Two steps to a revolution in scholarly publishing – a thought experiment

During the Berlin 10 conference on Open Access, the first instance of the Berlin Conference held in Africa, some of the most compelling speeches came from those who advocated a much more radical approach to breaking the hold over academic publishing currently exercised by commercial firms.  Especially from Dr. Adam Habib, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research from the University of Johannesburg, the delegates heard a call for immediate and direct action, even if it provoked a fight with commercial publishers.  In his opinion, at least, that would be a fight worth having, particularly for an African university.

These calls for radical solutions got me thinking about which stakeholders had the power to break open the current structures, which were called feudal and iniquitous by one speaker, and what actions they might take.  The result was the following thought experiment.

First, it seems to me that only two stakeholders really have both the will and the power to radically alter the terms and conditions of scholarly publishing.  One set of stakeholders are the academic authors themselves, who seem to largely recognize that the current system is grossly unfair to them and does not serve the best interests of scholarship or of scholarly authors.  Nevertheless, academic authors are limited in the kinds of action they can take, both because they are not well-organized and because of their dependence on the promotion and tenure system.

That leads to the other set of stakeholders who could shake up the system – the universities themselves.  Are there steps they could take that would reset the conditions for scholarly publication?  I think there are, and it seems like universities, if they were so minded, could create a revolution in scholarly communications with two simple, but by no means easy, policy changes.

First, universities could alter their intellectual property policies to assert that faculty scholarship is, in fact, work made for hire.  The legal argument here is simple and persuasive, that faculty work is created by regular employees within the scope of their employment.  Courts have recognized this argument for years, but universities have rightly been unwilling to press the case, for fear of doing harm to relations with their faculty members.  But as the scholarly publication system increasingly fails to adapt to the radical new conditions created in the digital environment, it is possible to imagine a policy change like this undertaken with the cooperation of the faculty authors themselves.

To make this work, universities could assert ownership, under work for hire rules, and at the same time grant back to faculty authors a broad license to make customary scholarly uses of their own works.  This would actually be a similar situation to the one that now obtains, where authors give copyright away to publishers without compensation and receive back fairly limited licenses to use the works they created.  Universities would almost certainly prove better partners in this approach to intellectual property because they could extend much broader licenses to the original authors and because their values are much more congruent with those of academic authors in the first place.

If universities owned scholarly writings as work for hire, however, they would have control over the means of publication.  They would have the power, and the incentive, to refuse to have work published in commercial journals.  They could give complete preference, if they wished, to open access journals and specifically to those open access journals that are run by scholarly societies and university presses.  Almost overnight universities could put an end to the subscription model that worked so well for 300 years and has now become an obstacle to academic research and scholarly communications.

Of course, if universities were to cut out the commercial publishers, the second step in this revolution is obvious – the system of evaluation for academics, the standards for promotion and tenure review, would have to change.  And this would also be a very good thing.  The system we now have, dependent as it is on the impact factor of the journals in which articles are published and the reputations of the presses who publish books, is inefficient and under-inclusive.  It assesses a work of scholarship on only one type of impact, citations in other scholarly journals, and evaluates that very limited metric at the journal level rather than article by article.  Once we stop confusing what was the only thing we could measure, in the past, with what is truly important, we will see that in today’s scholarly environment we actually can do much better.

So the second policy change that universities would need to undertake to affect this revolution would be to require that all assessments be based on article-level metrics applied to openly available works.  This change sounds very radical, but some institutions are already moving towards it.  At the University of Liege, in Belgium, it is already the case that faculty assessment is done only for articles that are in the university’s open access repository; this was the way Liege decided to put teeth into their open access mandate.  But universities could require open access and article-level evaluation measures while still supporting a variety of publication models.

And that is the final point to be made about this make-believe revolution.  If universities carried it out, it would free up more money than it would cost.  Once academic publication in commercial journals was halted, library collection budgets could be redirected.  Instead of a long transition period during which costs would be expected to rise because both subscription models and open access based on article processing charges would have to be supported, which is what the Finch Report predicted in the U.K., this suggestion would allow for wholesale cancellation of commercial publications.  The money saved would then be available to build up the infrastructure for repositories and to support APCs for gold open access publication.  Authors would have a choice – they could publish in an OA journal or they could publish directly to the institution’s repository.  Peer review could be preserved in a distributed model;  OA journals would continue to support traditional peer review, while some of the money saved from commercial subscriptions could be redirected to a more independent, discipline-specific system of peer-review.  This would provide an important role for scholarly societies, and subventions provided to support such society-run peer-review would help protect those organizations from any negative consequences of this radical re-visioning of the publication system.  Societies and non-profit presses, of course, could also find support through the publication of gold OA journals and even monographs.  University funds from library collection budgets would be more distributed than they are now, able to be used more efficiently to support activities genuinely central to the academic mission, and they would, I believe, be more than adequate to the task.

