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Academic Publishing on the Internet

2009 September 21
by Richard N. Landers
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Publishing in academic journals is the dominant method by which research results are communicated amongst academics, and one would imagine that an institution priding itself on sharing such with the world would immediately embrace the freedom of expression that came with moving the entire enterprise online.  But that hasn’t happened.

The problem lies in the traditional publishing pipeline that has supported academia for at least a century.  In case you weren’t aware, this is the basic process:

  1. Academics are paid by their host institutions to produce and write up research
  2. Those write-ups are submitted to specific journals from specific publishing houses (such as Elsevier or Wiley) where the academic thinks the paper might appropriately appear
  3. Other, more experienced academics are paid by their own host institutions to review and critique those papers as reviewers and/or editors
  4. Once the paper has been accepted (a fairly complicated, multi-step process by itself), the editor academic communicates the paper’s acceptance (and in what issue it should appear and where) to the journal’s editor (the first person in this pipeline employed by the journal company)
  5. The publisher’s editing staff edits the piece for grammar and typos, formats it to an attractive page format, and sends a proof to the original writer
  6. After approval, the publisher’s editing staff prints the journals to paper and sends them to subscribers (most often libraries or similar organizations)

So as you can see, the journal company itself gets free content and really only serves as an intermediary.  Contrast this with book publishing, where the author will receive royalties as long as the book is sold new.  No royalties change hands for academic research in journals.

And few academics argue that this should change.  Research is meant to be shared with all, and the recognition we receive (and by extension, career advancement) is the only desired personal outcome for many.  Because of this, at some point, someone asked: why are publishing houses making money off of academic work?  Academics produce research for no tangible profit, and then the publishers sell that research to others.

The solution now suggested?  Open-access, online journals.  If journals are online and free, research is available to everyone, and we’re not needlessly funding publishers.  But here are the problems:

  1. If journals are online and free, it is true that publishers don’t turn a profit, but they also don’t have the cash flow to employ staff (such as copy editors).
  2. If online journals are an acceptable medium, what’s to prevent any random schmuck from publishing “research” and claiming it has been peer-reviewed?

In the quest to find a way to address these two concerns comes the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity, an agreement made by Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and UC-Berkeley.  This compact flips the subscription model in that these universities have agreed to pay the online journal purveyors for each article published to encourage online journals to exist as a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing.

Will it work?  Research will indeed be open access under such a system, and that’s probably a good thing, but I can see many ways for such a system to be abused without tight controls.  And of course, with tight controls, the compact’s purpose is undermined anyway.  What is to prevent any random person from starting an online “journal” and having his friends submit “articles” and splitting the cash?  It relies entirely on the integrity of every academic; if even one academic would abuse the system, there would be no way to assume any level of quality for any online journal.  And based on some recent evidence, maybe that’s not the best idea.

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  1. Shawna permalink
    September 21, 2009

    Just some scattered thoughts.

    Andrew and I have been thinking about a different form of online academic production than journals. It’s just like the rationale of web 2.0: why use the Internet to produce something you could produce off the Internet?

    Quality would be assured merely by popularity. Not all academic journals are accorded the same level of reputation; academics themselves create a hierarchy of journals based on their personal perception of the average quality of the work published in each journal. No one directly polices the production of such evaluations, but they happen everyday, and they really matter. (As you know, during the hiring process, committee members can easily judge who’s a better candidate, even if the candidates’ number of publications are all the same, based on the level of journal they write for.) If a journal is bad, it, quite simply, will be ignored. And if no one is out money, who cares?

    Finally, change comes slow in academia because of the long duration of the apprenticeship period and the grave consequences of failing to find a job or failing to get tenure. In such a situation, people are rewarded for following the accepted modes of garnering status. Even though it doesn’t look like academics get paid for journal publications, we absolutely need them to secure a well-paying job; in the long view, then, journal publication does involve money. Without a generation willing to put its academic life on the line, things will stay the same. And frankly, I don’t know if I’m willing to do that. Potentially throwing away 10 years of my life is not appealing.

  2. Matthew permalink
    September 22, 2009

    A minor point of clarification:

    It is only most peer-reviewed journals that do not pay royalties on work submitted to their journal; there are actually a few who do. Several European-based journals allow the journal article author to retain the copyright (and, thus, collect royalties). Also a handful of US-based journals (e.g., College & University) will pay the authors a one-time fee to buy the copyright and publish the work**.

    **This is REALLY disconcerting when you get a random check in the mail for ~$40 and have to spend time figuring out why you got it…

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