Kicking off the Open Access Perspectives in the Humanities and Social Sciences eCollection, Patrick Dunleavy sets the context of disruption for academic communication and publishing models. If the academic publishing industry does not quickly adjust its premium pricing, universities will look to directly organise and publish their own peer reviewed journals, monographs and books.

The leitmotif of the digital age is ‘disintermediation’, an ugly name for the process of ‘cutting out the middle person’ – in other words, making transactions simpler and more direct. It’s often better for customers to do this – to go direct to the source of a product and buy what they need, without having to pay a fee to other people involved in an intermediate delivery chain. Yet in goods markets this is often not feasible because of the information, bargaining and transportation costs involved.

So long as books and journals lived in the world of physical products – and incredibly enough all too many academic books still languish on in this status alone – the roles of publishers and book retailers and book sellers all made sense. And modern publishing has generally developed in ways that in many countries (like the USA) and in some markets (like popular fiction) deliver remarkable value for money. But academic publishing has been a great exception to the rule, especially in high cost countries like the UK and (even more so) Australia. Paper books have for years competed unavailingly against journals, as academics and universities move towards setting (and to a large extent only discussing in classes) items that can be accessed directly and simultaneously by whole class groups from learning management systems like Moodle and Blackboard (Dunleavy, 2012a and 2012b). Journals secured a key advantage by going digital first, radically improving their accessibility versus books, for a time and at a huge price.

Image credit: Wikipedia (public domain)

Yet now journal articles are all online, most serious or major books will move into electronic format, and scholarly work will become a fully digital product (Weller, 2011). Add in open access and the possible scope for disintermediation widens dramatically. Many large publishers are still charging around $2700 for an open access paper in a good journal, while the sustainable future rate will probably be around $600. This is a huge premium, and it is not going to do academic publishers’ already battered reputations any good at all to try to defend it. Serious, big universities will be thinking, are already thinking – why don’t we publish digitally and open access ourselves?  All that academics at (for instance) Stanford, Harvard, Imperial or LSE get from being published in prestigious journals is the certification of peer review, itself an increasingly battered and replaceable currency.

Yet top universities could organize their own conventional peer review processes economically and effectively, much as they do for PhD examining in the UK, using a system of mutual service and support. All the rest of the piece – getting articles publicized by twitter and blogs, providing a well-edited product, delivering the article to any PC, phablet or colour printer in the world – can be done easily and cheaply by universities themselves. Online communities are already doing the work of developing more and more research, so for universities to directly organize and publish their own peer reviewed journals, monographs and books is a natural next step. In my view only a dramatic fall in journal OA prices can prevent this transition in the next ten years.

And it’s not just in publishing. With the rise of podcasting, universities are already substantial broadcasters – for instance, LSE podcasts have been downloaded many millions of times in 2012-13. Whatever eventually transpires around MOOCs, TV and videocast outputs from universities are already mushrooming. So universities increasingly broadcast their own work across the whole field of the cultural outputs, and they will do so far more in the next decade – partly responding to the also substantial impacts agenda (Bastow et al, 2014).

Disintermediation battles have happened before and always the incumbent industry segment (that is most at risk from being cut out) has battled to protect its established methods of working and associated profit levels for far too long, fighting on into the last ditch for the last penny of margins from obsolescent products, inhibiting innovation and erecting pay walls that systematically suppress consumption. Both publishers and academia face enormous pain in moving to a new model with open access at its heart. But if the academic publishing industry does not quickly change its current stance, universities will get there on their own. In the immortal words of the disco hit, academics will be ‘doing it for themselves, dancing on their own two feet and ringing on their own bells’.

This post is part of a wider collection on Open Access Perspectives in the Humanities and Social Sciences and is cross-posted at SAGE Connection. We will be featuring new posts from the collection each day leading up to the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference on the 24th October, with a full electronic version to be made openly available then.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he has worked since 1979. He has authored and edited numerous books on political science theory, British politics and urban politics, as well as more than 50 articles in professional journals.

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