'An opportunity for social good'

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Brian Cody is co-founder and CEO of Scholastica

Tell us a little about your background, education, and career...

I grew up in Florida, went to school down there, then started a sociology PhD program at the University of Chicago, where the idea of Scholastica was born.

I met the other two Scholastica co-founders (Rob Walsh and Cory Schires) while we were all in graduate school at UChicago. We saw how slowly new research was published and thought, since we were all self-taught programmers, that we could help improve scholarship with technology. As we started talking to more academics, we realised that the problem was really two-fold: publishing journal articles is *much* slower than it should be in the digital age; and universities are paying billion of dollars to large corporations to access knowledge that volunteer scholars are actually doing the bulk of the work to produce. That’s why we decided to start Scholastica – we saw a real problem with a real opportunity for social good.

In many ways, Scholastica is a combination of the three co-founders’ experiences in academia, our ability to write code, our friendship, and our shared passion for making positive social changes.

You've been quoted as saying that the way scholarly publishing works 'is an accepted evil'. Why do you say this?

Journal publishing today is like smoking in the 1980s: experts agree it's bad, and companies make billions from it.

None of this is a secret: the scholarly community knows the fees charged by corporate journal publishers aren't justified by the final product, yet scholars continue publishing with them and universities keep purchasing their titles – because societal norms haven’t yet caught up to reality.

The research community today pays $10 billion each year to be able to read scholarly journal articles (which is vital for the advancement of science) – but the crazy thing is that most of that money goes to large corporations and not to the people who authored and reviewed the research or back into the budgets of the universities and non-profit organisations paying professors and scholars to do research.

I think most academics would agree that scholarly publishing is broken, and the cause is a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop. Universities feel they have no choice but to buy access to expensive journals from corporate publishers for their faculty, then those same faculty members publish their new research in similar journals, which gives the corporate scholarly publishers more leverage to charge universities more for their content, ad infinitum.

That’s an accepted evil in my book – everyone knows it’s bad, but for a long time there hasn’t been a real way out because it was so onerous for non-profit groups to publish print journals on their own, so the research community just kept doing the same thing. Now, with the move to digital publishing, it’s harder to justify the need for corporate publishers and it’s clear that publishing can be made much more affordable.

Laws, advertisements, and individuals speaking up changed social norms around tobacco – we need the same thing for academic journal publishing. The good news is that some universities are starting to cancel their journal subscriptions as a way to break the cycle, individual scholars are being more vocal about the importance of supporting free and open access journals, and alternatives to the corporate journal publishing model are gaining ground.

What are the benefits of shortening the publishing process – for librarians, researchers and publishers?

Scholarship is often delayed for months or years – which is always surprising to people outside academia who expect knowledge to be available quickly considering we live in an age where news is available within seconds.

I’ll share an example: when a scholar finishes a research article and sends it to a journal, it would not be uncommon for that article to take 2+ years to be published. How could that be? The traditional publishing process looks somewhat like this:

  • Peer review: 3 months
  • Author revisions requested by the journal: 3 months
  • Second round of peer review: 3 months
  • Wait for other articles in the same issue to be selected: 4 months
  • Copyediting: 1 month
  • Layout/Typesetting: 1 month
  • Backlog of quarterly issues: 9 months

When an article passes peer review, it does not go through copyediting or layout right away – it generally waits for all the other articles that will be in that issue to be selected and then the entire issue is sent for copy editing. Many journals only publish an issue every three months, and often try to create a backlog or buffer of a few issues to make sure they hit their publication deadlines. Consequently, even once an entire issue is ready to be published it can easily sit for over a year until it’s publication date rolls around. Often this delay is simply a holdover from when the journals were printed, though sometimes it’s the journal subscription contract itself that stipulates exact delivery windows and so leads to these crazy delays.

If you’re a scholar, you want to read new research as quickly as possible and you want your research published as quickly as possible to advance science and your own career. As citizens, we should all want new ideas and new discoveries available to the world as soon as possible.

How has Scholastica performed since it was founded in 2011?

Scholastica came out of beta in 2013, and is now used by over 500 journals to accept submissions, manage peer review, and to publish open access. We’ve been lucky to work with some great journals over the years, from the 2014 launch of Sociological Science, which uses Scholastica for peer review, to the landmark arXiv-overlay math journal Discrete Analysis (founded by Timothy Gowers, who inspired the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier, as well as other renowned mathematicians), which uses Scholastica for both peer review and publishing.

More recently, some great new open access journals like the Journal of New Librarianship and Internet Mathematics have begun using the Scholastica platform for peer review and open access publishing using Scholastica’s new journal website functionality, which makes it possible for journals to create modern, attractive publication websites on their own without technical hassle or the need for a web developer.

What is the single most important development in the industry in recent years?

I think the rise of universities – or entire countries – cancelling subscriptions to scholarly journals is incredibly important. The corporate journal publishers have a massive amount of business leverage on their side (e.g. inelastic demand from researchers, monopoly over content, secret contracts to avoid price comparison, etc.), and I think these institutional boycotts of journal subscriptions could change the dynamic in a positive way by hitting the publishers where it hurts — the wallet. Recently we’ve seen negotiations and boycotts from the Netherlands, Canadian universities, Germany/Peru/Taiwan, and even small colleges taking a stand.

On a more practical note, I think the rising preference among researchers to access scholarship online instead of in physical print journals is paving the way to cut costs related to printing journals, as well as to streamline the entire publishing process with a new, digital-first mentality rather than the print-first/digital-afterthought approach we’ve seen among legacy scholarly publishers.

How do you see the next 10 years panning out (for Scholastica and the wider industry?)

We recently released a white paper talking about this issue. I think we’re going to see the entire academic publishing industry atomise into smaller groupings of journals run by nonprofits or individual groups of scholars, rather than continued centralisation of journals among a handful of publishers – which has been the case up to this point and is the reason for the unsustainable subscription situation we're in now.

I also think we’re going to see more tools that democratise the entire academic publishing process so that the scholarly publishing workflow is less specialised, more automated, and the work more easily distributed across more people (you can see a good analogy in the democratisation of the financial sector). This will accelerate the viability of various open access publishing models, and lower the actual costs to run a high-quality journal – all of which will move control over academic publishing more into the hands of scholars themselves rather than corporate publishers.

I hope Scholastica’s at the centre of that movement, producing great tools to help journals publish scholarship efficiently, affordably, and sustainably.

Interview by Tim Gillett