Tear Down This Paywall

It seemed hard at first

It’s time for serious change in scholarly publishing. In fact a revolution is already under way, it just hasn’t arrived in political science yet. Here’s why we should bring the budding Academic Spring to the humanities and the social sciences.

First the cause of the rebellion: the public is paying several times for research that is then not made available to the public for free. — First the taxpayer is paying our salary, at least partly; then the taxpayer is footing the bill for some of the grants that allow us to publish; third the taxpayer is indirectly funding our libraries to buy back the stuff that we write; and citizens, if you like, are paying for their children to get into our universities in order to be able to read scholarly literature in that library. It doesn’t make sense. Publicly funded research wants to be free. No wonder the system is beginning to crumble, as aptly covered by the Economist and the Guardian.

What needs to change? — Stop charging the reader for articles, and stop printing them. Doing both at once has the potential to improve scholarly debate, and in unexpected ways.

Before making the case for change, let’s quickly consider what should not change. Some of the core features of the current system are fundamentally sound. Consider three of them.

The peer-review process, even if flawed in several ways, remains a powerful and tested system that ensures quality. What’s often slowing down publication is not the peer-review process, but an outdated publishing model. In the case of one of my articles, the peer-reviewers turned around the text in four days (ok, that’s exceptional) — but then it took the journal another 18 months to get it published.

Articles also should remain static and stable, as if printed on paper, not degenerate into websites or posts. Academic texts, obviously, should continue to be professionally copy-edited; of course they should continue to have a standardized DOI number; and they should still have all the things we appreciate about print, like pagination, embedded graphs and formulas, aesthetic appeal, layout, and proper typesetting. PDFs, today’s de-facto standard, are already providing all this and should continue to do so.

Finally not all magazines will stop printing, nor should they. There’s specialized, work-related reading, and there’s fun and luxury reading. The stuff you read on the sunny terrace with your feet up and a cup of coffee, say The New York Review of Books or the Wilson Quarterly, should remain paper-based. But how many people read Terrorism and Political Violence to a glass of red wine and Bach?

You’ve probably heard the usual arguments: open-access means more readers, more transparency, more criticism by peers, therefore more quality-control, faster feedback, and more global justice because poor countries (and poor universities) can access research more easily, and therefore provide better education. These arguments are pretty powerful already. The Wellcome Trust took actionand the UK government as well. But for authors and students, there are even more arguments.

Academic publishing can take a clue or two from blogs and social media. Post (or tweet) frequently, add a personal touch now and then, and your readership will skyrocket. If you apply this logic to academic publishing, the possibilities are amazing. Bear with me.

First, single journals could publish more. Currently the number of peer-reviewed articles published by academic journals is kept artificially low by the outdated idea of having just three or four or six hardbound paper copies per year. Each print issue can only fit a certain number of texts, so even those published in online-first schemes are ultimately just queuing up for future print issues, thus clogging the system. Abolish the bottleneck of the obsolete print issue that nobody reads in print any more anyway, and more articles can be published faster.

Second, single journals would get more readers. If more content — peer-reviewed, quality-controlled, in proper PDFs — is coming online for free, more people would go look more often. Now, why not think outside the box, and get the scholars to add a personal note on the journal’s website about how they did the research, what the difficulties were, an anecdote from the field, and then post this as a short teaser when the article comes out — even more readers would come and click through to the actual research paper.

Third, single journals could become broader. As a result of more content and more readers, some journals could perhaps overcome their narrow specializations. A given journal has to publish a certain number of articles that apply a given theory or methodology per year, just to keep its reputation among highly specialized academic communities. Space constraints therefore result in more specialization. But if a journal can serve several specialized communities with more content at the same time, the boundaries between sub-debates and sub-fields could become more permeable. That would be a hugely valuable service for the academy, and for the public.

“But publishing still costs money,” you will say. Yes it does. But, first, not as much as the existing publishing empires are charging — no other than the Economist recently called their business model a “licence to print money” (Elsevier’s 2011 profit was £768m). Even Harvard said it could no longer afford the rising prices.

Secondly, there are better business models than the current one which rips off the public several times at once. The Public Library of Science (PLoS), a foundation that publishes a number of leading science journals, is funded mainly through fees by the author. That may sound strange at first glance to some, but if you think about it the model is far superior. Third models exist as well.

And then: why not be really innovative? Journals could still sell printed matter, for instance a print-on-demand version of articles that the reader could individually select and order, say for single articles or combined pieces from different journals. Think a thematic special issue. And why not offer a truly attractive print issue for subscription, say, a journal’s top-dozen most-downloaded, or most-cited, articles per year in one binding? That would be a must-read for students and scholars alike. I would subscribe to a few of such “best-of” issues, and I’m not subscribing to any scholarly print journal now.

So, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis: it’s springtime. Scholarly knowledge wants to be free. The lettered masses are gathering, icepicks in hand, eagerly squinting beyond the paywall, up to the fortified ivory tower, impatiently asking, What are your suggestions for reform?

The options are either serious reform or creeping revolution — it’s only a question of time. Ok, tenured professors will probably not smash your windows with bricks. But remember Stevan Harnad’s “Subversive Proposal“? The Berlin Declaration? Now even Harvard University is asking scholars to consider resigning from editorial boards. Expect more.


