Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

It took at least 200 years for the novel to emerge as an expressive form after the invention of the printing press.

So said Bob Stein in an interesting roundtable on the digital university from back in April 2010. His point being that the radical transformations in human knowledge and communication practices wrought by the internet remain in their infancy. Our learning curves may be steeper but we haven’t yet begun to grapple with what the collapsing of old forms of social space means. We tweak and vary the models that we’re used to, but are generally cloistered in the paradigms of print.

When it comes to the university, and to the journal system, this has a particular resonance. Academics find themselves in a strange and contradictory position. They are highly valued for their research outputs in the sense that this is what determines their reputation and secures their jobs (although this is increasingly the value of the faux-market and the half-assed quality metric). This academic authority, won by publications, is also, to some extent, what makes students want to work with them and what makes them attractive as experts for government, media and civil society. They are also highly valued in a straight-forward economic sense by private publishing houses, who generate profit from the ability to sell on the product of their labour (books and articles) at virtually no direct remuneration, either for the authors or for those peer reviewers who guarantee a work’s intellectual quality. And yet all (OK, most) also agree that virtually nobody reads this work and that peer review is hugely time-consuming, despite being very complicated in its effects. When conjoined with the mass noise of information overload and the extension and commercialisation of higher education over the last decades, our practices of research, dissemination and quality control begin to take on a ludicrous hue. As Clifford Lynch nicely puts it, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”.

This is an attempt to explore in more detail what the potentialities and limits are for academic journals in the age of digital reproduction. Once we bracket out the sedimented control of current publishers, and think of the liveliness of intellectual exchange encountered through blogs and other social media, a certain hope bubbles up. Why not see opportunity here? Perhaps the time is indeed ripe for the rebirth of the university press, as Martin Weller argues:

the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we’ve always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

The clamour for some kind of alternative, for some way of re-adjusting our expectations and practices, is indeed growing. Often critical, this has largely depended on individual academics pointing out flaws, contradictions and rent-seeking amongst existing journals, with increasing but still marginal efforts to start up open access alternativesThe recent boycott of Elsevier is incredibly heartening in this light, even as it highlights the gap between the activism of nominally closeted science types and the stunningly silent complicity of ‘political’ ‘scientists’. All of this is necessary agitprop-cum-utopianism, but what does it mean in a detailed sense?

Take Lynch’s imagined future university press system:

In this future, most university presses are relatively small organizations, some almost cottage industry participants…Presses operate in much closer alignment with the academic programs of their host institutions; it is not uncommon and not suspect to see a typical press draw half of its publications from faculty at its own host institution, helping to ensure a more rational coverage of the range of disciplines that rely on monographs by the overall system of university presses.

A typical monograph is created digitally, and can be viewed digitally, but intellectually is very similar to a traditional printed monograph; it can be randomly accessed, searched by keyword, and can include many images and sound and video clips. But, except for the sound and video clips, if they are present, the typical monograph can be readily reduced to print with little loss. It would be clearly recognizable to any scholar today, or even from 1930, as a scholarly monograph. (Change in this regard will come much more slowly, and is discussed later.)

Printed books are produced only on demand, and by third parties; there are no warehouses, no physical inventory. Universities have taken the lead in the broader publishing industry in making this transition; while it has certainly hurt many traditional bookstores, the economics have been inexorable…

…The platform providers include among their services a bridge to the consumer market, making monographs available through Amazon, iTunes, and similar channels on a nonexclusive basis, including library-friendly e-book systems; university presses are not involved in these arrangements except perhaps for setting prices. Prices in general are low. Some presses and some authors also choose to make their books available for free download under a Creative Commons license, either immediately upon publication or after some interval. Systematically, the press has moved away from transactional activities surrounding individual sales of individual books, either by eliminating them or outsourcing them.

