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Money and power in academic publishing

Money and power in academic publishing

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Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computing / technology policy, Document types, Intellectual property

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"The dissemination of research results is an integral part of research and hence a crucial component for any scientific discipline." This is the first sentence of a report from the November 2012 Dagstuhl workshop on publication culture in computing research, organized by Moshe Vardi, editor-in-chief of Communications of the ACM, and Kurt Mehlhorn, director of the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science. Ensuring wide and timely access to research must be accompanied by processes to put them into context and assure validity and value, so that research is not only accessible but effectively drives scientific progress. In order to achieve this goal, we may need to augment the current publication model and perhaps even devise a novel one; a better understanding of the competing considerations is a necessary first step..

back to top  Pricing Knowledge, and Who's Who in Academic Publishing

In the past few years, support of open access has been gaining momentum in academic circles. Many even venture to refer to the year 2012 as the "Academic Spring," following an organized movement by academics opposing traditional practices of academic publication, and promoting free access to scientific research instead. Like many recent grassroots movements, online discussion played a key role in the organization; specifically, a turning point was Tim Gowers' January 2012 blog post titled "Elsevier–my part in its downfall." Gowers, a renowned mathematician and Fields Medalist (who also led the first Polymath Project—see "Mathematics for the Masses," XRDS Winter 2010), called for coordinated action in bringing down Elsevier prices, and breaking its sales strategy of bundling together different journal subscriptions—some essential and some that have become almost a joke among mathematicians.

The focus on pricing methods highlights the fact that scientific publishing, despite being intertwined with ideals such as freedom of information and collegiality among academic peers, is ultimately an economic system. In his post, Gowers analyzed the different players in this system besides the publishers themselves: First, libraries are the buyers who pay publishers for access. As Gowers explained, there is a coordination problem among libraries, which makes them the "weak" side of the market, and enables publishers with a monopoly over indispensable scientific publications to charge very high prices. Second, are the editorial boards of scientific journals. Identifying the most promising research results is no less important than producing them, and can only be achieved by experts in the field. Editorial boards lead the process of ranking and editing research papers, and in the computing world this is usually a voluntary service (which is nevertheless rewarded by increased influence and stature). Third, are authors and reviewers/referees; many of our readers may have first-hand experience in fulfilling these roles.

Among the different players, Gowers addressed the latter, calling for a "bottom-up approach": Refuse to publish your own work in an Elsevier journal and to referee others' papers. A subsequent petition called "The Cost of Knowledge" to boycott Elsevier was signed by more than 10,000 researchers (interestingly, other commercial publishers such as Springer were not boycotted). This January, Gowers and fellow leaders of The Cost of Knowledge initiative reported on the status of the boycott, one year later. While many goals were achieved—such as open access to back issues, explicit permission by Elsevier to put preprints on personal websites, and raising general awareness to concerns about academic publishing—Elsevier's pricing has not changed substantially, and so the boycott continues.

back to top  The Power of Aggregation

One challenge in describing the economics of scientific publishing is identifying and agreeing on the commodity in question. Is the commodity simply access to research papers? In computer science, all the major publishers allow authors to post drafts on their home pages and archive sites, suggesting the content is not viewed by publishers as the chief commodity. A participant in the Dagstuhl workshop, Lance Fortnow, addressed this issue in a March 2012 blog post titled "The Value of an Academic Publication." While an academic publication has little monetary value on its own, it may have significant financial value as part of a collection in a journal or conference proceedings. Fortnow sees the role of commercial and non-profit publishers as collecting this value. The other side of the coin is that academic papers have less scientific value as stand-alones than as part of a body of work in a scientific field. Maintaining an aggregate, comprehensive, and searchable collection of works, even electronic, requires considerable resources.

In the context of academic research, the open access debate is therefore really a debate over aggregate or organized access. However, it's still not clear what model to adopt. Should the revenue collected by publishers be just enough to balance the books? Or should they try to maximize revenue and put profit back into the community? For example, the ACM Digital Library is a major source of funding for the activities of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs). On the other hand, if prices were lower, the libraries who pay subscription fees could redirect their resources into other activities benefiting the scientific process.

back to top  Aggregation of Power

In their January report on the boycott status, The Cost of Knowledge leaders touch upon another important consideration in reorganizing the publishing system, namely, who has the power. "We would prefer to see publishers as 'service providers': that is, mathematicians would control journals, publishers would provide services that mathematicians deemed necessary," they said. In his original post, Gowers called his peers to wield their collective bargaining power. The issue of power also has troubling aspects. In Moshe Vardi's position statement for the Dagstuhl workshop, "To Boycott or not to Boycott," he remarked on the importance of keeping science separate from politics, and illustrated how this could become a slippery slope—if it's OK to boycott because of publishing politics, is it OK to boycott British journals because of objections to the monarchy?

back to top  A Final Word, and your Role

There is no one best answer to the organization, control, usage, monetization, and distribution of economic rewards among publishers and authors of academic literature. One of the main problems, as identified in the Dagstuhl report, is that we have many opinions but little data. The current models are essentially for-profit business, non-profit organizations (like the ACM), and free online publishers funded by grants and donations. There are many other ways to fund curation, however, such as an advertising-based model, or a sponsorship-based model. Ultimately, every method of publication will see a trade-off between free-for-all, open access and the value that can be derived from limiting it.

The strongest voices within the scientific community in the open access debate do not seem to be coming from students, despite common interest in the betterment of society. The Cost of Knowledge movement encourages support from researchers who are "in a position do so without undue risk to their careers." Most students simply cannot risk actions like not publishing their papers in certain journals, no matter how strongly they support one side of the debate or the other. Some students may feel they can't even afford to spend time on forming an informed opinion, let alone actively supporting the open access cause. While publishing has clear rewards for students, weighing in on community issues does not, at least in an obvious or immediate way. On the other hand, it seems that if culture is to be changed, the way to do so would be to start with the students. For example, a student who's grown accustomed during his/her Ph.D. to using the ACM Authorizer tool will likely continue to do so throughout his/her career.

As always, we would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this inherent tension, and open access in academia in general. On a different note, there have been many exciting developments here at XRDS thanks to the hard work of XRDS and ACM editors. Check out our new XRDS Facebook page, contributions from new bloggers (Tom Gur, Matt Weinberg, and Olivia Simpson), and the new XRDS mobile app! XRDS is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. We hope you enjoy it,

—Inbal Talgam-Cohen and Peter Kinnaird

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