Publish, and be damned

The perennial stushie about academic publishing has got a bit louder than usual in recent weeks, with an ultimatum from the university libraries and various articles in the THE. It’s even been picked up by the mainstream media, though I suspect that George Monbiot wouldn’t appreciate that description of his column. (Update at 2011/09/03: the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre has also raised the issue in his Bad Science column.)

Broadly speaking, there’s agreement among everybody but the publishers that the present system feels broken: a lot of money is travelling from universities to publishers and it’s not clear that the publishers are doing much to justify this. Meanwhile, the authors of these papers find themselves increasingly tangled in intellectual property law: what version of my article am I allowed to share with a colleague? a friend? an institutional repository…? It’s not satisfying, and it breeds anger. It’s also surprisingly hard to see a good way out of the present situation, as long as we continue to have academic journals. (This is a question in itself, and one that needs to be discussed alongside peer review and the editorial process. Maybe I’ll come back to it later.)

Let’s start by giving certain claims the respect they deserve. Some publishers do provide editorial support in the form of online submission systems, but it’s possible to buy these in from other providers (e.g. ScholarOne, formerly Manuscript Central). Journal house styles are easy enough to reproduce using LaTeX, while the copy-editing provided by publishers is typically outsourced at minimal cost and frequently gives the impression that it was carried out by a combination of a drunken monkey and Satan’s Little Helper. Not much “added value” there.

The online archives of articles provided by the bigger publishers (e.g. Elsevier’s ScienceDirect) are easy to navigate and well-maintained, in contrast to many institutional repositories. However, this is probably because the people employed to design and curate these repositories tend to think in terms of “research output deliverables” rather than “papers”, and to be a bit vague on fine bibliographical details like getting authors’ damn names right. (I’d like to say to those responsible “you know who you are”, but you probably don’t.) With the moral courage to spend a few minutes online looking at what works and shamelessly stealing the basic ideas, there seems no reason why other institutions couldn’t manage this. To set against the quality of these archives, there’s the uncomfortable fact that the publishers can withdraw access the instant subscriptions stop arriving, and also tend to have mechanisms in place to stop systematic downloading of material — the equivalent, in paper journal terms, of going round to an ex-subscriber’s campus and setting fire to their library.

Oh, and there’s that fierce legal defence that publishers offer of their authors’ intellectual property — you know, the reason we’re required before publication to sign over everything bar a smidgen of “moral rights” to keep us warm in bed. In my experience, this ferocity doesn’t extend to preventing the wholesale ripping-off of passages, or to consulting authors before reproducing their material in other publications; however the publishers are entirely fearless about issuing cease-and-desist orders to the authors themselves if they’re detected making their own papers available on their own websites. As with DRM, it’s much easier to prosecute honest people than thieves, because thieves make themselves so much harder to find…

So what is it that publishers do that explains the strength of their grip on the academic world? I can think of two key factors: their ownership of journals as institutions, and their control of the money-transfer process.

Let’s start by asking: what is a journal? Obviously a journal functions as a category to be used when organising papers bibliographically, and also as a sort of tag to be used when searching for papers on a particular theme. By and large, though, a journal also functions as something more subtle: an institution with peculiar traditions and emphases, both of presentation and of content. As with all institutions, this is a good deal more subtle than just assigning notional snob values to different journals. Compare the two (arguably) most prestigious journals in theoretical fluid dynamics: Physics of Fluids  and Journal of Fluid Mechanics . Roughly the same populations publish in them: Phys. Fluids is perhaps more dominant in North America and JFM in the Cambridge-centred tradition in England and elsewhere, but plenty of prominent authors use both. Their impact factors are similar and they both have A* snob value. At the same time, they tend to differ considerably in style: Phys. Fluids favours terse presentation, with brief introductions and an absence of “flannel”, while JFM papers tend to be more discursive, with lengthier introductions and discussions, as well as to be more self-contained. The result is that each journal gives the impression of an ongoing conversation, or perhaps a kind of porous community. The closest analogy I can think of is that of colleges within a collegiate university, which for all their childish one-upmanship tend to respect each others’ merits but retain distinct personalities. (Apologies, by the way, to anyone to whom that analogy makes as much sense as one based on the behaviour of high-school cliques in the methane lakes of Titan.)

