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Welcome to The Great Acceleration

From The Scholarly Kitchen:

My employer, Oxford University Press, holds regular “Oxford Journals Day” events where we bring together our society publishing partners and journal editors to catch up on the latest developments in publishing and to share their experiences. In the autumn of 2017, I was asked to give a “State of Scholarly Communications” presentation for this meeting and, being a fundamentally lazy person, I thought – this is great, Academia moves at such a slow pace that, with some minor tweaks, I’ll be able to re-use this talk for years. Six months later I was asked to reprise the talk for a UK event and I ended up having to rewrite about half of it. Six months later, I had to rewrite the other half.

I like to think of the period that we’ve entered into now as “The Great Acceleration,” a term coined by author Warren Ellis (or, as a recent exhibition states it, “Everything Happens So Much“). We aren’t really dealing with new issues – arXiv has been around posting preprints since 1991, mergers have been common for a while now (Wiley buying Blackwell happened more than 11 years ago), and the open access movement has been front and center since at least the year 2000.

. . . .

But, like every other aspect of our lives in this interconnected, digital utopia in which we live, we’ve reached a point where everything feels like it’s happening at once. Every week it seems like another piece of crucial publishing infrastructure is changing hands, or a new open access policy is announced, or there’s a new open letter petitioning for change that you’re expected to sign onto, or a new technology or standard that you absolutely must implement.

The upside to this accelerated pace is that it gets us closer to our goals faster. We know that the field of scholarly communications is far from perfect, but now it’s so much easier to gather evidence about reader and author needs, so much easier to publicly discuss potential plans, and, at least in some cases, to put those plans into action and draw attention to them.

The downside is that the faster you go, the less effective are your brakes. Scholarly communications is a complex ecosystem, and one that for most participants, largely works pretty well. Deliberately disrupting one aspect of the chain may have unexpected consequences in hundreds of other areas, and by then it may be too late to stop things from collapsing. We know the damage that the “move fast and break things” philosophy of Facebook and others has done to our society at large. Is this what we want for academia as well?

I would argue that the two biggest forces driving change in the scholarly communication landscape are consolidation and regulation. By consolidation, I mean that there’s a now constant cycle of mergers and acquisitions, reducing the number of independent players in the market. By regulation, we’re talking about the increasing number of rules and the compliance burden being put on researchers.

. . . .

We are in the midst of an era of mergers and acquisitions, and the biggest of publishers continue to get bigger. You’ll note that most now have names that are conglomerations of their former entities, “Springer Nature”, for example. The top 5 publishers account for more than 50% of the papers published each year, 70% in the social sciences.

In the past year or two, we’ve seen Wiley purchase Atypon, the platform that hosts more than a third of the world’s English language journals, along with Authorea and Manuscripts.app, both online paper writing collaboration tools. Elsevier has swallowed up bepress, which builds institutional repositories, SSRN, a widely used social sciences preprint network, Plum Analytics, a supplier of altmetrics, Aries, the company behind the Editorial Manager submission system, and in late December, Science Metrix.

. . . .

Some of these acquisitions are driven by need – Wiley reportedly spent a lot of money building a platform that underperformed, and bought Atypon to replace it. The same goes for Elsevier, whose home brewed submission system, eVise, never quite worked out, prompting them to buy Editorial Manager.

But a lot is also driven by Wall Street demands. We know that library budgets are flat, if not declining and that investors demands that companies increase their revenue each year. So first, you gobble up more and more of the existing market. Then you build an open access publishing program – that’s seen as new money, coming directly from funders and institutions rather than from the libraries. A third option comes into play here – if the market is flat, what other markets can a company extend itself into? Remember that Elsevier no longer refers to itself as a publisher, rather it is a “global information analytics business”

. . . .

This is creating a lot of anxiety in the market. If you’re a publisher and suddenly your mission critical infrastructure is owned by a competitor, that has to make you nervous. Combined with concerns about lock-in, this anxiety has led to a growing consensus that the market needs a major investment in shared and open infrastructure and standards. Rather than relying on a competitor or even a private company likely to be acquired by a competitor for key services, perhaps it’s better to work with a community-owned, not-for-profit service. Much of this is being driven by open source software community, which has many advantages due to its transparency, and portability.

It’s unclear whether there’s enough scale in our relatively small community to drive open source development at the level seen for larger industries. We’re just starting to see some of these systems emerging, and while the tools themselves look promising, what’s really needed are services built around those tools. Most publishers don’t have the internal capacity (nor the desire) to become software development and support companies, hence a need for outsourcing remains critical.

