traditional kind, where people pay for content that they value. Would anyone object if Tulane had a program that looked like SAGE’s or Michigan’s program were a serious rival to Wolters Kluwer? An exclusive focus on OA undermines any attempt to push back against the industry behemoths.

If editorial quality were all that mattered, university presses would be bigger than Google, Facebook, and Amazon combined.

But even if we were able to solve these problems, who is going to run these organizations? This brings us to the problem of management. This is a source of exasperation to me, as I repeatedly find myself telling academic and professional society clients to “hire high.” While there are significant exceptions to this, few universities are prepared to make the kind of investment in management talent that commercial organizations do as a matter of course. A few years ago I ran across a caricature of this situation, in which a librarian had been put in charge of a scholarly communications program with the goal of providing a meaningful alternative to Elsevier. The salary of this individual? In the range of $70,000. Executives responsible for even small units within large commercial companies earn $300,000 and up. They are not overpaid; they are paid for their performance. As in every other area of professional life, in publishing people make the difference.

The academy has ceded control of publishing to large commercial entities in part by continuing to fund the very organizations that are stifling the academy’s attempts to build their own programs. This is one of the implications of current negotiations over the “read and publish” paradigm, which serves to flip many toll-access articles to OA at the cost of locking in the revenues of the largest publishers. These programs are a simple misreading of the publishing economy. The academy’s problems are not with commerce or capitalism but with the sheer scale of a small number of very successful publishers, who use their scale to dominate the strategic decision-making of libraries and their parent institutions. The way to diminish the influence of domineering organizations is to defund them. Academic institutions could create a five-year plan to reduce expenditures to any single vendor to no more than 5% of the total library materials budget. And that figure should include all expenditures by the institution (e.g., data analytics tools purchased by the university administration), not just scholarly content. Such a defunding move would serve to rearrange the publishing ecosystem even before the five years were up, as acquisitions by the large companies would stop immediately.

Let’s offer only two cheers for the defunding strategy. Such a program would come, literally, at a high cost, as defunding would reduce the economies of scale that the largest players enjoy. A defunding strategy would reduce the influence of the large publishers (and do nasty things to their stock prices), but it would also shrink the size of library collections as the cost per article, in the absence of great scale, would rise.

This is the price that must be paid to take control. And that in turn invites the thought that perhaps the academy has not taken control of scholarly publishing because it doesn’t want to.

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