So that is the thought experiment that began at the University of Stellenbosch while listening to calls for radical action.  I don’t know whether I think it would be a good idea to implement or not.  But I believe it would be the fastest way to dramatically fix the current, broken, system of scholarly communications.  There would be many obstacles to these two policy changes, and the medicine might be worse than the disease.  But at the very least, thinking through this experiment in revolution has given me a better perspective on the power dynamics of the current system.  In libraries we are accustomed to thinking that the huge commercial publishing firms hold all the power and that there is nothing we can do to break their stranglehold over scholarship.  But upon reflection we can see that the real power over the system, which can either perpetuate it or revolutionize it, really does reside on our own campuses.

5 thoughts on “Two steps to a revolution in scholarly publishing – a thought experiment”

  1. Kevin,
    Great thought experiment but I say why rely on anyone else for peer review. If universities formed regional consortia for their publishing efforts the universities that already had presses and editorial staff could publish for the smaller institutions and other consortia could serve as peer reviewers. We could keep everything in house and allow for some real experimentation in new forms of scholarly communication.

  2. I’m not sure the first step is essential, and it would certainly cause backlash, witness events not so long ago at Cambridge. If universities do the two things you suggest: require tenure assessment on the basis of articles either in their repositories or otherwise available on full Open Access, and forbid the use of the Journal Impact Factor in these assessments, they would surely achieve just as much, as quickly (or quicker), and with less fuss?

  3. Kevin,

    Greetings. Your thought experiment reminds me in many ways of a proposal made by Professor Larry Hurtado (emeritus, University of Edinburgh) back in 1993, when the potential of the nascent Internet for the publication and dissemination of academic research was just beginning to be contemplated. Please see Larry W. Hurtado, “A Constortium for Networked Publication” in the Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on Refereed Electronic Journals. 1-2 October 1993. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba, 1994, pp. 19.1-19.7.

    Of particular interest is this excerpt:

    1. As to constitution, to insure that academic concerns control decisions, only universities and colleges and academic societies should be voting members of the consortium. The consortium would provide a means whereby the collective weight of academic opinion and needs could be brought to bear on the development of the computer network.

    2. …the network still has to be developed as a practical medium for research publication, and the traditional academic structures have to be equipped and informed as to how to take advantage of this new medium of publication. …

    To mention another matter, it will also be vital for academics collectively to establish policies and protocols for producing and identifying those network publications that should be considered fully credible and respectable. Scholars will be reluctant to publish first-rate research materials on the network unless they know both that their publications will appear in vehicles that are appropriate to such work and that they will be received as fully respectable by their colleagues. Those involved in tenure and promotion process will need to know how to regard network publications. A consortium of respected universities, colleges and academic societies could more quickly develop appropriate standards and policies for high-quality network journals, and could provide the means for identifying those network publications that should be treated with the same respect given to peer-reviewed paper journals.

    … Universities could bring their long tradition of commitment and high standards of publishing, their tradition of library standards, and their investment and participation in computer technology. Academic societies bring the expertise and needs of their membership, and their growing commitment to taking active roles also in the dissemination of research. Together, they would provide a powerful store of resources for the responsible and expeditious development and acceptance of network-published research.

    3. Once standards for promoting and insuring quality-control were developed, the consortium could recognize or sponsor network journals that meet its standards. …

    4. The consortium would also need to establish policies and obligations with respect to the permanent archiving of approved network publications. …

    A consortium could require that each approved journal be the responsibility of an academic society or university. The body responsible for the journal would vouch for those chosen as editors and referees and for the refereeing practices and policies, and would also be required to guarantee the preservation of the material appearing in the journal.

  4. Once standards for promoting and insuring quality-control were developed, the consortium could recognize or sponsor network journals that meet its standards

Comments are closed.