Access to the databases of the platform providers is at modest cost to any institution with a contributing university press; other libraries can license access to the databases as well, for a relatively low fee…The presses are financed, typically, by a mixture of institutional subventions, author subventions, and some very modest revenue streams from direct consumer sales and from licensing through the consortium.[1]

The comparative advantages are obvious. As non-profits, collaboration and exchange would mean lower disincentives for remodeled university presses. As already academically specialist, academic labourers would find it easier to rate and understand work (and to know when references are wrong), making use of already sunk costs in higher education clustered in universities. Located within living institutes of learning, presses should also find dissemination, translation into teaching practice and consolidation of research communities around particular clusters of publication more straight-forward, perhaps even by offering the hybrid model that a journal like Millennium already works on (in which double anonymous peer-review is combined with an institutionally-located and democratic Editorial board which votes on articles and sets conditions for revision). Costs would decrease, given that large sums would no longer be paid out to external operators with a vested interest in charging over the odds, proliferating outlets and gate-keeping knowledge. In other words, once we no longer see the whole production-and-publication side of the journal industry as some magical process beyond the ken of academics, the solution becomes bracingly self-evident.But who will pay for your intellectual utopia?, the cry goes up.

Lynch suggest that the prices quoted for getting your article published open access with established publishers – £1,500 with Cambridge; around £1,600 for Sage (or c. a compulsory £440 per article for the new Sage Open) – more or less reflect ‘true cost’ on the publisher side. This seems extraordinary given what is being provided, although it’s very hard to know how much of this is editing and formatting work and how much is for printing, maintaining basic systems, or subsidising other, perhaps worthy, parts of the business. If true, it would suggest a considerable investment in any new university presses, although one still lower than the 40% margins extracted by some publishers or the 10% of all HEFCE research funding currently spent by libraries on accessing journals.

Moreover, the variation here seems very wide indeed: from £307 for the American Society of Neuroradiology to £3,066 from the parasites at Elsevier or £400 per page to open access your paper in The Lancet. Recall that these are the prices to remove the pay wall for individual articles. I’m going to go ahead and wager that those price differentials reflect not the massively increased costs of publishing with prestige presses, but the added monetary value that can be extracted from consumers thanks to accumulated academic prestige (which, you’ll recall, is given for free, or nearly free).

Looking at the problem from the perspective of those outside the mainstream journal system illuminates matters somewhat. Friends collaborating on a forthcoming issue of the Graduate Journal of Social Science have attempted to cost the true cost of their work to highlight the amount of voluntary labour involved. Between the authors, editors, reviewers and cover artist (but not yet including proof readers or in-house editors), they suggest that the cost of this single issue in wage terms would have been approximately £24,400. A large number, you’ll agree, and one which also aligns with Lynch’s comment that the ‘true’ costs of an article (if peer reviewers and Editors were actually compensated) would be three to four times the charge to make a piece open access (so c. £6,000 per article).

This gives a sense of just how much goes into sustaining the academic journal system as it stands, but notice that it doesn’t actually change the argument for revitalised open access university presses since none of this work is compensated at the moment anyway. If anything, it strengthens the case for a move to university presses, since at least then voluntary labour goes to a non-profit entity committed by founding principles (as any such presses should be) to maximal accessibility and dissemination. Assuming that at least some of those contributing voluntary labour are associated with the relevant university professionally, it also creates a virtuous cycle: quality academics enhance quality journals, with the accompanying prestige (or income) coming back to the institution itself, rather than being parceled off for private companies.

Instead, we need to think about what it is that publishers currently provide and what it would cost to do without them. Existing outlets like The Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies are powered almost exclusively by enthusiasm and free labour. As Steve Brier intimates, this is itself part of the threat of the digital in the ways it might be mobilised against us: a move to distance learning, provided by still more atomised and alienated precarious faculty (suitably flexible to networked demands) in virtual classrooms. Given that open access journals are disproportionately run by non-Faculty, precarious academics and doctoral students, this skews analysis somewhat, but also shows how much is possible. Imagine what could be done with the commitment and resources of multi-million pound institutions behind such projects, or with a wider agenda that matched changes in the academic publishing ecology with changes in our understandings of ‘impact’ and ‘productivity’.

A sketch, then, of a possible balance of functions and funding:

  • Peer-review: free
  • Editorship: free or nearly free (with costs borne by the institution, which receives prestige for hosting journals)
  • Proofing: minimal, done largely by Editorial staff (who end up proof-reading/fact-checking anyway at various stages)
  • Production: minimal, largely a question of pdf creation, although also requiring infrastructure
  • Printing: minimal, via a move to more on-demand printing

And from academic host institutions and presses:

