Posted tagged ‘academic publication’

Academic publishing: escaping the stranglehold?

April 1, 2014

Elsevier BV is a Netherlands company which, according to its website, is a ‘world-leading provider of information solutions’; in other words, it is a publisher. Its main focus is on science and medicine. It publishes 2,900 journals in one format or another, including such well known periodicals as Acta Anaesthesiologica Taiwanica, or the American Journal of Otolaryngology, or the unputdownable Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids. It has published more than 24,000 academic books. So one thing you already know about Elsevier is that it holds the key to publication for many academics, and to access to scholarship for university libraries and their readers.

And it is not cheap. So for example, the seminal book Dacie and Lewis Practical Haematology will, should you decide to buy it, set you back €93. And if you think your library should subscribe to Prostaglandins, you may want to let them know that the electronic version (only) will cost €3,743.33; if you need it in print, that’ll be €4,524.

It would not be fair to single out Elsevier; it is merely doing what companies do in an inadequately competitive market. Academic publishing  is full of such examples; th0ugh not that full, because the number of really significant publishers is not a large one. And as universities across the worlds try to prioritise their expenditure, library subscriptions and purchases have become more and more unaffordable.

And yet, universities have not seriously resisted the exploitation by publishers, beyond agitated discussions. However, now a German university, the University of Konstanz, has told Elsevier that the university ‘will no longer keep up with this aggressive pricing policy and will not support such an approach’. More precisely, it has decided to discontinue the existing licensing arrangement, and to tell academics that they will instead support them when they need individual access.

Perhaps this bold step will prompt a wider and more decisive response by the global academy. Perhaps it will create more debate about how open access publishing can be developed in such a way that scholarly output is not pulled behind an excessively high paywall. Perhaps the abuse of trade in knowledge in a very imperfect market can be fought after all.

The academic publishing game

May 5, 2011

Some 30 years ago I was in my first year as a professional academic. I had a full teaching load, but I also knew that if my career was to go anywhere I needed to publish – and not just anywhere, but in scholarly journals. And so, having written what I thought was a pretty good little scholarly article, I offered it to one publisher after another. The main impact of this exercise was that I could compile an exhaustive glossary of rejection phrases. However, I did eventually place the masterpiece, and so began my career trajectory.

Recently I tried to get hold of a copy of this wonderful article. I wrote to the publisher and got a very nice reply. They could photocopy it for me, and would charge as little as £120 for doing so. OK, it isn’t really a masterpiece, and I certainly don’t think that a copy of the 26 pages is worth that amount of money. So, no thank you.

But here we have one of the key problems of modern academic life. Lecturers must publish, and not just anywhere. The journals that are accepted as good places in which to be seen know this very well, and they abuse the market. They are far too expensive, and as a result really only libraries can afford them. And as library budgets get cut everywhere, they too are now having to be choosy.

In fact, whether we are talking about books or journals, academic publishers present us with really major problems. There are not many of them, and they are not customer-focused. It is time to leave all that behind us. The academy should develop and manage online journals where academics can place their work and where this will be appropriately peer-reviewed. It is time to break away from a publishing sector that has some of the most restrictive practices of the modern business world. It is time to open up publishing opportunities for academics and to make it easy for others to access what has been published.

The academic gold standard

April 22, 2009

If you are an academic and you’ve made your way up the promotional ladder – let’s say you are a full professor – then you will have been a prolific publisher of books, monographs and refereed journal articles. And if I don’t immediately know about you, there are now various databases where I can look you up and find out what you’ve published – this is a good example. And if I need to make a judgement as to how good you are as an academic, then the information I find there will help me to make it.

As has been mentioned before in this blog, that raises a few questions about whether and how we value excellence in teaching; but let us leave that aside for now. My concern here is something different: that there may be an increasingly significant conflict between this basis of advancing someone’s academic career on the one hand, and the interests of the university on the other. It has been clear for some time that in those areas of research where the registration of intellectual property (chiefly patents) may be vital in order to protect the research and ensure that when it subsequently is exploited commercially the university gets a share of the revenues. If you publish – either before the patent is registered or in some cases at all – the commercial value of the discovery may be lost to the university for good. And just in case you are tempted to answer that all this is OK, because university research should be accessible to all, then think again: the consequence of not registering the patent is typically not that everyone can use the discovery, but rather that someone external to the university will exploit it and then register the patent themselves, thereby excluding the wider community and indeed ensuring that the financial benefits are kept in private hands. Innovation offices in universities have for some time had to struggle with these contradictions.

This has been an intractable problem in large part because the academics affected, when faced with this scenario, have to weigh up the competing claims of the university (and possibly themselves) for a share of the financial benefits of the research on the one hand, and the prospect of their career advancement on the other. That is not a dilemma we should place before them.

It seems to me that the answer to this is that we must begin to tackle much more seriously the basis on which we promote academic staff, and we may have to face up to the possibility that academic publication as the sole gold standard cannot survive as the only real basis for promotion. We must of course not compromise in our desire to have intellectual excellence and proven scholarly output as the foundation for the assessment of merit; but we may need to think again about exactly where that excellence and that output should be visible. This cannot be done by one institution acting alone, as academic reputations need to be built on a globally recognised rate of exchange; we just need to start the debate on what that should be.


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