The pros and perils of ditching academic publishers

There are three tensions in the field of academic publishing (1) who pays to publish research? (2) who decides what gets published? and (3) who takes any profits? In the traditional model, based on publishing…

Breaking free of the stranglehold of academic publishers holds appeal – but what are the dangers? Flickr

There are three tensions in the field of academic publishing (1) who pays to publish research? (2) who decides what gets published? and (3) who takes any profits?

In the traditional model, based on publishing on paper, the answers have been (1) readers pay, via journal subscriptions, (2) editors decide, advised by reviewers, (3) publishers take the profits.

But publishing on paper is in decline. Most of us read papers on the internet taken from electronic versions of journals. Most publishers, with an eye to their profits, have attempted to just continue with the old system, charging subscriptions for electronic journals much as they have done for paper journals. These are largely paid for by institutional libraries rather than individuals. Charges for individuals are typically prohibitively high.

Psychologist Stevan Harnad was among the first to point out that the internet changes the publishing game completely. Way back in 1994, he suggested that academics could leave publishers out of the research communication cycle altogether. Instead of institutions paying thousands of pounds in journal subscriptions, and individual readers being clobbered for $30 for a five-page article, academic exchange would be virtually free online. What would be wrong with that?

Quality control

There are two obvious snags to bypassing journals. The first just concerns presentation. Traditionally, publishers have ensured that journal articles look nice: properly formatted, intelligible figures, grammatical writing, and so on. Not every academic can produce a nicely formatted article. And many academics don’t write very well. But increasingly, publishers are cutting down on professional editors and increasingly hold authors responsible for getting their figures formatted for direct web publication.

The second point has to do with quality control. Traditionally, journals have acted as gatekeepers. If an article appears in a peer-reviewed journal, it can usually be assumed that it doesn’t have serious flaws: the higher the quality of the journal, the safer this assumption should be.

Nevertheless, some have queried whether we need this traditional function of publishers, pointing out flaws in the peer review system and idiosyncratic behaviour by editors. Indeed, gatekeeping may not just be imperfect: In some fields it may damage science, by inducing a publication bias in favour of ‘significant’ findings, and biasing against publication of replications (or non-replications). And unless there is a massive media stink, they resist accepting papers that fail to replicate exciting findings that they’ve previously published.

Such considerations have led some to argue that we should ditch not just publishers, but the whole editorial and reviewing process as well. In effect, everyone would just publish their own stuff, and it would be judged by the academic community. Although this solution appeals to the more anarchic side of my nature, we’d all be swamped by a tidal wave of information. The good stuff would be buried within a heap of rubbish.

Self-publish or perish?

As Harnad noted, however, taking publishers out of the loop need not entail abandoning peer review. With the exception of a few top-notch journals, most academic publishers don’t employ editors. Instead, editors do the work for free, or for a small honorarium. So any group of academics could decide to set up an online journal, appoint editors and operate a reviewing process at relatively modest cost

But has it worked? Well, sadly, not for psychology. I’ve brooded about this issue for some years, but was stimulated to revisit it by my recent discovery of Kindle direct publishing. It’s different from an Open Access model, because the reader pays for content, but the sums involved are trivially small compared to current journal charges.

The Kindle operation is designed for publishing books. To publish, one does not have to pay anything and can set one’s own price and get a 70 per cent royalty. You download software to convert your manuscript into the right format and then you press a button and upload. The whole process takes about the same amount of time than it typically takes to submit a journal article through an electronic portal. And you don’t need a Kindle to do it.

Couldn’t research papers adopt this model, but with even lower charges? The difference from current practice is that the material would be affordable; instead of costing 20 to 30 dollars, individual articles would be priced at 20 to 30 cents. Authors of academic articles don’t expect royalties, so these could be waived.

But what about the dangers of the free-for-all and lack of peer review to identify quality? I suspect that even a notional charge per download might be a help here, by identifying material that people would be willing to pay for. And the Amazon system of star ratings with optional comments could be used. This is especially useful in the academic context if the reviewers themselves also have ratings.

The downside? Peer review is painful but often helpful in improving papers. Sometimes it has saved me from revealing an embarrassing amount of ignorance. I’d be happier with a system that allowed an option for pre-publication review.

Different strokes for different folks

There remains a massive difference between disciplines in regards to open access: physics embraced self-archiving rapidly, whereas scientists in other disciplines often don’t even realise it’s an option.

Maybe this has to do with the pace of change and degree of competition in a field: physicists don’t want to wait months before their work is published because it could be scooped. Psychology experiments are seldom so time-sensitive.

Nevertheless, I think the pace of research in psychology could be improved enormously if we broke free from the stranglehold of the traditional commercial publishers.

This an edited version of an article first published on Dorothy Bishop’s blog.