Independent publishing: the next big thing?

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Broken pact in scholarly communication motivates shifting locus of control, writes Daniel Berze

In decades past, there existed a tacit ‘pact’ between the academic community and academic publishers; namely that the academics would conduct the research, create the content, perform peer review to ensure quality and the publishers would disseminate it. This sounds like a sensible arrangement. The advantage to the academics is that they do not have to invest their precious time and money in an area that is not their core raison d'être. The obvious advantage for the publishers is that they receive quality content that they can then disseminate to the appropriate academic audience.

So what went wrong?

1. Pricing:  The price of academic content has increased disproportionately to the costs associated with its dissemination. One of the arguments for introducing digital technology into the dissemination process is that it would make the entire process cheaper and faster. In fact, it has become much more expensive for users (ask any librarian), and looking at submission to dissemination times, the speed of dissemination can also be questioned. Publishers would argue that the tremendous increase in volume accounts for the increased costs and slowness of the system, but the entire principle of technology is that it can handle large volumes of content without significantly impacting costs. Does it really cost more to process 1,000 digital manuscripts than it used to take to process 100 hard copy manuscripts? The cost of computing memory, hardware and software has reduced dramatically in the last decade. What is the justification for these massive price increases? In my previous career at a learned society, I would receive letters from publishers announcing that ‘we have restricted price increases this year to 15 per cent’ when inflation was less than 2 per cent.
2. Division of profits: In the aforementioned ‘pact’ between academics and publishers, it was tacitly agreed that academics would submit their articles for nothing (or their book manuscripts for roughly 9 per cent of royalties), and conduct their peer reviews for nothing, and the publishers would support the dissemination process over time to ensure sustainability and that content would reach intended user communities. It was expected that a profit would be charged in order to support the process and to allow for the investment in new technologies, adding value and increasing the user experience. However, no one expected the disproportionate, almost extortionate profit taking that many (but not all) publishers had realised. The academic community felt betrayed, their excellent content being used to spike publishers’ share prices instead of being used to further the goals of science. Academics felt betrayed.   

3. Status grab: In the original pact, it was clearly understood who was to receive the credit for high quality content – namely the content generator. It takes years of high quality education, innate ability and hard ‘roll up your sleeves’ work in order to create a successful academic researcher. Yet publishers seem to have turned the tables, basking in the limelight of ‘their’ excellent content. Publishers take credit for high quality content, while they are mere facilitators. Both the editorial process, as well as the content generation process is a product of the academic community. Not that this facilitation process is unimportant, but the publisher does not deserve the status that it often projects to the international community for the operational role it plays. Also, content users now typically search for content according to subject relevance and individual bibliometric indicators and do not care about the so called ‘status’ of the journal or publisher.

While one could focus on many more reasons as to why this pact has been disturbed, let’s restrict matters to these three.

Being responsible for the operational processes and magnetisation of academic content dissemination, academic publishers often took advantage of their privileged position.  Irrespective of the complaints issued by the academic community, they enjoyed total control of the model and have used their considerable financial resources to defend themselves from alternative competing models (via legal actions or buy-outs, for example).

When editorial boards walked out, they have been replaced. When academic societies have legal ownership of the journal, they typically have moved to another publisher, or publish themselves or in partnerships with other like-minded bodies, taking care that the new financial model ensures sustainability but does not support an unrealistic profit-making model. Book authors have turned to self-publishing en masse (fed up of having to self-finance expensive book buy-backs), making certain that the dissemination of their content is facilitated, while ensuring that they obtain the majority of the royalties in order to support further research instead of padding the pockets of academic publishing company shareholders. Several academics are so frustrated with the traditional model, that they have issued formal public pledges not to participate with some traditional publishers (e.g.

Open Access is one model that was created to circumnavigate the control of traditional academic publishers. However, many academic publishers have pivoted quickly, ensuring that income flows have shifted from content users (OA content is free for users) to content generators (the very academics that publishers were supposed to serve)! To realize the sustainability of their financial model, academic publishers have charged academics (via ‘article processing charges’, or ‘book processing charges’) prices that have essentially broken the ‘pact’ between publishers and academics.

As providers of both content and the financial resources necessary to support the entire model, there is a shift in locus of control back to the academics, who are not willing to underwrite the expensive traditional publishing model for the benefit of the Publishers and who understand that it is they who control the financing and the creation of academic content.

What’s next?

I anticipate that after open access, the next biggest surge that academic publishing will witness is 'independent publishing' (otherwise known as 'self-publishing'). If academics are financing the content and creating it, why shouldn’t they control pricing, determine and benefit by a division of profits that is skewed in their direction, and receive the resulting status which their work might generate? This is the future we are preparing for.

Daniel Berze is senior vice president for academic publishing at Glass Tree Academic Publishing/Lulu Press.