Academic publishing is broken. Here’s how to redesign it.

From Fast Company:

The world of scholarly communication is broken. Giant, corporate publishers with racketeering business practices and profit margins that exceed Apple’s treat life-saving research as a private commodity to be sold at exorbitant profits. Only around 25% of the global corpus of research knowledge is open access, or accessible to the public for free and without subscription, which is a real impediment to resolving major problems, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Recently, Springer Nature, one of the largest academic publishers in the world, had to withdraw its European stock market floatation due to a lack of interest. This announcement came just days after Couperin, a French consortium, cancelled its subscriptions to Springer Nature journals, after Swedish and German universities cancelled their Elsevier subscriptions to no ill effect, besides replenished library budgets. At the same time, Elsevier has sued Sci-Hub, a website that provides free, easy access to 67 million research articles. All evidence of a broken system.

. . . .

A global community to coordinate and regain control–to develop a public open-access infrastructure–of research and scholarly communication for the public good is long overdue. The issues of governance and ownership of public research have never been clearer. Another isolated platform will simply replicate the problems of the current journal-based system, including the “publish or perish” mentality that perverts the research process, and the anachronistic evaluation system based on corporate brands.

Researchers are still forced to write “papers” for these journals, a communication format designed in the 17th century. Now, in a world where the power of web-based social networks is revolutionizing almost every other industry, researchers need to take back control.

. . . .

If we diversify our thinking away from the superficial field of journals and articles, and instead focus on the power of networked technologies, we can see all sorts of innovative models for scholarly communication. One ideal, based on existing services, would be something much more granular and continuous, with communication and peer review as layered, collaborative processes: Envisage a hosting service such as GitHub combined with Wikipedia combined with a Q&A site such as Stack Exchange. Imagine using version control to track the process of research in real time. Peer review becomes a community-governed process, where the quality of engagement becomes the hallmark of individual reputations. Governance structures can be mediated through community elections. Critically, all research outputs can be published and credited–videos, code, visualizations, text, data, things we haven’t even thought of yet. Best of all, a system of fully open communication and collaboration, with not an “impact factor” (a paper’s average number of citations, used to rate journals) in sight.

Such a system of scholarly communication requires the harmonizing of three key elements: quality control and moderation, certification and reputation, and incentives for engagement. For example, it would be easy to have a quality-control process in which instead of the closed and secretive process of peer review, self-organized and unrestricted communities collaborate together for research to attain verification and validation. The recklessly used impact factor can be replaced by a reward system that altruistically recognizes the quality of engagement, as defined by how content is digested by a community, which itself can be used to unlock new abilities within such a system. The beauty is that the incentive for researchers switches from publishing in journal X to engaging in a manner that is of most value to their community. By coupling such activities with academic records and profiles, research assessment bodies can begin to recognize the immense value this has over current methods of evaluation, including its simplicity.

. . . .

How will we fund scholarly publishing? Well, it’s a $25 billion a year industry: I’m sure libraries can spare a dime. Making a more just system of scholarly communication open-source means that any community can copy it, and customize it to suit the community’s own needs, driving down costs immensely. Furthermore, initiatives such as the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services (SCOSS) or a recent proposal for libraries to set aside just 2.5% of their budget to support such innovative systems, offer paths forward. The possibility is real for creating something so superior to the present system that people will wonder how publishers ever got away with it for so long.

. . . .

On average, academics currently spend around $5,000 for each published article–to get a PDF and some extra sides. A range of different studies and working examples exist that show the true cost of publishing an article can be as low as $100 using cost-efficient funding schemes, community buy-in, and technologies that go a step further than PDF generation. We can do better.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

PG will note that academic publishing is an extraordinarily profitable activity for the academic publishers and ripe for disruption. A long time ago, he worked for a large subsidiary of Reed Elsevier, now the RELX Group, which also owns Elsevier.

Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher, so he has some understanding about what a wonderfully profitable business it is, particularly in an online publishing world.

The two most important inputs for academic publishing, scholarly articles and peer review, cost the journals virtually nothing. Academics write articles for publication because publishing research papers is a requirement for most academic teaching posts. Peer review services by other academics in the field is designed to ensure the quality of the publications. Being selected for a peer review panel adds to an academic’s distinction and provides him/her a leg up the competition to be published in the academic journal for which the peer reviewers are providing essentially free expert services.

12 thoughts on “Academic publishing is broken. Here’s how to redesign it.”

