[Warning Long Post]
Along with researching and writing a manuscript on the politics of assassination, I am involved in the early stages of a project with some colleagues at Newcastle University that is exploring what the scholarly journal of the future ought to look like.
UK based academics are under an increasing amount of pressure not just to produce world-class research but to do a better job of engaging with the general public. The way to be recognized as a world-class scholar is to publish in leading peer-reviewed academic journals and so these outlets tend to be where academics want to publish their research results.
And if I were to take a step back and be honest, scholarly journals are generally pretty turgid affairs stuck in the pre-digital revolution era. As a result, even when journals are not ferreted away behind expensive subscription fire-walls by the private companies who own them and/or their publishing rights, members of the general public tend to avoid them like the plague even if they might have an interest in the specific topic area.
We are therefore interested in finding out how the academy has got itself to this point, what are the current trends in academic publishing, and how one might go about increasing accessibility and public engagement through journal publishing.
What has been striking through the preliminary research that we've conducted so far is that--just like outside of the ivory tower--there is a general consensus that current models and arrangements for scholarly publishing are unsustainable. There are five factors currently identified as catalysts for a fundamental change in publishing models.
1. Monopoly Pricing and Resulting Procurement Challenges for Libraries
Scholarly publishing has been greatly affected by a wider trend towards consolidation in the publishing industry with the five largest publishers of academic journals accounting for over half of total market revenues (Abelson 2008). A tendency towards monopoly pricing has taken place. According to the MIT Faculty Ad-hoc Committee on Open Access Publishing over the past 15 years, the price of scholarly journals has grown roughly three times as fast as inflation, and library budgets have stagnated (Abelson 2008). They report that libraries--even at top American research institutions with large budgets--are straining under these pressures, leading to a loss of capacity make new purchases or subscribe to new journals (see also Willinsky 2005). Anecdotally, colleagues have reported the same sorts of pressures here in the UK. We believe that this growing disconnect between pricing levels and what libraries can actually afford will soon start to have a profoundly negative impact on research and teaching.
2. Individual Subscription Pricing and Per-Article Pricing Dissuades the General PublicAs internet use becomes more common, people are increasingly loathe to pay for access to information or content when so much is freely available. We believe that this is a fact that any model of scholarly publishing must take into account and work with rather than resist. Furthermore, individual subscription prices and per-article access fees are set at price level that many members of the public are either not prepared to pay or are unable to afford. Particularly in these economic times, asking someone to pay £50 for an annual subscription of 3-4 issues or £10 for an article—keeping in mind that both are likely relatively unknown products for the purchaser—is not going to increase public engagement in any significant way.
3. Author Dissatisfaction With Copyright Transfer To Publishers
Academics are becoming increasingly aware of the privileges conferred in copyright and the loss of control over material that occurs with the standard practice of having to transfer copyright to journal publishers. The results from a recent survey of academic authors who have published in open access outlets undertaken by JISC (UK) and SURF (Netherlands) showed that ‘given the choice between transferring the copyright and keeping it, most authors prefer to keep it. Even with regard to handling permission requests to reuse the article, most respondents do not see a role for the journal publisher.’(Hoorn and van der Graaf 2006). Hoorn and van der Graaf (2006) also reported that most of the respondents to their survey ideally would want to ‘permit authors and others to reuse articles for educational and scholarly purposes. With regard to reuse for commercial purposes, however, most authors prefer to limit this type of use by others but permit commercial reuse by the authors themselves.’ These kinds of licenses are now very easy to grant thanks to the Creative Commons movement that provides free ‘some rights reserved’ licensing agreements that are becoming standard across the web.
A recent Times Higher Education article has gone as far as to ask whether academic journals actually pose a threat to the advancement of science because of the onerous copyright obligations placed on authors and end-users that discourage activities that push the frontiers of knowledge. We believe that these individual events are indicative of a larger trend: growing dissatisfaction amongst academics about the loss of control over their scholarly endeavors.
4. Pressure from Governments and Funding Bodies to Make Publicly Funded Research Open Access
Suber (2009) has shown that an increasing number of funding agencies, institutions, and professional associations are adopting open-access mandates for research, particularly research that has been publicly-funded. This just seems to make sense. If public tax dollars are being used to fund research, the people who have helped to foot the bill ought to have access without having to pay a private company for the privilege.
Notables spearheading the open access band-wagon include the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the European Research Council (ERC), Italy’s Istituto Superiore di Sanità (National Institute of Health), the Irish Research Council for Science, the National Research Council Canada, the Wellcome Trust, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and the Stanford School of Education.
Furthermore, 260 institutions and organizations have signed onto the Berlin Declaration (2003) which demands that signatories 'require their researchers to deposit a copy of all their published articles in an open access repository, and encourage their researchers to publish their research articles in open access journals where a suitable journal exists (and provide the support to enable that to happen).'
Given that most universities in the UK are public institutions, we believe that there is going to be increasing pressure—if not an outright directive— from the government and funding councils to make research results publicly available via open access platforms.
5. Growth in Open-Access Publishing
Phil Pochoda (2008)—Director of the University of Michigan Press-- has argued that ‘the stick of the failing scholarly print model coupled with the many attractions of the digital carrot is leading inexorably to a fundamental reconfiguration of scholarly…publishing.’ (34). This is evidenced by a rapid proliferation in the number of journals—particularly in the natural sciences—that have moved to some form of open access publishing.
Suber 2009 has stated that ‘OA [open access] journals and repositories proliferated faster in 2008 than in any previous year. In 2008 the Directory of Open Access Journals grew by 812 peer-reviewed OA journals, or 27%. Last year it grew by 486 journals or 19%...It now lists a total of 3,812 peer-reviewed OA journals’ (Suber 2009). From a longer term perspective, Bjork and Hedlund (2009) provide figures that show a growth in open access journals from 350 in 2003 to close to 3500 in January 2009.
We are still at the very early stages of our research, but the trends we've outlined above send a clear message that current models of scholarly publishing where governments and funding bodies pay academics to do research and academics provide all the research, writing, and managerial labor for private publishing firms at no cost for the opportunity to be published in prohibitively expensive journals that only other academics are prepared to read, is no longer sustainable. Open access publishing is the first step towards re-embedding universities and academic research into society.
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