We hear a lot on the trade side of publishing about how the internet is killing off the gatekeepers and allowing authors to (self) publish and find audiences of their own.
In his #PorterMeets interview on Twitter this week the author Hugh Howey suggested that indie authors were now the sixth-largest publishing group in the US—the newest member of the 'big six'.
Similar forces are also at work on the non-trade side of the business, most notably around the open-access model for scholarly publishing. There are very many parallels. Open-access advocates see science publishers such as Elsevier as legacy players, exploiting their hegemony to drive ever-increasing profits through higher and higher subscription fees, while locking content away through the restrictive enforcement of copyright.
One OA solution, the gold model, is based on an author-pays system—similar though more respectable to the vanity presses of old. Both the old and new systems are creaking under the amount of academic research now wanting to be published.
Two recent developments throw further light on the OA movement, and offer up more parallels for trade publishers to understand.
Writing in the Guardian, Randy Schekman, a US biologist who is picking up the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine today in Stockholm, accuses bullying publishers of having a "toxic influence" on science. Schekman begins his piece: "I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity." The publishers of the world's most renowned science journals he sees differently, "These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research."
In a separate news story in the Guardian, Sebastian Springer, a biochemist at Jacobs University in Bremen, argues that the "editors are not professional scientists, they are journalists which isn't necessarily the greatest problem, but they emphasise novelty over solid work".
Schekman, incidentally, is the editor of a competing open-access journal, eLife, funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust. eLife promises a swift submissions process, though like most science journals it too operates a vetting service, with a raft of senior editors weeding out submissions before they are peer-reviewed.
It operates independently from its funders, currently doesn't charge for publication but expects to charge an article processing charge (APC) as part of a "broader plan for sustainability". The costs of this do not look cheap: aside from its website fees, and administraton costs, the academic editors are also compensated for their time.
Launched in 2012 eLife appears to have published about 217 research articles. Of the traditional publishing process it says: "Publishing also remains a slow (and often painful) process that frequently involves multiple rounds of manuscript review and revision, and delays the communication of new findings." eLife says the median time from submission to acceptance is 79 days. There is then a further 42 days to publication. eLife makes a virtue of its openness: there is no such information on the websites of the leading scholarly publishers.
Schekman's piece comes just a few days after a row erupted between one of the largest scholarly publishers Elsevier and academia.edu, an open access repository of research papers. The latter is a sort of Scribd for the scholarly community, encouraging academics to share their research, monitor deep analytics around the impact of their research, and track the research of academics they follow. Academia.edu attracts over 5m unique visitors a month; 6,024,114 academics have signed up to Academia.edu, adding 1,619,888 papers and 934,576 research interests. .
According to Academia.edu, Elsevier issued thousands of take-down notices "in batches". In turn the science publisher accuses Academia.edu of being "unwilling to engage" over possible "user-friendly options for alignment". The case was highlighted when academic Guy Leonard tweeted about the take-down notice he received via Academia.edu.
In legal terms, neither Academia.edu nor Leonard could counter Elsevier's take down. I checked with Leonard, and he published a PDF of the “Published Journal Article”, not his own pre-print article. Elsevier is clear on this: it allows distribution of pre-print articles, but as soon as it begins to add value to those papers it tightens things up. Leonard does not have an early version of this article, he wrote online: "I don’t have a copy of the article before it went to Elsevier for overly expensive editing and entirely free peer review".
In strict copyright terms there is no argument. Leonard says he never signed a contract with Elsevier but allowed a fellow author to determine where his paper was published. Either way, Academia.edu is clear on copyright. In a copyright FAQ it advises, "you should not use a copyright protected work without permission and, if you do so, the copyright owner may bring an infringement action against you". It says it "respects the intellectual property rights of others and expects its users to do the same". You can judge for yourselves how this fits with the note it sent to Leonard about the take-down notice: "Academia.edu is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view, and is currently upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online." Academia.edu's email is misleading: Elsevier allows academics to share their own pre-print papers, what it frowns on is academics sharing papers that have been through the peer-review and editing processes. In some ways it is playing a straight bat: it is charging only for its added value. Whether it is charging too much is another matter.
