Academic Publishing | Feature

Rewriting the Journal

With faculty balking at the high price of traditional academic journals, can other digital publishing options get traction?

This story appeared in the August 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

This spring, more than 12,000 science, math, and humanities researchers signed an online petition against the academic publisher Elsevier, pledging not to publish in, referee for, or edit Elsevier journals. The protest, sometimes referred to as the Academic Spring, is the most public manifestation of growing unhappiness with the giant publisher over a number of issues. As the name of the petition website--The Cost of Knowledge--suggests, academics accuse Elsevier of charging exorbitant rates for individual journal subscriptions, forcing libraries to buy journals in bundles that include titles they don't even want.

On top of that, Elsevier stands accused of trying "to restrict the free exchange of information" through its support of legislation such as SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Workers Act. Introduced in December 2011, the RWA would prohibit the digital dissemination of any research funded by the federal government for which a publisher has already entered into a contract to provide editing or peer review.

The petition was launched on the heels of a blog post by Timothy Gowers, a Fields Medal-winning mathematician at the University of Cambridge (UK), who first griped publicly about Elsevier's practices. "If you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn't," Gowers wrote.

The protest has definitely had an impact. On Feb. 27, a month after The Cost of Knowledge site launched, Elsevier announced that it was withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, due to concerns that "the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier's long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature." The company also agreed to lower per-article and journal prices and to allow open access to more of its archives.

For many academics, Elsevier's move represented a real victory. "I see the boycott as a great example of author advocacy resulting in changing publisher practice," says Michael Boock, head of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Services at Oregon State University Libraries.

But how much has really changed? While the boycott managed to extract some concessions from the publisher, the Elsevier saga also served to focus attention on the broader world of academic publishing. And, by many accounts, it's an unbalanced world indeed, with commercial publishers taking research, editing, and peer reviews provided for free by scholars and selling it back to the community at prices many can't afford.

Libraries Feel the Pricing Pinch

Until recently, researchers have largely been insulated from the pricing strategies of commercial publishers, since their school libraries have been able to pay the high subscription fees, which range from a few hundred dollars to more than $5,000 per year, depending on the title. The situation is not sustainable, however, with librarians contending that journal prices "continue to rise well beyond the rate of inflation and beyond the Consumer Price Index," says Michael Boock, head of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Services at Oregon State University Libraries.

Publishers initially explained away high book and journal prices as being necessary to help build their digital-publishing platforms, but, Boock points out, "that migration happened a long time ago now." Due to persistent price boosts, the move to a digital format--supposed to make accessing publications easier--has actually decreased access because libraries can no longer afford to subscribe to as many journals.

In the face of high costs and slashed budgets, libraries are developing some nimble solutions to fulfill their mission. OSU Libraries, among others, are moving from the traditional "just in case" model, where they order books they think their communities will want, to a "just in time" model, where they buy books on request or borrow them from other libraries.

Unfortunately, scholars are caught in a classic catch-22. As part of the career-advancement structure in higher education, they must place their work in high-profile journals or risk being passed over for hire, tenure, or promotion. It's fair to ask then, what options remain for those scholars who have turned their back on Elsevier's empire of academic journals, or who feel similarly about other major academic publishers such as Springer and Wiley?

The great hope, of course, is--and has been--the internet. But what will it take for web-based alternatives to gain traction, given how entrenched the current system is in academia? Could the Elsevier boycott finally be the spark that lights the fuse?

Open-Access Archives
Obviously, university libraries are no strangers to one of the most popular online alternatives, the open-access archive. These archives enable scholars to upload work--including drafts of articles that are published later in subscription journals--so they can be accessed for free by the public. Members of the Oregon State University community, for example, can add their work to ScholarsArchive@OSU, which provides full-text search, long-term hosting, and view and download statistics for the work.

Cornell University Library owns arXiv.org, one of the most popular--and populated--open-access archives, with more than 750,000 articles on physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, and statistics.

