Over the past few months I have been part of an ad hoc working group with colleagues from Newcastle and Durham Universities that has been exploring the future of academic publishing. Two problematics framed our analysis: how are changes initiated by the digital economy affecting academic journals and how might the editorial team of a top flight journal in the social sciences respond to these challenges? As previously posted--here and here--our initial conclusions have been that current models of academic journal publishing that rely on limiting access to research through pay-walls are no longer sustainable.
Academic journals, sustainability, and change
Academic journal sustainability is not just an economic issue. While the detrimental impacts of high subscription fees, low subscription bases, and the very clear signals sent by market forces that people are unwilling to pay for access to information in a digital age are important, there are other sustainability issues that need to be factored in. Primarily, transformations in the structures of the academy itself are posing challenges to the viability of traditional models of publishing. These include:
- the inability of university resources to keep pace with increases in journal subscription fees;
- a rapid increase in the number of academic journals available, in part a product of the fragmentation of academic disciplines into increasingly specialized sub-fields as well as the push for individual academics and departments to provide evidence of research excellence by establishing/editing journals in their recognized research strengths;
- in the social sciences and humanities, low citation rates and impact factors--even for leading journals--that in part reflect the inability to capture a broad audience within an academic discipline, let alone establish a readership with practitioners and/or the general public;
- the correspondingly small volume of articles that actually get cited, let alone cited extensively, from any journal outlet;
- the renewed emphasis on public engagement, that is the directive that research must be transmitted to broader constituencies;
- formal directives from government and funding agencies for academics to make their research available through open access platforms.
- slowly pricing themselves out of their traditional market (i.e., academics and university libraries) (Abelson 2008);
- increasing the supply of narrowly defined journal outlets;
- increasing the competition for the pursuit of high quality research amongst these outlets with only journal reputation--as garnered through citation statistics--as an incentive to potential contributors;
- diluting the overall volume of quality that can be claimed by any single journal;
- failing to think about what other forms of value-added they might be able to provide for both contributors and their readership in order to promote specific scholarship, a specific research area, or a specific discipline (Pochoda 2008);
- not establishing new audiences in the world of practitioners or amongst the general public.
Stay the course or change direction?Many journals--for the moment-- are currently good earners for both their publishers and/or the disciplinary association to which they are affiliated. Disciplinary association journals in particular have the advantage of having susbscription revenue subsidized by membership fees. Add in the income generated through university libraries and other research centers and revenues look solid. However, the audiences or potential subscription base for these journals remain tied up in the university system, a system that will be facing--at least in the UK--considerable budgetary pressures in the coming years. With published material in these journals being kept behind a pay-wall and the associated websites--for the journal and/or disciplinary association--typically lacking a dynamic interface, the probability of gaining new readers--let alone subscribers--from the general public or practitioners is remote. Yet, the default position being expressed by many editorial teams, disciplinary associations, and publishers is that apart from some tinkering around the edges, there is a strong case for staying the course (Bjork and Hedlund 2009).
Although staying the course might be a low risk strategy in the short-term, our research findings on the broader trends in media publishing in general, and scholarly publishing in particular, demonstrate that there are problems emerging over the horizon (Corbyn 2009). Add in the profound effects that new social media technologies are having on publishing and communication, and we argue that staying the course--in terms of content, public interface, and revenue models-- will lead to negative outcomes within a decade's time.
Primarily, pay-walls, an insufficient web presence, and a reluctance to embrace new social media technologies--whether out of a fear of the time commitment involved or a belief that these developments are a passing fad--combined with a reticence to adopt open access publishing and adapt revenue generating models will lead to significant negative impacts with respect to citation levels, overall readership, and the continuing ability to attract the very best scholarship.
Academic journals in a digital age: the way forward
So given this assessment of the situation, what might be the way forward for academic journals? Our initial position is that open access publishing models are the way forward if a journal wishes to maintain both readership and relevance in the medium to long term. Furthermore, if open access publishing is to be a success, it needs to creatively take advantage of relevant developments in new social media technologies. We believe that a publicly accessible
academic journal that maintains strong commitments to original research,
considered argument, and peer review can be complementary to the speed with
which new media work to frame debates and identify authorities.
The Benefits of Open Access Publishing
Discerning the positive impacts for academic journals by embracing open access publish is not rocket science. Nor need its justification rest solely on a moral case that publicly funded research ought to be available to the public--though this is certainly a case that should be made. Improved access
to a journal makes peer reviewed research available to a more extensive audience.
Research in the area of open access publishing has demonstrated that above anything else, open access articles on average get read more often than articles that are only available behind a pay-wall .
And the more
extensive your audience, the greater the likelihood that your articles
get cited. Research that has the analyzed the effects of accessibility
in other disciplines--like physics-- has
shown that opening up access significantly raises the impact of
articles, in some cases by as much as 300% (Brody
et al 2004; Henneken
et al 2006).
In the case of most journals in the social sciences, the difference between a mid-ranked journal's current position on the
Thomson Reuters-ISI index and a dramatic improvement in its standing is approximately
one additional citation per every two articles published. Thus, very
marginal changes produce significant impacts to quantitative measures of reputation in academic
publishing. Reputation is a currency that can be used to solicit innovative research papers. Similarly, reputation helps to build an audience of readers who are attracted by the level of scholarship and novel research findings.
Harnessing new social media technologies
The way information is produced, authorized, distributed and shared has transformed. As the pursuit of information becomes both increasingly spontaneous and focused, opening up access allows for any interested party--whatever the reason for interest--to view and share material with others, creating a wider audience base through the best kind of promotion: word of mouth.
Furthermore, ready and extensive communication
between producers and consumers--categories themselves blurred by new social media--are becoming the norm. By offering new forms of information distribution, social media technologies help to facilitate engagement across various global publics. Harnessing new forms of distribution and promoting interactive engagement are going to be central to the continuing economic and reputational vitality of academic journals.