It’s this institutional or traditional quality, which I suspect is most pronounced for the more prestigious and established journals, that makes it so important who “owns” the title. When a journal is owned entirely by a publisher, their grip is absolute and it will be very difficult to pry control of that portion of the literature from their grasp: one could try setting up an AFC Wimbledon or similar Rebel Breakaway X, but for anybody not raised in a schismatic tradition like Scottish Presbyterianism or British communism this option might not appeal.

Some journals are in the happier position of being owned by bodies, such as learned or professional societies, which in principle have the interest of the discipline at heart. If such a society is large enough, it may set itself up as a publisher: the AIP and the AGU are both examples of this, as is the Royal Society of London. A smaller society may enter into an agreement to publish its journal(s) through a commercial publisher, retaining — if it has any sense — ultimate control of the intellectual property involved. (For example, the Edinburgh Mathematical Society publishes its Proceedings through Cambridge University Press.) It’s far easier to imagine a journal in this position being removed from its current publisher and transplanted elsewhere. The catch, aside from any contracts the society and the publisher may have entered into, is the financial significance of a journal to such a society. It’s not unknown for the majority of a society’s income to come from its publications, placing it in a somewhat equivocal position if a conflict arises between publishing and scholarship. Overall, though, it does seem that if journals are to survive, the societies are liable to be better custodians of them than the publishers.

So there might, perhaps, be a long-term solution to the problem of who controls journals; it’s mildly ironic that this solution is essentially a return to the origin of the journal tradition, but there’s nothing wrong with turning a clock back if it’s showing the wrong time. The tougher subject, however, is the money, and this will be an issue regardless of who controls the journals and whether or not they’re run for profit.

If journals are to add anything to a paper, whether it be dissemination, archiving, advertising or copyright protection, that something has a cost and has to be paid for by somebody. This isn’t obviated by the fact that the vast bulk of the cost — the writing, refereeing and editing — is already borne by somebody other than the journals’ publishers and readers. A convention has developed in which the prestige of these activities is believed by sufficiently many people to be worth the effort that these costs can be disseminated; it’s not obvious that this convention could be extended to cover the less academic-looking parts of the process.

There is money in the system to cover everything, and to spare. Mr Monbiot’s article is surely right about that. I suspect that he’s also right that, collectively, university libraries have the financial strength to overthrow the publishers and take over the entire industry themselves, requisitioning whatever technical expertise they need in the process:

These gentlemen are working today in obedience to the wishes of the capitalists and will work even better tomorrow in obedience to the wishes of the armed workers.

(V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917; chapter 5)

The problems with his vision are the classic problems that socialist solutions face (and how I wish they didn’t!). First, there’s the known tendency of a command economy to end up serving the interests of the apparatchiks rather than either the workers or the consumers — on a small scale, the design and implementation of institutional repositories can end up reflecting this. Second, there’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: if all libraries ganged together they could doubtless give the publishers a good kicking and make all articles free; but it’s always to the benefit of any individual library to stay out of the fray, save its money for other things and then take advantage of the free information that everybody else has paid for.

That leaves us with the two existing models: reader-pays (the conventional model) and author-pays (the “open access” model). Hybrids could possibly be constructed, but I’ll deal only with the end-members here.

The advantage of the reader-pays model is that it is straightforward: we’re used to the idea of paying for a piece of information and plenty of mechanisms are in place to allow it. It also exerts a crude kind of market discipline: despite all the “bundling” tricks that publishers pull to sell crap journals — rather in the way that shopping channels and EuroTrashSport XIV find their way into cable TV subscriptions — it’s still harder to raise money by publishing a journal that nobody has any reason to want to read.

The reader-pays model, though, requires a substantial commercial apparatus to make it work: subscriptions have to be sold to thousands of libraries and individuals, and then the subscription fees have to be collected and access appropriately controlled. Only a relatively big organisation is in a position to do this on the global scale now required of journals, and this gives the commercial publishers a great entrenched advantage over anybody smaller or newer. I suspect this is the single biggest reason their hold is so complete.