Even so, ArXiv isn't a publishing mechanism--it's a means for sharing. Its mission is to open up a tremendous body of scientific research to the public at large, but it employs only a couple of quality checks: Authors submitting articles for the first time must be endorsed by established contributors, and all articles are moderated to make sure they're relevant, add value, and are "of refereeable quality."

Despite the lack of a rigorous vetting process, these kinds of open-access archives are proving to be of enormous value to scholars. "The really interesting papers get disseminated and digested and discussed long before they ever appear in a journal, because they go on the archives and news spreads quickly through blogs," noted Gowers during a 2012 debate at Oxford University (UK) about open science and the future of publishing. "It's very, very natural for a significant percentage of mathematicians to support open access because it just seems crazy not to…when all the dissemination is taking place before publication. That's not true for all papers, of course, but it certainly seems to be true for the papers that one cares about."

It should be noted, however, that Gowers is an award-winning mathematician with an established career. His advocacy for open-access publishing stems from a desire to further academic inquiry and redress what he perceives to be unfair pricing by publishers. In the current higher education environment, though, no up-and-coming scholar can advance his career by placing articles in an open-access archive alone. In academia, there's no prestige in self-publishing.

The Prestige Factor
Fair or not, prestige matters. Publishing in high-profile journals--or failing to do so--can make or break a career in academia, where the American Association of University Professors estimates the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates at around 1:4.

Having an article appear in a big-name publication isn't just a win for the scholar. Schools use the prestige of their faculty to bargain for bigger budgets, draw new hires, and recruit students. Prospective students look for programs with high-profile faculty whose reputations will give them a boost in the grad school, post-doctorate, and job markets. The stakes are high, particularly in the hard sciences where there's big money to be won.

Which explains why new journals--or new digital modes of scholarship--are slow to take off. A journal's prestige comes from its reputation; the renown of its editors, reviewers, and contributors; and from other factors, such as its acceptance rates and how often its articles are referenced by other scholars. A group of high-profile scholars can come together and create a high-stakes journal, but it can still take years to build a reputation.

The deck is further stacked against new entrants by the directories that rate journals. Thomson Reuters' Journal Citation Reports and Cabell's Directories require journals to publish consistently for years before they'll rate them. As a result, it's difficult to know the status of a journal until it's been up and running for about five years.

Are Scholarship and Tenure on the Same Track?

Jennifer Schulz, a lecturer in the English, psychology, and liberal studies programs at Seattle University (WA), has studied academic publishing models as part of her class, Writing for Research and Psychology. As a result, she is all too familiar with the competing attractions of traditional academic journals and open-access alternatives. In fact, she finds herself making shrewd publication choices when she places her own work. For instance, she welcomed a recent solicitation from an open-access online journal that isn't very prestigious but is read by her community of phenomenological psychologists.

"The new journals are publishing the cutting-edge stuff, so it's not like you can write them off," she explained. "It's not that I'd use that kind of publication to be considered for a tenure track. It's more that I'm getting my ideas out there: When I go to a conference, there's much more open dialogue."

On the other hand, Schulz is keenly aware that her institution places much greater value on the fact that she placed an article in the prestigious Duke University journal American Literature. This emphasis on top-tier journals was further highlighted for her last winter during the hiring process for a new faculty member: During the vetting process, she recalls, comments like "this candidate has a lot of publications, but many of them are no-name journals" were typical.

In addition to prestige, an institutional bias against collaboration is also slowing innovation in digital publishing. "There has always been more credit toward tenure and promotion for single-authored work," notes Howard Besser, director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master's program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "In most cases, you have to write a detailed explanation of your work and what each of your coauthors did. It can feel punitive."

But just as collaborative learning is an emerging trend in classrooms, collaborative scholarship is on a similar trajectory. At the Oxford debate, Gowers related the story of how he posted a challenging math problem on his blog and encouraged others to help solve it by posting comments. "This was quite a tough problem, and six weeks later it was solved," he recalled. "It was quite unprecedented. It was the sort of problem that I would have expected an individual to work on for months or years."

Besser sees collaboration across disciplines as "absolutely the trend in digital humanities, where scholars put together projects that defy the normal model of journal publishing." Such projects often require the expertise of computer programmers and user interface designers.

