Why don't universities cut out the middleman?

4 minute read

I’ve been reading several different conversations about the future of science (and social science) academic publishing.

Matt Nisbet: “If the Cost of Publishing a Scientific Journal Article is $10,000, Who Pays for Open-Access?”

Bill Davis: “Free Journal Access as a Public Issue”

Alex Golub: “Gourmet vs. All Things Considered: The anthropological edition”

David Crotty: “The ‘Burden’ of Peer Review”

Crotty argues that the effort academics spend reviewing colleagues’ papers is repaid by a better, less error-prone literature. I’m not sure this makes up for the exploitation. Universities need a better way to quantify and reward review service.

Davis notes that the per-article cost of publishing the American Anthropological Association journals is more than $5000. That puts some perspective on the round $10,000 quoted by Nisbet (from Rockefeller University Press) – there really are publishers that run those kinds of costs.

Of course, we all know that the primary “author pays” open access journals, from PLoS and BMC, have much lower costs. Immediately it’s obvious that the old-style scholarly publishers are dinosaurs. Who has allowed them to run such high budgets, for a product that can be made on a third or less of the money?

Author pays, review for hire

Let’s suppose the “author pays” model actually started to become the norm. Many universities already subsidize some fraction of the author charges for their researchers. Why? It’s clearly cheaper in the long run to have their faculty members recognize and use open access journals. Their mere existence puts downward pressure on journal subscription prices, while their increasing adoption is making many field-specific journals more and more peripheral.

On the other end, some universities have already established open-access archives for their own researchers’ papers. Meanwhile, every piece of federally funded research will need to be released to open access after a short embargo. Setting aside the issue of archive access, one must wonder why a university would pay confiscatory rates for a product that will mostly be on PubMed in a year. The taxpayers got a clue – they were paying for the research, they should be able to read it.

How long will it take universities to realize that they’re also paying for the research, so why should they pay to read it? They could save an awful lot of money by cutting out the middleman.

The University of California boycotted Nature publications to get lower prices. Rising journal prices are a problem, but not the main problem.

The main problem is that authors must surrender their copyright to a cartel of publishers in order to see their scientific work reviewed by peers.

The reviewers are unpaid volunteers. The authors, by surrendering copyright, become unpaid volunteers. And yet, both authors and reviewers are mostly paid employees of universities.

Wouldn’t it be fairly simple to redirect these resources from journal subscriptions to online production?

A large fraction of field-specific journals are already directly subsidized by universities. They provide office space and leave time for faculty editors, in exchange for some payment from the sponsoring society which may cover the cost of student editorial assistants. Some journals are run directly by university presses, foundations, or other for-profit arms of universities. In other words, the infrastructure for journal production (including, in some cases, typesetting and printing) is already present within universities.

And a number of journals are already run by universities on an open access model, for little direct financial cost (but much in the way of time by paid personnel). Along those lines, Jason Baird Jackson: “42 Cents, Really?” gives some context to his creation of an open source journal in the same niche (and with the same reviewer pool and institutional support) as an existing traditional journal. It is an important story, showing how digital libraries and university library staff can provide solutions to allow open access, redirecting subscription fees to production fees.

Open access journals already surpass the citation number and “impact factor” of field-specific journals in many fields. Beyond the big few journals, a university would do better taking out an option on publishing its own authors’ work. With feeds and database resources, papers don’t really even need to be clustered by topic in a single “journal” anymore. PLoS ONE works, why not “Cal ONE” or “Wisconsin ONE”?

Still, a single university taking the altruistic route is not enough to establish a new system. A more efficient solution than a university-specific “journal” would be a consortium of universities that would headquarter the editorial responsibilities for different field-specific “journals” in different homes. In that structure, conflicts of interest (universities assigning reviewers to their own authors) would be no worse than the present case. Scientific societies could still sponsor the field-specific journals, with (in many cases) the same institutional homes. As this consortium grew to encompass more and more institutions, there would increasingly be little point for any institutions to subscribe to journals outside the system, unless those journals were truly innovative.

It wouldn’t be trivial to figure out how to allocate costs within such a system. But it should be a lot cheaper in total than the current system. With the participation of university personnel, many institutions may be able to transform their costs to in-kind contributions of editorial, review, and production services.

What I like is that the system would finally provide a way to incentivize review service. It is eminently to the advantage of reviewers to have their universities involved in publication, because it transforms work for a third party to work for their employer. A quality reviewer could be granted any number of perks from her home university. For many papers, review could be accomplished by journal clubs – teams of faculty and graduate students who got manuscripts in exchange for their commentary. At last, publication could be fully integrated into graduate education – giving us a way to condition students to a conversation of review, not a “gotcha” of anonymity.

Now if only we could do the same for grants….