  • some ‘buy-out’ for Editors, to give them the time required with some compensation in lieu
  • provision for in-house journal Editorial staff (say one full time individual per journal) to cover production, correspondence, etcetera
  • digital infrastructure, particularly ManuscriptCentral type systems and hosting for web-pages/pdf upload, an infrastructure that could plausibly be created, sustained and shared for little cost by a conglomerate of academic presses
  • professional support for academic metrics, particularly entry into Citation Indexes, for as long as they remain dominant modes of assessing our work
  • a small charge to the public for downloading articles, either on a general subscription basis or per article (say 50p to £1 per article)

This leaves much unspecified and unclear. In particular, the possibility of support for submitting journals to citation ranking systems seems particularly important, since this is what effectively shuts out small scale voluntary projects from being taken seriously for academic career progression, regardless of the quality of the papers, the Editors or the peer review. It is also clearly preferable to move to a system in which the amount of work put into academia is somehow recognised, ideally by adequate funding of the universities, but by payment for reviewers and Editors if needs be. Any charge for articles is an unwanted barrier, but here at least there is the possibility that sufficiently low costs will lead to a greater readership, and a more equitable income stream, than current practices of pay-walled gate-keeping.

In a still softer version of this proposal, publishers could remain, but in a much diminished capacity, continuing to provide some infrastructural support for a fee, but not determining pricing, scheduling and copy-editing as they largely do now. There is clearly some space for mixed systems, although it still seems as if a serious focus on the university as an institutional site is most likely to bear fruit. Here again, there is more to say, and obvious connections to other questions – of quality control, immaterial labour, social value, ‘excess’ publishing and translation – to make the subject of reflection and action.

[1] Lynch excludes journals on the basis that there is much speculation on this already, and also on the grounds that only a few fields have journal costs and times that approximate those of university press monographs. I’m on shaky ground here, but it seems that this is indeed the case for social science (including IR), so the analogy seems to hold.


10 thoughts on “Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

  1. Nice article, Paul: good to see – finally – a social science perspective on these issues. I’ll just drop in a few extra areas that will need some thinking through:

    1. Learned societies. Many societies rely on journal subscription revenue for a significant portion of their income. What does the post-subscription world look like for societies? Do they have a role in the digital age? Could their primary functions either be done away with or handled in some other way? No BISA, no ECPR – would we miss them?

    2. Journals without a fixed institutional base. Most journals are not, like Millennium, fixed to a single institution for life. The model set out above would see a period of match-making as the ‘homeless’ journals found University Presses, although the editors would not necessarily be at that institution. Those that could not find a home would fall by the wayside (or struggle along outside of the system), presumably, although I sense that your feeling is that a cull might not be a bad thing. And what happens if a university decides that it no longer wants to support a title? The suggestion seems to be that the process would be so cheap that this is unlikely to happen. And reputation? Inevitably, an LSE IR journal would be considered better than one from, say, UWE, so you need to be careful not to replace publisher hierarchies with existing university hierarchies. Perhaps university presses would develop subject specialisms?

    3. Launching new journals. This would still represent a cost for the university, so the institution would want to be sure that it got a return in terms of prestige and visibility for the investment in staff time and the extra head(s) needed to run the editorial process (which I fear you downplay in terms of time – remember Millennium eds are able to spend an relatively large amount of time on their journal). Consequently the university would want therefore to promote the journal in some way (an additional expense) unless in the digital age the marketing manager is simply replaced by Google.

    4. The cross-subsidy point you raise is an interesting one and worth unpacking a bit more. Journals subscriptions currently contribute toward a lot of much less profitable (often unprofitable) publishing activity that remains central to academic life: monographs, edited collections, textbooks (I’m thinking here less of the small number of Baylis & Smith blockbusters and more of the range of upper-level texts that are widely used in class teaching) and launching new journals (see above). It’s important to factor these in as well, and not look at journals publishing in isolation.

    Just some thoughts…


    • Thanks Anon,

      Good points all. I think my responses would be:

      1. I’ve seen some discussion suggesting that learned societies be considered as equivalent to university presses in any new model, particularly in terms of journal publication. The danger, it seems, is of reversing the income stream, so that societies pay out for journals rather than receiving significant funds from them. I assume that societies use the income for other activities, and a lot would depend for me on what those activities are. If they are principally public outreach and research funds, there’d be a clear conflict of priorities, which would simply have to be settled either by accepting charging for some of these journals, or finding another way of funding those important activities. Of course, if it’s all being blown on whiskey and fancy wigs, then I could live with the decline 

