The future of scholarly communication: Open access and democracy

 

Scholarly communication is changing rapidly, but not quickly enough. Online access is assumed and has changed reading habits. Open access is gaining ground. Widespread access through the likes of Sci-Hub, or the more legal unpaywall.org are becoming the norm. Online access to both the means of downloading and reading, and in the producing of scholarly work has changed things. Self-publishing, blogging, social media and micro-blogging have opened up different possibilities. These new forms of communication have the potential to break down barriers or create more in an occupation concerned with status and reputation. They have the potential to make our industry more democratic, open and conducive to knowledge creation and sharing. Yet the way scholarly communication is controlled both overtly and implicitly is blocking developments. The current post with a focus on journal articles, examines the control of scholarly communication by the university system itself and by publishers, the nature of prestige within the system, whether open assess changes things or simply reinforces the current situation. The current post is intended as part of a series.


The means of scholarly communication is not democratic if it is heavily controlled by specific interests, specific groups or individuals. The first issue I examine is inherent within the university system itself.

Universities and control of scholarly production

Within universities priorities appear to be given to interests defined by neoliberal economics, particularly in the way academics are assessed and controlled. Results are assessed through metrics that are a proxy of the contribution of scholarly endeavour. This to a certain extent is self-regulating. For example we would tend to give the SSCI or ABS star rating of our journal articles in our CV/resume rather than a summary of the scholarly contribution of each. We are familiar in colleagues’ bios of such phrases as ‘She have published more than 150 articles in such journals as…’., rather than ‘She has made the following contributions to scholarship..’. Control demands numbers. It demands that each scholarly journal has a number metric or other rating attached to it. Within our university systems the Research Excellent Framework (REF) in the UK, and similar exercises elsewhere are used as control mechanism to ensure that we aim to publish in certain journals rather than others. More prestigious journals tend to publish articles that are highly citable (a self-fulfilling prophesy in a way as they are cited more because they are in higher profile journals). This tends to skew knowledge towards the conservative end of the spectrum, rather than towards higher risk, minority areas that are less likely to be cited. Even though, in the UK, the guidance for the REF is that:

“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs. An underpinning principle of the REF is that all types of research and all forms of research outputs across all disciplines shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis.”

Yet universities continue to recruit and promote on the basis of publication in highly rated journals, rather than on the basis of the direct contribution to scholarship. This is one issue of scholarly control emanating from the university sector itself

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Publishers and the control of scholarship

The second issue is who controls these scholarly outlets of our work, and what they do with our work. A recent report by Fyfe et al outlines the trajectory of scholarly publishing since the second world war. Before the 1940s, it was mainly in the hands of learned societies which disseminated knowledge through journals maintained by the generosity of sponsors, and where there was no consideration of profit. With the rapid expansion of the university sector and government funding for research, academic publishing became profitable. Effectively academic papers became proprietary commodities. The vested interests to keep scholarly articles behind paywalls can be seen from the level of profit margin for companies like Springer (35% with sales of €981.1m) and Elsevier (37% with sales of £2048m). Compared to the more modest profit margins of BMW (10%), Google (25%) and Apple (29%) it isn’t surprising that the main litigator against Sci-Hub has been Elsevier.

Yet what of open access? Does this change who controls scholarly communication and the types of profit margins within the industry? It is difficult to know what margins are being made from open access by the established commercial companies, but Alex Holcolme has done a comparison with one of the open access pioneers, PLoS.org (The Public Library of Science), a nonprofit organization that reported gross revenue of US$46.87M and an increase in net assets over their reporting year 2013 of 21%, the nearest comparator to profit margin. Rather than charge for access, they charge authors normally $1350 per article, with discounts for academics without institutional support. Open access has of course led to a whole industry of predatory publishes who scam authors. Not included in this, but a company that has attracted complaints is Hindawi, charging authors $600 for each article, make an estimated profit margin of 52%.

The irony of such large profits by establish academic publishers is that the value in a high-quality journal comes not from the publisher themselves. It comes from the scholars that submit their work, review their work and serve as editors and editorial board members. Arguably their time is given for free, but usually as part of their expected duty paid for by their university, and sometimes paid by public and other research grants. Publishers of course take the commercial risk of the launch of a new journal, and therefore seek to protect their proprietary rights in what they publish. Yet as stated by the Open Library of Humanities (OLH),

‘The current system of scholarly economics is irrational. University staff produce material that is then given to publishers so that it can be sold back to university libraries.’

Yet academics are protesting against what they see as ‘exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions’ and have taken to making their protest known against Elsevier (16,990 signatures to date) on thecostofknowledge.com. This, and other protests appear to be the basis of the development of Sci-Hub.

Image by Giulia Forsythe
Image by Giulia Forsythe

These paywall are also causing editors, editorial boards and authors to jump ship and set up a reincarnated version of the journal under a new name and solely open access, such as the case of Lingua, and a major mathematics journal whose case is described by Alex Holcombe. The editorial team of Lingua went on to set up Glossa published by the ‘researcher-led’, ‘open scholarship’ publisher Ubiquity Press.

Is open access the solution?

It is this construction of paywalls that has led to new revenue channels such as gold open access publishing. Yet as Fecher et al say, scholars produce far too many articles already with only a small fraction of these having any impact at all, let alone being read and cited. Paying to publish only incentivises publishers to encourage more article publication.

The efforts of open access publishers like Ubiquity Press to bypass commercial publishers, but in a way to compete with them, still sticks to the same model of gatekeeping at the beginning of the publishing model through editor vetting and peer review, and then to assess the scholarly impact through the number of citations. I’m not sure how many of the journals published by Ubiquity Press are listed in the Web of Science citations indices (SSCI, SCI and AHCI). I suspect few if any. These indices still remain the gold standard of scholarly metrics unfortunately. Yet the efficacy of peer review has been the subject of debate and has been called into serious question. It may well be that this model itself is broken.

Never mind the quality feel the width

Even if we can mend this model, that is, if we want to mend the peer review model, this may not be sufficient. It may well be that any of the trends described above are only, as Fecher et al suggest, reproducing ‘the dependence on an outdated publishing format: the academic article’. We are still working with an inflexible article PDF format rather than developing other more appropriate and perhaps interactive formats. We are still producing an unprecedented number of articles which may or may not be read let alone cited. Even open access platforms like the OLH reproduce this model, although appear to work on a more rational economic basis as well as democratising open access. And yet to change any of this means challenging both internal and external means of control that are largely founded upon status and prestige within the university system. Nobel prizes may, or may not, be won on the basis of contribution to knowledge and its impact on society as a whole, but for the majority of us status and prestige is based on the number of articles we publish in specific journals (in the last REF at my university it was the number 12 that was important: 4 articles in at least 3 star journals = 12).

Such an ingrained ideology of status and prestige within our industry is difficult to shake. It’s underwritten by social privilege (arguably the expansion of the university system in the UK has reinforced and created more social barriers than it has broken down). Publishing in open access journals is not as prestigious as publishing in traditional journals despite the contribution of the article. This parallels the fact that gaining a degree at a post-1992 university is not as prestigious as gaining one from Oxbridge, despite the fact that they should be of the same quality. The fact that our industry is built on prestige militates against any wholesale migration to open access, despite political pressures increasing. Services like Sci-Hub may yet break the system. But I’m also looking at other alternatives, and how these may be achieve. Of which there is more to come……

© Terence Jackson 2018

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