What kind of new social media technologies can help academic journals? Well, one can divide these into three categories: those that allow for the presentation of content in non-traditional ways (e.g., videos and podcasts), those that allow content to be distributed across social networks (e.g., Twitter, Facebook), and those that allow for additional forms of dynamic engagement between researchers and audiences (e.g., blogs, comment functions, message boards).
Our research has identified some best practices that should be considered by journals if they want to build a strong foundation to be taken forward:
- implementing a dynamic journal website--like Foreign Policy -- where content is regularly updated and conduits are provided to facilitate interaction with the audience;
- audio and video recordings of keynote speeches, lectures, interviews, or discussions that are available via podcasts, Youtube, Vimeo, or other media players. For example, see the interviews conducted by Contemporary Political Theory--if you can get behind the pay-wall that is...
- on-line book reviews like those conducted by H-Net or Global Discourse. These allow an outlet to highlight particular forms of research (e.g., world-leading and/or early career and/or controversial and/or innovative), foster dialog, and invite contributions from the wider readership;
- blogs run by the editorial team and/or other members at large to showcase the importance of the subject area to a wider audience. Contexts is leading the way here with a fantastic set of blogs that demonstrate the value of sociology as applied to tangible contemporary issues;
- alerting potential users of content updates through social networking tools like email, Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds (e.g., Surveillance & Society).
What are the costs?
There are costs associated with transforming academic journals. Open access obviously implies that revenue models that rely on subscriptions will need to switch to other forms of revenue generation. Potential revenue sources could include subscription for hard copies only, website advertising, or other forms of product tie ins (e.g., book clubs). Although it is unclear whether these revenue streams can fully replace current income generation levels, it bears noting that existing research has shown significant cost savings--especially for disciplinary associations--when journal delivery is switched to on-line only formats (Willinsky 2005). Thus, if costs are greatly reduced, income levels need not reach previous levels in order to generate the same level of net profit.
The other cost is time. Similar to the traditional tasks that define journal editorship, developing and running a dynamic website, generating content, and building up a social network for a journal will take a lot of effort. Two things should be kept in mind though. First, just as a strong editorial vision, good peer review procedures, exact copy-editing, and ability to source the very best research are essential tasks for journal editorship at the moment, so to will be the ability to harness new social media. Second, those journals who position themselves ahead of the curve will be able to establish themeselves as first ports of call for user generated content--like conference keynote addresses, seminar presentations, round-tables-- because of their recognition as websites with high audience numbers. Building a reputation and attracting the best user generated content will therefore make the production of high quality content less onerous for editorial teams.
There are of course going to be strong objections to what we are forecasting and proposing. Publishing houses are obviously going to reject our characterization that current publishing models for academic journals are not sustainable. In part, this is because revenues have not yet started to precipitously drop. In part, publishers are also going to reject open access as a viable publishing strategy from first principles because it cuts them away from their primary form of income generation for academic journals. They may also reject the turn to new social media for fear of the additional costs that would be incurred.
Academics themselves may also express objections. For some, the issue is the maintenance of standards, a concern that many publishers themselves have been only too happy to promote. The argument is that open access will mean that poor quality papers based on weak scholarship will get published on a regular basis. This objection though fundamentally misunderstands that open access publishing does not necessarily imply the end of peer review. For a peer-reviewed journal, the 'open' of 'open access' refers to the ability for research to be accessed by readers and to be circulated, not an openness to publish anything that is submitted (Willinsky 2003). The opportunity to be published would still rely on the peer review process in order to maintain standards of scholarship.
The second objection is that the use of new social media to promote research is either gauche self-promotion--that is good research should find its own audience on its own merits-- and/or faddish razzle-dazzle that has very little value added for researchers themselves. The first part of the objection seems to be a nostalgic yearning for a past that never was; good research has never solely spoken for itself. The best research, leading disciplines, and the most renowned academics have always been masters of harnessing whatever networking outlets were available at the time (e.g., conferences, media appearances, popular writing) to disseminate research and build reputations. Good research alone will only get you so far.
Similarly, while it is often very hard to get one's head around new social media technologies and the ways that they can be used, they have an immense potential in terms of gathering an audience. A growing number of newspapers like the Guardian have discovered that new forms of revenue can be generated and a new readership can be cultivated by providing free content to an on-line audience. Bloggers, artists, musicians, writers, politicians, and celebrities have already caught on to the power of social networking as a way of gaining a following both on and off line. Academics need to shed some our conservatism and begin the think more strategically about how we can engage with each other and the general public while recognizing the utility of emerging tactics provided by social networking technologies.
Our research indicates that journals in the social sciences could enjoy an improvement in citation rates and associated impact factors by adopting an open access publishing model and taking advantage of new social media technologies. The direct positive effects of open access on readership and citation levels have already been proved by studies undertaken in the natural sciences and engineering.
Open access and social networking are essential to the promotion of a higher quality and quantity of academic engagement with the general public. They generate new measures of impact with respect to knowledge transfer and public engagement by tracking – in aggregate – site traffic, media inquiries, and other contacts provided through an open access website.
Indirectly, they can help to cement the reputation of leading academics through ongoing exposure while having the capacity to promote early career scholars as the next generation of public intellectuals. All of these practices bring scholarship to the attention of broader publics. Open access publishing and the harnessing of new social media can position journals as leading and exemplary public outlets in their respective disciplines.
The only question that remains is whether disciplinary associations and journal editors will be willing to pro-actively adopt these measures--in full or in part--from a position of strength to garner their full benefits? Or will the inclination be to wait until it becomes absolutely necessary as a means of staving off collapse? Time will only tell...