      2. On the one hand, I’d agree that some relative decline in journal titles might not be such a bad thing, particularly if matched by more issues of the key journals, which would tend to promote a more coherent and collective scholarly conversation. On the other, there’s an extent to which a new system could co-exist alongside elements of the old. In particular, online repositories for articles, perhaps then ‘reviewed’ by the hive mind, could continue to serve an important service (my sense is that they already have more impact than the established journals in fields like physics). So long as major and prestigious journals are published via a university press model guaranteeing open access, there could still be ‘private’ journals. The question would be: why would authors seek to publish in more restricted outlets, and why would consumers and libraries pay when they could access their own stock of high-quality open access material? Advocates of a privatised system will of course predict that the various efficiencies brought by non-university presses will eventually lead to a situation not unlike the one we currently have, but I doubt it. To the extent that journals become associated with the prestige of their host institutions, I would think this would happen on a subject-by-subject basis, with those institutions with more faculty and greater intellectual weight in certain fields ending up as the home of the major journals. The journal system is a hierarchical one to start with (separating out academic from non-academic knowledge, and then filtering that again by ‘quality’), and this is part of its purpose. The issue, I think, is what this hierarchy is justified on, how it is enforced, and how it interacts with other hierarchies. Currently, on balance, I’d choose the hierarchy of university prestige on the basis of faculty expertise, student body, international reputation, etc. over the hierarchies of pay-walled access and private profit. We have other hierarchies to worry about in the academy, especially around access and debt, but I don’t see that a new journal system would make that any worse, and expect that the advantages of open access would be quite good for mitigating the university hierarchies that already exist.

      3. This is true, and I’m sure it’s the biggest short term barrier. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the cost. The journal system is expensive. But the proper question, it seems to me, is not whether any new system would be expensive, but how that expense sits alongside the current outgoings on journal subscriptions. We’d need to transfer what is currently shown on library balance sheets to departmental ones. My guess is that this would be enough to provide for the staffing and infrastructural costs, especially if multiple major institutions move as one on this. I can’t give exact figures, but nothing that I’ve seen leads me to suggest that this would be more expensive than the current system. Would running journals from universities with proper staffing, a decent digital infrastructure and (almost complete) open access really cost more than £200 million a year in the UK (which is apparently what libraries currently spend on journal access)?

      4. I’d love to see some of the numbers on this (OK, ‘love’ is overstating it). If the reasoning here is that the low sales of highly specialist texts requires both subsidies and the £80 cover charge (to take the Routledge example), I’d wonder how that broke down. Again, authors aren’t paid. Are reviewers? I think they might be, at least in some cases, but don’t actually know. If the system is relatively similar to the journal system it would seem that the main costs are in the physical printing, and some of the editorial work. Moving to a digital or on-demand printing scenario would seem to take care of the former concern, and hopefully a more concentrated university press system would alleviate pressures in the latter. Also, and this goes back to the tyrannical spectre of the injunction to publish, maybe fewer books and/or shorter ones?

      Interested in any follow-up information on any of this, and thanks for engaging!


  2. Very interesting post, Paul, a lot to chew on. 

    I can only agree with the increasingly wide consensus that the present system of academic publication is hopelessly broken and out of sync with the on-going transformations in the conditions of intellectual production and dissemination. As such we need some creative thinking to provide alternative systems such as you propose here. However, while there is a certain appeal to having journals integrated into universities, I can see a number of potential problems arising from such a course of action. 

    First of all, there is some value in the ‘autonomy’ of presses from universities. Of course, journals are manned by academics who can distort this independence in a variety of ways but folding such publications into university institutions seems to me likely to create all sorts of perverse incentives and unwanted pressures. So, for example, will it not be in the interest of universities to publish the work of their academics in the journals they manage in order to raise or maintain individual research profiles? Or at the very least will it not create conduits for individual pressure to be exerted? 

    Secondly, there seems to a clear risk that the system proposed will contribute to reinforcing the hierarchy of institutions. As suggested by the previous poster, it seems likely that the journals managed by more prestigious universities will benefit from this association and the greater powers of promotion available to such institutions. Aspiring  candidates to positions in those universities will naturally seek to publish in their journals. And the flip side of the first point is that universities may pressure their best academics to publish in their own journals to strengthen the reputation of these publications. 

    Maybe I am overstating these fears and one could point to Millennium and University book presses as models for a wider system along the lines you suggest. But we would do well to remember that, regrettable as it may be, modern universities are not simply disinterested places of learning but institutions in fierce competition with each other that come under intense pressure to game any system that is set up, however noble and well-intentioned it is.   


