Storm Clouds in Academic Publishing

Peter Brantley -- May 25th, 2012

Today two different thunderbolts struck in academic publishing, one from an old storm, and the other from a new one. The weather forecast continues to be troubled, but as they say, we need the rain.

The first story is the imminent closing this summer of the University of Missouri Press, after five decades of operation. MU Press is not the first university press to close, and it certainly won’t be the last. It was receiving a subsidy of $400,000 annually and still not able to obtain a profit from its operations; that is a lot of money, but not exceptional in the realm of university presses. Nor, sadly, is the lack of profitability, which is why we are likely to see more closures on the horizon.

But the impact of such closures is mediated by how the academic community handles the larger transformations in publishing. As the MU Provost observed, “Technological changes have turned media up on their head, and that’s turning scholarly communication on its head.” While closing UPs might, on one hand, mean a diminution of the number of outlets for scholarly work, it could just as easily be a more positive bellwether for a healthy shift in emphasis from one model of scholarly publishing to another.

Academic publishing, as Michael Eisen remarked to me recently, does not require $1.1 billion in investments – that being Elsevier’s profit from its 2011 fiscal year, never mind its total revenue. Universities are on a mission now to “detox” scholarly publishing of the monies that make the commercial academic marketplace viable: the system where publicly funded research is written and edited by faculty, and then re-sold by publishers back to publicly funded libraries for billions of dollars.

That’s why the other thunderbolt today was exceptional only because of its source, as such announcements are taking on an air of inevitability: UCSF, the largest public university recipient of NIH funding in the country, has passed an open access policy for its faculty. UCSF faculty will be required to make each of their peer-reviewed articles freely available, immediately upon publication, through an open-access repository, thereby making them available to the entire world. A White House petition to require publicly funded research be made freely available is already well on its way to obtaining its signature goal; every supporter should add their own endorsement.

What’s remarkable is that new web-based software technology is enabling a revolutionary disruption in the costs of scholarly publishing. Easy to use authoring tools like WordPress have given rise to academically tailored products like Annotum, which in turn are being used to power next generation journals by the Public Library of Science, in PLoS Currents. And recently, the former editor of PLoS One, the “Gold” open access journal of PLoS, has left to help found a new publishing enterprise, PeerJ. PeerJ offers open access publishing in return for a $99 lifetime membership for contributors.

As web publishing becomes more mainstream, we will see newer open access models become increasingly distributed and localized. Universities could become their own publishing platforms; each academic department can mint its own journal, and every lab its own publication series, should it choose. Given commercial publishers’ barriers to discovery through high-cost portal products and abstract and indexing databases, the accessibility of these new general models, offering a “flat” discovery horizon, will be noticeably superior. Further, open web publishing systems are intrinsically capable of supporting a wide range of peer review options, from open to closed, and all the hybrid models in between.

Storm clouds are gathering; monsoon rains are coming. But the wild flowers will be amazing.

3 thoughts on “Storm Clouds in Academic Publishing

  1. Thomas Bacher

    I don’t think any university press director who has worked in the open access area would disagree that the process has its costs. Investments are made even by the smaller of AAUP members to meet customer needs. These are issues we have all faced over the last decade. The fragmentation in our user base has impacted our production process so that we have to provide a variety of responses (and thus a variety of content iterations) to our customers. There are new opportunities in these areas, but they come with financial risks. Still, if we consider ourselves as only content vendors in today’s university environment, we might be working toward obsolescence.

    We have to be creative and innovative. We have to emphasize our competitive advantage, sustainable peer-reviewed content, in a world that floods us with information. We can’t rely solely on “the perfect financial model.” That world has disappeared and won’t ever return.

    For many small and mid-sized presses, the more able we are to find partners within our university structure, the better our chances are of building lasting business models.

    I can’t speak to the subsidy given to the University of Missouri Press, but Elsevier is NOT a university press, and many university presses DO NOT receive large subsidies. Those days are gone. Systems of scholarly information must do two things well — provide vetted information and make sure that information stream is sustainable.

  2. Francis M. Miller

    The laundering of publicly funded research material through publishers is an amoral act whereby academia rubs our backs all the while stealing our billfolds. It is ironic that the same people who treat everything as an extractives industry also are unabashed by asking for greater public support for higher education. In the end, the seeds of their destruction are contained within their DNA. The disruptive effects of technology combined with excessive costs of operation will render higher education superfluous to other alternatives.

    I would chatise the culprits but I realize they know no shame. They subscribe to the old adage that the most dangerous people are the hypocrits that truly believe their own hype.

  3. Theresa M. Moore

    As a nonfiction as well as fiction author, I always found that the publishers’ practice of recruiting university faculty and researchers to produce works that they then sell to the public and libraries for enormous prices somewhat discouraging, as it limited the number of books printed each year. Of course, the publishers need to realize some profit but they have ignored the purpose for publishing the books. Now that the playing field has been leveled we may see more knowledge dispensed at an affordable level for all. Peer review notwithstanding, the kinds of books I write and publish are for my own edification as well as my readers. When the universities begin to publish on their own the cream will rise to the top and I will gain access to facts without being restricted to out of date material. While much of it can be found online, sometimes having the data compiled and well vetted for relevence helps. I look forward to seeing what will be independently produced in the future.

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