. . . .

Given the high number of degrees awarded by universities every year and the very low number of tenure track faculty positions made available, research careers are something of a buyer’s market. We’ve seen universities continually increase the demands they make of their research employees. Researchers are required to do more and more beyond their actual research, including the usual teaching, mentoring, and serving on seemingly endless committees, but also primarily fundraising — science positions are increasingly similar to free-lance work, where the university essentially agrees to rent you space, and then you’re responsible for paying your own salary and costs through whatever grants you can bring in.

Now on top of this, researchers are being asked to jump through an enormous number of additional hoops, ranging from pre-registration of experiments, to posting of preprints (and monitoring and responding to resulting comments), to formal publication (where one must take great care to publish it in an outlet that follows the very specific rules set by your funders, your university, and all of your collaborators’ funders and institutions). Then you need to make the data behind the paper publicly available and help others use it, and if you really want to drive reproducibility, write up and release your methodologies. Societal impact is now deemed important, so you have to become your own publicist, promoting yourself and the work via social media. At the same time, people may be talking about your paper via post-publication peer review systems, so you need to monitor those and respond to any questions/criticisms.

Link to the rest at The Scholarly Kitchen

PG says a lot of the promotion and marketing requirements placed on academic authors sound like what indie authors do when they self-publish a book.

He’s remarked upon the strange economics in the world of academic publishing before, but PG will again remind one and all that the scholarly publishers don’t pay the researchers and authors any royalties or other compensation for the articles they publish.

However, scholarly publishers do charge very high subscription fees for their publications, which, like everything else, are rapidly moving away from paper to electronic form. A large percentage of these subscription fees are paid by college and university research libraries.

PG suggests following the money.

  1. Academic researchers are almost always receiving some sort of financial compensation from academic institutions in the form of salaries, office and lab space, access to the college/university libraries. While outside foundations, etc., may fund some parts of the research, the nonprofit academic institutions, including university-affiliated hospitals and other medical facilities in some cases, are providing support necessary for a great many research projects.
  2. A key deliverable for most academic research is a published report of the results of the research programs. For a variety of altruistic and self-serving reasons, colleges and universities want their contemporaries to know what excellent and innovative work is being done by their scholars.
  3. Instead of simply releasing such research reports directly, by posting them on university computer systems with free downloads available and permitting other relevant online locations academic research to repost, the colleges and universities expect their researchers to obtain what amounts to a stamp of approval from an appropriate third-party privately owned (in most cases) academic publication.
  4. The researchers write up their findings and submit them to scholarly publications. Since such publishers do not employ people with sufficient expertise to determine whether the research has been properly conducted and the research conclusions are supported by the research results, the scholarly publishers send the draft findings and conclusions out to experts in the field. In many cases, those experts are employed by other non-profit academic and research institutions and are certainly not employed by the scholarly publications.
  5. After appropriate third-party scholarly reviews are received by the publisher, sent to the authors, incorporated into revised reports, subjected to follow up examination by third-party experts, etc., the authors’ work is finally published.
  6. The scholarly publisher sells and licenses its publication of the author’s work to libraries, journal subscribers, etc. As mentioned above, scholarly publishers charge very high subscription fees for their publications.

What makes the scholarly publications valuable?

  1. The expertise and labor of the authors of the articles published which may incorporate the results of testing, laboratory research which may involve the use of expensive lab equipment, the use of clinical research facilities in hospitals, etc., which are provided by the institutions where the authors conduct their research,
  2. plus the quasi-certification of the reliability of the articles provided by third-party experts who have reviewed the published materials.

Who receives all the money generated from the sales and licensing of the scholarly publications?

Not the authors or the institutions providing research facilities or the experts capable of reviewing the research and providing the seal of approval.

It may not be the most exciting business in the world, but the publication of scholarly works is a great way to make a large return on the investment necessary to publish journals and books in 2018 2019.

Non-Fiction, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

One Comments to “Welcome to The Great Acceleration”

  1. Is it really that accelerated – or just the ‘snowball’ effect as it rolls down hill before it hits a tree and goes ‘splat’ every which way?

    “What makes the scholarly publications valuable?”

    The ‘publish or die’ bit of that pretended education, if ‘publishing’ wasn’t a requirement it would die.

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