Beyond Academic Journals: Addressing the Barriers to Scholarly Communication

By etoole

In late November, I chose to attend a panel on experiments in academic publishing hosted by the Scholarly Communication Program at Columbia University. Each of the three panelists addressed the issues faced by the academic community in the publication and distribution of scholarly work. The forward-looking discussion focused on strategies for reworking the funding structure of academic journals and alternative systems for the dissemination of research works.

The first presenter was Mackenzie Smith, University Librarian at UC, Davis. Her presentation focused on the unsustainable costs associated with maintaining academic journal collections from the perspective of someone in her position as university librarian. Due to the combination of inflating costs of subscriptions – which have been rising at a rate of 5% to 8% a year – and stagnant or shrinking library budgets, the number of libraries capable of affording such collections is decreasing. To address this problem, Smith assessed various alternative systems which hold the potential to reduce costs and improve access.

To begin, Smith compared North American and European models of academic publish. The model we are more familiar with in the US relies on libraries to pay the cost of publishing through subscriptions. In Europe, researchers (or, more likely, their institutions or grants) pay what is called an Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in journals which then provide open access to scholarly works. On the contention that the international nature of academic work forces the adoption of uniform publication systems, Smith proceeds with an investigation into how a global APC-funded, open access system would impact large North American research universities such as her employer.

It was found that, if the processing charge for all research publications in a given year was covered by UC Davis, the cost would amount to almost double the annual journal subscription budget. Furthermore, shifting the burden of publishing costs to those institutions which produce the most research would disincentivize publication without resolving the problem of funding. Her research also showed that the attitudes of academics to the acceptable amount of processing charge depending on where the money was coming from. Broadly, they were insensitive to the cost of publication if funds were derived from institutional sources or the library budget. On the other hand, if this cost was taken from their discretionary research or departmental funds, they tended to be much more frugal. In conclusion, Smith suggested that this price-sensitivity could be leveraged to initiate competition between publishers and induce them to lower their processing charges.

The second presenter was Kevin Hawkins, Assistant Dean of Scholarly Communication for the University of North Texas Libraries. His presentation focused on future strategies for collection and proper usage of “big data about published research.” Hawkins was concerned that such a quantitative picture of the academic publishing would could improperly inform the evaluation of different fields and be used to marginalize certain fields based on their poor performance in the realms of purchasing, licensing and online usage. His presentation thus focused on developing a “consensus framework” and some sort of cooperative of “libraries, scholarly societies, publishers, aggregators, and other stake holders.” Membership would provide entities with the relevant big data while also stipulating adherence to a code of conduct which would prohibit its misuse.

The final presenter was Peter Muennig, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at Mailman School of Health. His work was directed at the development of a free journal which requires neither subscription or publication fees that reworks the structure of incentives to encourage peer-review and commentary by verified scholars. Broadly targeting scientific research, OurJournal will combine text-mining and other automated techniques to connect articles in need of peer-review with scholars whose research interests match the article’s subject. The software then sends an automated “natural language” email to potential reviewers who will receive increased presence on the platform. The novelty of Muennig’s project is the use of a digital/social platform to expedite the lengthy peer-review process, the way it ensures the visibility of less established contributors and its optimization for hand-held devices.

Overall, the panel gave the impression that the academic publishing is in crisis. Conventional academic publications are increasingly unaffordable even to the university libraries whose mission is to provide students with access to a wide range of current academic works. It is hard to grapple with the fact that the scholarly community which both publishes and consumes all of these works is mediated by a dysfunctional system of publications which sets financial barriers to either the transmission or the receipt of knowledge produced.

While some of the presenters proposals gave hope for an improved solution, I was left wondering – likely because of my lack of prior engagement with issues of scholarly communication – why the tactics focused on restructuring funding of journals or creation of new journals. Instead, now that the means of distributing information are exceedingly cheap, why not abandon the publishers altogether? Muennig’s platform seemed to come closest to this by rejecting money altogether. However, his platform is still understood to be an open access, free and online journal rather than a wholly new model. At the onset of the panel the  host encouraged the audience of scholars to make use of Columbia’s Academic Commons and noted that “note everyone has the privilege that we have to have access to the information and we want to increase that access through the AC.” I hope that, after the collapse of the current regime, this sort of scholarly communication network will prevail and remove all barriers to access both within and without research institutions.

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