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.
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.
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.
Excellent article Patrick. I just want to share a relevant experience with you and the readers. Two weeks ago I was in Florence giving a talk about journal-independent peer review at the librarians of the European University Institute. They have a very well-organized institutional repository for published articles, but also for preprints authored by their scholars. At some point during the talk I mentioned that the only thing differentiating University repositories from publishers is that publishers offer quality control through journal peer review. A discrete murmur propagated through the audience and one of the librarians interrupted me to say that they actually have a board of peers that evaluates preprint manuscripts before accepting them for “archiving” in the repository! So, you see there are already Universities that offer a “complete” publication service to their authors, including peer review, without even realizing that they themselves are “academic publishers”. Universities not only have the infrastructure, but also the competent personnel to curate, publish and disseminate manuscripts at zero cost for authors and readers. I agree with you that publishers should start changing their access policies and their tone otherwise they will start competing with institutions much more powerful and competent than them.
This is precisely the model employed by most of Latin America. The result? Almost everything published within the region is Open Access, with no article processing fees.
First Things First
In the open access era, peer-reviewed journals will just be peer-review service providers. Either journals will continue to perform this function, or their titles will migrate to other publishers (which could include university publishers) that will.
But before this can happen, open access itself must come first.
Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing (“Gold OA”) are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) (“Green OA”). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.
(Monographs are another story, in some ways more complicated, in others simpler.)
Harnad, S. (1998) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online] (5 Nov. 1998)
_____ (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8). http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/21348/
Universities can and should do this. They could ‘cash-in’ on their reputation and promote their own research priorities at the same time: e.g., University of Cambridge Journal of Science vs the Oxford University Journal of Philosophy