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 alternatives. The 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?
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.
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.
 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.