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Home » Blog » What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Scholarly Publishing, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Work Towards Open Access

What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Scholarly Publishing, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Work Towards Open Access

My graduate training in scholarly publishing consisted of “You should publish stuff.  It should be peer-reviewed.”  Not exactly a full training in scholarly communication.  Considering that doing and publishing scholarly research accounts for roughly one-third of my job responsibilities as a tenured associate professor, I wish they had spent more time on it, and maybe you already know about this (in which case, feel free to stop reading).  But if you’ve never stopped to think about how the journal publishing sausage gets made, you may find this useful.  

Rent-Seeking Behavior

Color photo of a sign that says Rent against a blue sky with white clouds in the background
Rent by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

As I’ve explored OER and open educational practices, I have been very fortunate to learn a bit about scholarly publishing models, and frankly, they’re a big-time scam.  Or, if we wish to be social scientists about it, publishers of academic journals exhibit significant rent-seeking behavior: they seek to substantially increase their wealth without adding substantially to the value of the product or service they offer.  Researchers, often funded by the public through grants or institutional support, do research, which they publish in scholarly journals for free (they also provide free labor as reviewers for journals).  The scholarly journals are run by a few large publishing companies, five of which are responsible for half of all scholarly journal articles published in a given year.  These companies run the journals, publish the articles which they got for free, and then charge libraries and the public exorbitant subscription fees (often in the form of “big deal” bundled databases) for access to the research articles, even if the articles were publicly-funded.  Some institutions and funders have caught on to the irrationality of this system- locking up knowledge behind prohibitive paywalls seems wrong, holds back science, and cheats the public, who often has paid to support the research.  

The movement towards Open Access is meant to remedy several of these problems.  The NIH, the EU, and major research funders have begun to require grant outputs to be published openly (and include funds in grants for paying APCs).  Faced with losing their source of free articles, publishers adapted, and were suddenly eager to offer open access options- they merely ask for authors to cover the cost of production that would have been covered by the fees they would have charged for access to the article: thus was the Article Publishing Charges (APC) born.   APCs vary by company and journal, and are often upwards of $2,500.  This reminds me of when traditional textbook publishers initially decried the quality and rigor of OER course materials, then suddenly switched to offering “inclusive access” courses that sneak course material charges into students’ fees without their knowledge or consent.  In both cases, this isn’t surprising- profit seekers are going to seek profit.   

The APC is How Much???  

And they seeking it big-time.  Nature Springer made waves with their announcement of going completely open, but as Dr. Julie Novkov pointed out this morning on Twitter, the devil is in the details: Nature Springer will charge APCs around $10,000 per article (with lower fees for scholars from lower income countries).  And APCs are only one part of the equation- for previously published research, or research where scholars don’t have the funding for large APCs, much excellent research remains behind paywalls, which should more accurately be called pay-forts or pay-nuclear armaments, as the prices are far more prohibitive than a mere wall.  The costs of library journal subscriptions rise steadily, while state and federal investment in higher education continues to fall.  The COVID-19 pandemic is a dual crisis for library budgets- emergency moves to distance learning drastically increase the demand for electronic resources, while the economic impact on colleges and universities wreaks’ havoc on these institutions’ budgets.  

So What Do We Do?  

I need to point out that it is my institutional and geographic privilege that allowed me to remain ignorant of these problems for so long.  As a researcher based in the US, database subscription rates are indexed to my country’s institutions budgetary level; in countries with smaller GDPs, open access fees are wildly out of sync with institutional and individual budgets, even when discounts are offered.  Scholars in countries with lower GDPs are much more aware of the costs of publishing open journal articles.  So it seems only right that I use that institutional and geographic privilege to work towards more equitable open access.  Your position and privilege (full-time vs. adjunct, tenure-track vs. late career) will determine what you are able to do- but you likely can do something.  I’m particularly talking to my tenured and promoted colleagues, who often have the most institutional power- they sit on the committees that write and decide on tenure and promotion guidelines and they help set the expectations in their departments and with their graduate students.  

Scholars at all levels should learn more about Open Access- there is much more information  than I’ve put here, and much better written, by people who know this stuff far better than I do (this article is a great start).  Reach out to the scholarly communications librarian at your  institution- they can inform you about what initiatives are already in place at your institution and point you towards resources for your own learning.  Librarians are brilliant and amazing in general, and open librarians are extra awesome.  Then get involved- share the information you’ve found with your colleagues who are not familiar with this rent-seeking behavior.  Help dispel myths on your campus (no, not all OA journals are predatory, no APCs are not pay-to-publish).   Publish openly if you can, preferably at truly open journals which don’t charge massive fees. 

Scrabble Tiles that say "What If"
Maryeoriginals, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What if, like the UC system, more institutions banded together to reduce the fees charged by scholarly publishers, both at the APC end and at the subscription end?  Many institutions are working on ways to make their scholars’ work more openly available, through institutional repositories and negotiations directly with publishers (here is information on the approach at Harvard, MIT, and the Europen Union Institute).  The Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) maintains a database of hundreds of policies from funders and research organizations, including 834 universities/research institutions, so there are plenty of models to follow for those institutions who wish to explore their options.  

More radically, what if we stop thinking about how to reform the existing journals and their profit-seeking corporate managers, and look at creating new journals?  It seems like the services corporate journals provide (for which they charge exorbitant subscription fees) are the online review management systems, copyediting, and printing- what if scholars and their institutions decide to take over those responsibilities and start their own truly OA journals?  It’s not the lark it sounds like- many truly OA journals already exist, and models could be adapted and innovated from.  Yes, it would cost money and/or resources, but those could be creatively managed or repurposed as well?  We’ve already largely moved past physical copies of journals, so printing expenses are negligible.  Universities have websites- could they not spare server space for journals?  Instead of contracting out copyediting, what if institutions funded graduate students as copy editors?  Which would then give students experience in running open access journals- positive externalities!  What if professional associations took back management of their journals and/or absorbed the cost of running them?  

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