Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Where is the tipping point?

The simultaneously funny and bleak Twitter account Shit Academics Say or @academicssay also have a blog. Here they use a bit more than 140 characters. The blog post I want to write about today is about academic publishing, and how academic journals have become one of the most profitable businesses out there. Or as they say: The most profitable obsolete technology in history.

Academic publishing is an increasing problem to academic production. Positioned in a small university with a small library budget, I am totally dependent on the large library next door, or the wonderful Danish Royal Library. I spend a few days a month in their spaces, downloading articles from their access, in order to be able to do the basics of lit. reviews. The universities spend enormous sums to keep us all in articles, and I try to do my best to make sure it's worth while, but at the same time I think this money is spent very, very badly.

The main point about academic journals is that they are peer reviewed. And we all know that the peer reviewing is the burden of our peers, which is you and me. What academic publishers provide is proofreading (minimal), setting and editing, printing, distribution, and managing the money. We all know that if all the content of the journals were freely available online, from everywhere, we would be quite happy to forego the whole printed part of that process. That takes care of distribution too. We already do both the writing and the reviewing, and often we also do the editing. So what's left is some practical administration, some proofreading and copy-editing, publishing online and managing the money.

I don't know how much labour goes into running a prestigious journal, but let's say all the universities that really need those specialised mathematics journals sat down and discussed what kind of editors they would need in order to create their own journals. Then they just stopped buying them, and spent the money paying for editors and online publishing. Since there's no need to buy anything, a whole layer of administration is gone. The costs to paper and distribution is gone. There's no need to control access, as all access would be free. There are of course a few snags here. Universities would like to promote their own scholars. This could be remedied for instance by making certain that the reviewers are from different universities, and by putting in a board of editors from related journals run by other universities. Working out these details in order to make sure there's not even more playing of the reviewing process with this system than with the old one would take a while, but it would be worth it. The whole process needs to be shook up a bit anyway.

In this process, academic journals would get actual competition. They would have to review what is developing into a vicious, predatory practice. And knowledge would be free to all, not just those with a prestigious, exclusive library card. The ones who would really benefit from this would be students from all over the world! Having one or several active academic editors working in-house in the fields a university is specialising on would also be a tremendous boost to the centers and communities. It would bring the editors in closer contact with the actual development of research, and into direct discourse with the scholars they are supposed to support. Today's system, with the peer review, does not really ensure an outside perspective, so it would be better to acknowledge this and enter into discourse directly. Several existing university presses are among the best in their fields, so that isn't really a particularly good argument either.

If European universities managed to get behind the Pisa agreement to create a uniform system of degrees and grades, it should absolutely be doable to start in Europe and do this for the academic publishing. Until then, I'll do my best to keep supporting the less predatory journals out there., come here, have a hug.

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