6 thoughts on “Tear Down This Paywall

  1. W4rlord says:

    On one hand as a soon PhD-to-be I agree with you.

    On the other hand due to the ‘publish or perish’ principle it will IMMENSELY increase the size of digestible material, leading to further microspecialisation and to the loss of overview of a specific area. Juts my two cents.

    • TR says:

      Why? Nobody is suggesting to lower the quality standards. The majority of articles get rejected by peer reviewers, not for reasons of space. The amount of high-quality research is very limited, so no “immense” increase is to be expected. And combining multiple debates in one journal could have the opposite effect: more consolidation, less specialisation.

    • SM says:

      Well, for one thing, the cost of publishing in print (and subscribing to a print journal) helped to keep out quacks. There are a number of “author pays” journals operating out of East Asia which take the author’s money, put his article on their website, and run. In the past, journals which failed to meet proper standards wouldn’t be included in library collections or databases, and wouldn’t survive because there was no money in it. Not everyone doing research in a field is an expert who can rattle off the 50 main journals and their strengths and weaknesses! Publishers, librarians, and bookstore owners do precious work filtering out garbage.

      My biggest concern with going to a pure electonic model is that electronic storage isn’t stable. Right now, electronic media decay very quickly, and are vulnerable to disasters like the next big solar storm. Academic publishing is as much about preserving knowledge as disseminating it. A conservative approach is in order; for one thing, national libraries should continue to collect a hardcopy of all journals for the forseeable future.

      Electronic access also creates issues of “who pays” especially for back issues of obscure journals which have no money to digitize themselves. For-profit companies like JSTOR are not a good solution, since they block access by the scholarly poor with extortionate fees.

  2. Olaf says:

    There is a lot of interesting ideas in this article. Actually, there are few articles or books that arrive ready to print or “Druckreif” at the publishers. Of course, eighteen month to edit and print a piece is too much, especially because many authors see their work getting outdated before its been published, but some of the problems that delay the publication of a (special) journal issue or edited collection of chapters are down to the fact that authors do not deliver as promised. If one chapter is lost, the whole project is often at question. Just recently I read a book on the world-wide reception and impact of Clausewitz , and noticed that the UK did not have a chapter in it…the editor told me that the Brit did not deliver.

    From the authors’ perspective, to study the “recommendations to contributors” is a lot of work…to adapt a piece again, even if it is only with regard to citing styles, or whether endnote may be used or not, isn’t always easy. In the good old days when I learned the basics of my (first) professional career in publishing, there were still compositors (or typesetters) around, who took a typed text or manuscript to transform it into an appropriate form for the respective journal/book. These people were fabulous…extremely educated, and worked as fast as the lightning. At the time the different standards of journals were no problem, lectors and typesetters would do the job.

    Nowadays authors spend night after night re-formatting texts…if an article has to be submitted twice…that happens to excellent pieces too…the whole work has to be redone…endnotes…food notes…per chapter…at the end of the whole text…graphs and tables in extra files or within the body of text…some journals want max. sixteen pages, other like two columns on twenty pages pages, others again prefer 14.000 words or even 250.000 letters including or excluding blanks…there is a never ending exchange of e-mails on how to adapt the article, and on where to shorten it. Unfortunately, this often occurs after the peer review process.

    As a result, people who have better things to do, edit texts…at the expense of their own time, and at the benefit of publishers who prefer not to pay salaries to compositors and lectors any more.

    A standardisation of formatting would help. We all know it is possible. To take one example we’re all familiar with, the framing of a master or PhD thesis is defined in any student handbook valid for thousands of students…why not agree on, say, Up to 30 pages, 12 point, single spaced, monochrome, footnoted, or in-text citation?
    On the point that everyone actually pays too often before he/she can access a scientific publication…that is hitting the nail square. If one works for an ordinary capitalist enterprise, for instance as a car engineer, designer, or software composer, the fruits of one’s research belong to the company…research funded by the public should accordingly belong to the public. What we need is a Freedom of Academic Information Act.



  3. A Johnson says:

    Many good ideas here. But:

    “But publishing still costs money,” you will say. Yes it does. But, first, not as much as the existing publishing empires are charging — no other than the Economist recently called their business model a “licence to print money” (Elsevier’s 2011 profit was £768m). Even Harvard said it could no longer afford the rising prices.”

    I worry that very broad assumptions are being made about the industry based on a very tiny handful of figures. Elsevier makes impressive profits, yes, but a lot of the context is missing: What do other publishers make? What is the composition of revenues? (IE is one division a licence to print money, and all the rest loss-making?) How have profits moved with subscription fees? (if the fees match the increase in profit level, then that suggests that costs too are rising.) I do happen to know what the financial figures are like in one small segment of the market, and let me put it this way – it’s not all yachts, caviar and cigars.

    The industry is going to have to adapt to balance the need to generate revenue (copyeditors, typesetters and server-based archives are all not free) with widening access and the traditional roles of filtering. I think the future is less subscription based and more about micropayments. This may not necessarily be a good thing for society-based journals whose wider work does to some degree rely on the fees they can get from publishers. Whether or not you think this is a ‘good thing’ depends on what you think the worth of charitable academic societies is.

    I do scoff, however, when Harvard claims to ‘not be able to afford’ rising prices.

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