  1. I wonder what the author of this article thinks of our current patent system. If it makes no sense for publishing companies that do none of the actual research to have control over the release of academic research into the world, does it make sense for large tech companies or patent trolls to be able to block the ability to practically apply scientific and technical information for the next 20 years through carefully worded patent thickets, unless one is able and willing to pay exorbitant licensing fees?

    • Yes, of course, a company should spend millions – or billions – of dollars to develop something, and then make it available for free.

      Or a garage inventor should spend years perfecting a design, and then just give it away.

      Let’s have not a single new cell phone, car engine, battery, life saving drug. What we already have, we’ll have made in the place that can make them the cheapest, shouldering out the competition. The slave camps of Red China can use the work.

      • Congratulations! You win Internet Straw Man of the Day award.

        Now get yourself to your search engine of choice and look up ‘patent troll’. It’s a real problem.

        • I do not object to something being done about patent trolls – although the definition varies widely, depending on whether you are in the “information should be free” camp, or somewhat less Marxist in your viewpoint.

          What I object to is the “large tech companies” – some are abusive, some are not. Blanket condemnations of intellectual property laws raise my suspicions.

  2. The whole intellectual property system is broken, or at the very least distorted. And academic publishing is one of the worst examples. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that this is probably the textbook model for how the intellectual property system can work directly contrary to the public interest and the ostensible goals of that system.

  3. One of my law professors revolted against the high prices publishers charged for texts . . . and this was decades ago. Our law school had a full printing plant in the half-basement under the library, so he sourced the case law himself, added his own questions and notes, and published his class texts through the law school. Each text cost $20. POD. I recall ordering mine at the print shop and being told, “Come back in an hour.” Came in a five-ring binder ’cause that’s what the professor specified. Wish more of the professors had done that.

    • He may have made more (at least per hour of effort) than he would have received from a textbook publisher, too.

      It is good to see pressure on the oligopoly from both sides (supplier and consumer). I can hope that it continues, but it is not the only problem with academic publishing.

      The other “front,” if you will, is the incredible number of papers that are rushed to press, and later cannot be reproduced – and those that are outright pieces of fraud – simply to satisfy an academic employer’s standards for tenure and pay raises. “Open source” publications are trying to address these issues, as failure to do so will kill them even more quickly than the “traditional” journals – but the problem is a very difficult one.

    • Unfortunately I found that more of them published their books through the large academic publishers and then prescribed those books for all of their classes.

    • That’s a wonderful idea, Antares.

      And, particularly in the introductory-level courses, necessary updates will be few and far between.

  4. I agree that what Elsevier and some others charge for journals and article reprints is bordering on highway robbery, especially when you do not have illustrations or color plates to add to the cost. I do believe that some form of rigorous, politics-blind, peer review system for research articles is needed, preferably including at least one lab that repeats the experiment and gets the same or at least very, very similar results.

    But $85 for a PDF of one journal article from something published by Elsevier? Oh come on. And that was 15 years ago, so I suspect the price would be closer to $100 today.

    • In spring I may have been researching a topic online via a university library. One of the better publishers to get stuff from through that library was responsible for proceedings of a conference that was pretty central to my work. Older volumes could be downloaded for free, so that was great. I could even download individual articles, which was faster and handier. But the prices of the newer volumes? Ouch.

      There are basically three use cases I see. People without access to a university library, trying to go off just what they can find on the internet for free. You miss all sorts of stuff doing this. Second is people with university access, and no actual budget. You can do pretty decent self study that way. Learn an obscure technical skill. Third is university access, and the funds to buy what you can’t get for free. For a lot of fields, ground breaking research may well require the latter.

      Reproducibility is important, profit is important, and given the current state, access is important. The situation is ripe for disruption. Universities are probably ripe for disruption. If I had any clue how, I would probably be doing it.

      I’d note that codes and standards from professional societies are not necessarily all that cheap either.

      I think ideal from my perspective would be as follows. IP holders, like the American Society of Widget Engineers holding the Journal of Widget Engineering, and Proceedings of the International Widget Engineering Conference. IP holders would license the documents to two or more document distribution companies. These may do things like license all the IP on a topic, so that the references in the PDF are linked directly to the document cited. Then the university libraries license from document delivery services, which may be quite redundant. I think more competition would make things better for me.

      Though once you get used to them, the accessibility issues dwindle back down to being comparable to the difficulties of organizing and directing the search, studying and documenting the finds, chasing citations, etc…

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