    • Thanks Antoine,

      I think there are things to watch out for, and to design for should anyone decide to actually do this, but I see the threats you raise as already present.

      Journals are often already institutionally located in the sense you mention. International Organization is edited out of Toronto, and International Security out of Harvard, to mention just two of the glittering stars of the IR firmament. LSE currently lays claim to Review of International Studies, Millennium and International Politics in IR alone. The personal networks that count are already established in that sense – scholars at those institutions may feel there’s an advantage in pushing Editors (who they are more likely to know personally) to give them undue consideration. Certainly, getting published in those journals is already a good idea for scholars, and I don’t see why a university would be more likely to push staff to publish in a journal produced and type-set in house rather than one just edited in house, as they are now.

      And there is, of course, a countervailing pressure. For example, I would think twice about submitting to Millennium right now, even if I had the perfect article for it, for fear that it would be interpreted as some kind of favour to me as a former Editor. I don’t think I would get undue consideration, and we were always very careful to minimise bias whenever we received anything from someone we knew, regardless of institution. But it’ll still probably be 2013 before I think I have a safe distance from perceived contamination. In short, I think this is as much a threat now as in any new system.

      The important mechanism for securing that relative autonomy, I think, is the absence of the profit motive. As things stand, there is actually a push to publish ever more material in more journals to ratchet up prices. Friends in publishing assure me that the profitability of journals is variable, and that the situation is complex, but this does seem to lie behind acquisitions and multiplying outlets for superficially trendy subjects. If university presses become responsible for the proof-reading, formatting and infrastructural work currently done by external corporations, and if they are held to an open access standard, things change somewhat. There’ll be grounds for hosting a journal (a certain prestige and intellectual weight, at relatively low cost) but not for acquiring masses of outlets beyond reason (since there’s no real profit to be had). I actually see the possibility of a single player monopolising things as somewhat less than is the case now. I can’t imagine, for example, that any department would be publishing as many journals as Cambridge University Press currently does (36 in ‘Politics and International Relations’ by my count).

      (There’s also something of a contradiction here between the idea that no university will want to touch all this extra work with a barge poll, but also that the great desirability of having journals to fast-track your own academics will threaten intellectual autonomy.)

      Perhaps all this means is that universities wouldn’t actually be too willing to enter these arrangements as solo players. They may instead want to escape narrow institutionality by pooling resources in a network of field specific outlets, perhaps integrated within a single publication system, which would also mitigate potential problems of trust. That’d be fine with me too. The important thing, I think, is for the support functions of the journal system to be in-house in some sense, not for profit, and for there to be a corresponding emphasis on open access. It still strikes me that any system approximating this would be better than what we currently have, even if it sat alongside the current balance. And by better I mean cheaper, more intellectually productive, and more open to the public.


  3. Hi there,

    Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn’t find any contact info for you. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail.




  4. The discussion above serves to highlight the complex ecosystem we inhabit, of which journals publishing is but one part. Tackling the profits of the publishing sector through boycotts – however laudable that may be – will have knock-on consequences, as Martin Eve put very well in his recent Guardian piece This is not to say that change should not be contemplated, but I fear that things will get messy in the social sciences (given current fudning models) if we try to replicate the physicists on the publishing side, leaving other structures intact. Before we get to the stage of tearing down the old model we need to hear, as Eve says, from the key players who can shape the landscape of reputation and reward, as well as the budgets (and help us to answer questions raised here such as ‘why should we feel the pressure to write an 80,000 word monograph?’; ‘why should we feel compelled to pay to present at BISA each year?’; ‘why is my life governed by ISI impact factors?’ as well as ‘why should my library pay for journals?’). This means the VCs, the heads of departments, the learned societies, the funding councils, government departments. And publishers. The current furore places the issue in the spotlight; the discussion above usefully sketches an alternative future for the social sciences on the publishing side. The next step is for this energy to spur a cross-sector collective conversation, acknowledging the problems of the system as it stands and setting out firm proposals for how the alternative could be constituted, tackling head-on the questions of funding, reward, hierarchy, access, profit and reputation. (I’m not saying this to kick the question of publisher profit into the long grass, but because I think social science will benefit from having some new structural props in place before the old system is kicked away).


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