The other disadvantage of the reader-pays model, as Mr Monbiot points out, is that those who can most afford to pay are not necessarily those who most need the information. Typical one-off costs for article downloads are typically several tens of pounds, which is not grossly out of line with those paid as part of an institutional subscription — our department, for example, takes a notional threshold of £25 per download as the threshold beyond which it’s no longer worth subscribing to a journal. Even assuming that 40% or so of these costs represent profit margins, a reader-pays model still excludes most of the general public, as well as scholars in poorly funded institutions, from accessing the journals.

The alternative, author-pays, model is increasingly fashionable, with open-access journals burgeoning and even most commercial publishers offering open-access options to authors. The argument is appealing: scientific research projects are frequently funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds or more, so a few thousand pounds more to make the results universally available is a trivial expense. As all too often, though, the reasoning makes the mistake of treating the lab sciences as normative. In maths, as across the humanities, we don’t have much by way of big research grants, and many — I’d guess most — of our publications don’t come out of directly grant-funded research. They’re written by small numbers of people, sitting at their desks or getting together informally, often in the gaps of time between teaching or other activities. (In a sane universe, this would look like great value for money, and be rewarded. In this universe, it’s becoming practically an offence within a university to carry out research that doesn’t require a big grant, part of which can be siphoned off to pay for vice-chancellors and human resource managers and the likes.) Who is going to pony up a few thousand pounds to publish a maths paper? Or a history paper? In some poorer parts of the world, who is going to have spare money to publish any paper, regardless of discipline, in a journal that provides high “added value” and is therefore expensive? Meanwhile, with journals profiting by accepting papers, there’s huge pressure for them to become dominated by those authors with money and to spare: there’s a short road from open access to vanity publishing, and there are some awfully good intentions spread across the tarmac.

The current notion is that this circle can be squared by a system whereby a “preprint” version of an article is put into an open-access online repository, while the publisher continues to supply the final version for money. This has so far worked mainly because most of these repositories are so unusable that they pose no significant threat to the economics of the journals. (In the tiny minds of university Research Offices, people around the world wake up and think “I want to know about recent developments in antihomological MacDonald spaces. Aha! I shall look in the institutional repository of the University of East Lanarkshire and see what they have there.” In practice this is less common than one might suppose.) The repositories, essentially, are still parasitic on the organisation and dissemination carried out by the journals: should their influence grow, problems will develop.

There’s also a huge problem with the notion of a “preprint”. Presumably it’s meant to be the last version before the journal added any value to the paper — but does this mean before the final typesetting? Before the journal’s LaTeX class file has been applied? Before the final acceptance by the editor? Before the first stage of the review process? The less “value” the journal has added, the poorer the quality of the paper is likely to be: the higher the number of factual errors; the shoddier the discussion; the more deranged the references… I have a great deal of respect for friends whose historical work requires them to negotiate the grimpen of C18th pamphleteering and correspondence, but frankly I’d go mental if I had to go through this sort of process every time I wanted to write a literature review. (And no, technoutopians, even Google Scholar isn’t a solution to this, as you can find out by using it; and the interesting thing about the Semantic Web is that it does not, in fact, exist.)

So where does that leave us? Your man is of the opinion that it will get worse before it gets better. As a society — you may take that as global or national without much affecting the reasoning — we want, and arguably need, wide access to a huge amount of academic output. As individuals or groups within that society, on the whole we are firmly convinced that somebody else should be paying for this access, and can come up with plenty of arguments why this should be the case. As Dr Goldacre suggests, it’s quite plausible that low-level piracy — which currently goes on throughout academia as people bend the rules in the interests of communication — will flare up into some kind of open warfare, as happened with online music distribution a few years ago. Whether it will be possible to settle such a war without scorching a great deal of earth is anybody’s guess.

People, I’m fairly sure, will go on doing mathematics whether or not the sky falls in on academic publishing, or on the whole of academia. As in previous ages, some of them may acquire independent means or rich patrons; some may work in the time they can spare from a day job; some few may hire out their abilities to people superstitious enough to believe that mathematicians are good at solving urgent practical problems. And mathematics will continue to be communicated, by word-of-mouth and personal emails if by no other means. It’s just a pity that the period when disseminating one’s work seemed relatively simple — at least for those inside the system — appears to be drawing to a close.

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One Response to Publish, and be damned

  1. Pingback: Fade to gray | New-cleckit dominie

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