What is “value” in publishing?

The Scholarly Kitchen, a blog sponsored by the Society for Scholarly Publishing, is a source of opinion and debate that I have wanted to point out for some time.  I have finally been prodded to do so, or one might better say provoked, by this post from Kent Anderson called “Are Publishers Anti-Publishing?”  citing a stream of news about how various publishers are abandoning their traditional business and challenging scholarly publishers to find ways to innovate their businesses.  In addition to the instances that Anderson mentions, one could note the report that the Christian Science Monitor has decided to give up its daily print publication and move predominately on-line.

It is interesting to compare Anderson’s post with the op-ed that appearred in the Sunday New York Times from author James Gleik on “Publishing Without Perishing.”  Both pieces challenge publishers to step up to the challenge posed by online availability.  Gleik points to a return to beautiful, durable books as the best hope of traditional publishing, while Anderson clearly envisions a very different response, although his advice is less clear than Gleik’s nostolgic vision.  Anderson suggests emulating Google, Facebook and Amazon, so he is clearly asking for a digital solution, not a return to producing print artifacts.

There are several points I agree with heartily in Anderson’s post, especially the call for traditional publishers to look for the value they can add to content, rather than trying to pare their offerings down to bare bones as so many newspapers have done.  Yet he does not seem consistent about that point when he cites Google as one of the successful models that publishing should emulate.  What value, we might ask, does Google add to content beyond easy of access?  Anderson refers to Google’s “appropriation” of the “STM impact factor model,” but surely Google’s relevance-ranking algorithm is a very different thing, employed for the very different purpose of facilitating access to the content that a searcher is most likely to want.  The impact factor model will not really have been “appropriated” until academic institutions start recognizing that downloads of an online work is itself a legitimate metric for evaluating the quality of the work and the career of the creator.

Which brings me to where Anderson really goes wrong — his comments about how open access and institutional repositories are “anti-publishing.”  To get to this claim one must define publishing very narrowly, based on a traditional, “the way we have done it in the past,” standard;  Anderson sounds a lot like Gleik at this point.  On-line, open access distribution IS publishing, of course, as the many peer-reviewed open access journals clearly prove.  What is most astonishing about Anderson’s discussion of these “anti-publishing” trends, however, is his claim that open access “devalues” scholarly content by “treating it as less than a commodity.”  How can one make such a claim about scholarly content when authors have been expected to give their writings away for free to publishers for many years?  Scholarly authors are used to thinking about the value of their work in terms other than economic, and those terms have been dictated, in part, by the business model of traditional scholarly publishing.

The value of scholarly work, for scholars, has never been based on the money it could earn, since they never saw a penny of that money and were, in fact, expected to pay for access to their own writings.  Often they were even expected to pay “page charges,” which makes the author-side fees now charged by many publishers for open access seem very familiar.  The point is that access and use, not economic gain, define the value of scholarly writing because they serve the scholarly authors’ need for recognition and impact; the cost of the wrapper in which the work was contained (the commodity) has never been a marker for value in the academic world, and it has lately become an impediment.

I fervently hope that scholarly publishers can find ways to add value to academic content, as Anderson challenges them to do.  But that task will be much more difficult if it is based on a narrow view of the value of academic work that begins and ends with the traditional way publishers have done business.  Tthe search for new models of scholarly publishing will have to take into account the things that actually matter to academic authors and scholarly institutions.

2 thoughts on “What is “value” in publishing?”

  1. Surely Anderson meant publishing as an industry rather than publishing as a process? In which case he’s being consistent within his own argument.

    As far as I’m concerned traditional journals do provide something that most open access and/or repository systems don’t which is a hierarchy of reputation – there is a feeling (even if sometimes misplaced) that an article in a top quality journal can be has a reputation in a way that something that is posted on a repository or a brand new open access journal doesn’t. Some online journals have and/or will develop these in time I am sure.

    The currency of academia is reputation and therefore journals (and the publishers who publish them) do provide something that many, many academics want. And as long as the owners of the journals that academics want and need to publish in want the services that publishers provide, the publishers will continue to be relevant.

  2. “The value of scholarly work, for scholars, has never been based on the money it could earn, since they never saw a penny of that money and were, in fact, expected to pay for access to their own writings.” A bit of an overstatement, since in fact journal contributors usually share 50/50 in any revenues generated by subsidiary uses of their articles in anthologies, coursepacks, e-reserve systems, etc., and some academic authors have profited handsomely, in the many thousands of dollars, from such reuses of their articles. So, too, have the authors of some academic books. It is no accident that some of the larger university presses have even given six-figure advances to some high-profile academic authors, who stand to earn royalties well in excess of $100,000 if their books are successful. Most academic authors earn little or nothing, of course, from the sale of their books–but then that is true for authors of novels and poetry books, too, that are published commercially.

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