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.