Even where copyright is understood, not all academics seem to be believe it should be enforced. Michael P Taylor, a paleontologist and open-access advocate, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that many researchers post copies of their articles online, even if they’re not legally supposed to. "It’s always been so, because even though technically it’s in breach of the copyright transfer agreements that we blithely sign, everyone knows it’s right and proper."
There is no real coherency to these arguments. Copyright is a legal concept, it's not made up, or a nebulous convention. All publishing companies and all authors rely on it to survive, even those in academia. If academics don't like copyright they should either not sign the contracts, avoid submitting their material to publishers that enforce these rules, or campaign against it—and to be fair many do.
But copyright is a side-show compared to the main debate. As with trade publishers, OA advocates pepper their blogs with the term 'legacy' publisher. They seem to have a distaste for publishing, and for any kind of profit motive. On his blog, Leonard writes: "Science should not be a pyramid scheme for the monetarily privileged."
He may be right, but OA can be more than just a protest group. In a polemic written by Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, Jeffrey Beall, he accuses the open-access movement of, among other things, being a "negative movement rather than a positive one. It is more a movement against something than it is a movement for something." He says OA advocate aims are "anti-corporatist" whose aim is to "eliminate private business".
I don't know enough about this world to make a call on this, and some scientists are already calling Beall's argument wacky. But I do know about publishing, and as with trade publishing the characterisation of the sector by OA advocates seems way off.
Many professional academic publishers, such as Palgrave and Sage, are embracing Open Access, and doing so as part of their day to day business without undermining their long-term viability. Indeed the government-led Finch Review was an examplar of collaboration: most crucially it put a monetary value on the work done by publishers in between a paper being submitted and the research being published.
Could they do more?
Sure, just as trade publishers need to adapt more quickly, and not confine themselves by the historic edicts of print, so do professional publishers. If I was to say which area of publishing had embraced this quicker and more professionally, I'd say the academic side. And I'd imagine most scholarly publishers are working hard to continue this process of discovery. No one goes into publishing to rip off authors, or limit access to their work, or not take advantage of new publishing technologies, precisely the opposite. That they must do this within a business structure is not a failing, it is a reality. Many already explore different business models, either by having charitable status or attaching themselves to a university.
There is no part of publishing that is not undergoing some kind of web-based convulsion as the tools and means of publishing independently become more wide-spread. But that does not mean the publisher simply goes away (indeed Wiley is to trial a new "transferable peer review" scheme). Over the weekend I chaired a debate about gatekeepers organised by Spread the Word, in a convivial and useful atmosphere of mutual understanding. What struck me at the end was not that one side of this debate has it over the other, but that both could learn from each other. Those authors unencumbered by the need to publish traditionally show an agility publishers need to mimic, but these authors also benefit from the environment created by publishers. A world without gatekeepers is no more friendly to authors than a world with gatekeepers.
Publishers cannot afford to ignore young academics such as Leonard or their more established counterparts such as Schekman. Leonard is understandably frustrated by the system, but that a Nobel prize-winning scientist attaches so little value to the work done by publishers should ring alarm bells. In this context Elsevier's take-downs, though legal, look heavy-handed, and are at odds with its own attempts to adapt to new models, as shown through its purchase of Mendeley, a scholarly publications repository not dissimilar to Academia.edu. All publishers (trade and non-trade) owe their authors a duty of care. Authors don't routinely turn against publishers, but that so many have, merits a period of self-reflection. All publishers are now in the author business: academic publishers, because they are not in the business of rewarding their contributors by creating bestsellers, are in fact uniquely vulnerable.
In turn OA advocates should take a moment to understand the role publishing plays in their own fields. Many established science journals (and companies) can trace their heritage back centuries: these are hard-won reputations that underpin scientific research. I don't disagree with the argument Schekman uses to begin his Guardian blog, but I disagree with the implication.
Publishers also inhabit a professional world, and they too achieve great things. The publications Nature, Cell and Science are just three good examples of this.
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