One such project is The Valley of the Shadow, an online archive of material from one Southern and one Northern county before, during, and after the Civil War, all amassed by faculty at the University of Virginia. Letters, diaries, county records, photos, and maps show the changes that took place during this time span.

"The normal model would be to gather materials and write a history for a book or journal," says Besser. Instead, the site provides different routes through the materials, and invites visitors to find their own paths as well. The site doubles as both "the curatorial vision of the creators" and a resource for other scholars.

Open-Access Journals
For scholars who don't want to build an entire site, there is the option of publishing in an open-access journal, of which there are thousands. Many open-access journals have become well established in their fields, but with a catch. Since they don't charge article or subscription fees to readers, many journals charge author's fees instead. Big author's fees. It costs $3,000 to submit to Elsevier's open-access journals. The Public Library of Science, publisher of such journals as PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and PLoS ONE, charges authors between $1,350 and $2,900.

According to the publishers, these costs cover peer review, journal production, and online hosting and archiving. In some ways, though, the model is every bit as strange as the subscription model: One system charges libraries high fees for scholarly work done for free, while the other charges scholars for the privilege of sharing their work with their peers.

It remains to be seen whether there's enough pent-up frustration in academia to overturn systems that are stacked in favor of publishers. Certainly, the anger was bubbling long before the Elsevier boycott of 2012. Back in 2006, for example, the entire editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology resigned in protest over the company's high library-subscription costs and ended up launching its own periodical, the Journal of Topology.

There are encouraging signs that new open-access journals--following fair publishing practices--can achieve success online. One example is Herpetological Conservation and Biology. Started in 2006 by about 100 herpetologists who saw the need for a journal covering descriptive or natural history subjects, it relies on the sweat of a large stable of editors and production costs of around $100 per year.

Because its founders had no money for the venture, the decision to make the journal digital was pretty easy. But the perks of an online format go beyond cost. Not only is the journal free to the public, but there are no page costs or space limitations, so HCB can publish longer articles, selected monographs, and large amounts of accompanying data (for print journals, authors often have to summarize the data in a table or figure).

From the beginning, the journal has operated on the philosophy that "it's better to have more editorial staff looking at fewer papers very thoroughly, than to have fewer editorial staff and end up with papers with problems," says Malcolm McCallum, one of HCB's managing editors. Researchers from around the world perform editorial work on the journal as part of the service component of their jobs. As the number of submissions expands, HCB increases its editorial staff to keep the workload from becoming burdensome.

The model has been so successful that HCB has received takeover offers from big publishers. "That's not our goal," states McCallum. "Our goal is to provide an outlet for this particular kind of research." Since its inception, HCB has steadily gained influence in the field of herpetology, and was scheduled to be included in the Journal Citation Reports in June.

A more recent entrant to the open-access field is Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, which releases its first issue this September. Published by the Fembot Collective, an interdisciplinary, international collaborative, Ada was conceived as a vehicle for the open-access dissemination of feminist research.

According to Carol Stabile, Ada's editor and director of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon, the collective set out to make feminist research available to anyone with a web browser, both inside and outside the academy. But the collective also intends to stand the traditional peer-review process on its head. For starters, it's prepared to review materials other than text, including audio and video pieces.

"Around the country, more forward-looking departments and schools are figuring out how to evaluate this kind of work, and how to include it in tenure and promotion cases in ways that we haven't in the past," explains Stabile.

Accepted works of scholarship will be posted along with the comments of two reviewers, whose identities will be provided, and will be open for further review by Fembot members. After two weeks of feedback, the author has two months to revise and resubmit the work, which will then be posted on the website, open to review and comments by the world at large. By throwing the doors open on review and feedback, the collective hopes to make the process less daunting and mysterious.

It's too early to say whether efforts like these will forge a new path for scholarly publishing, or whether the Elsevier boycott will snowball into a true Academic Spring. The internet tools are certainly in place to support such a revolution, but the cultural fundamentals do not inspire hope.

While much of the anger about journal pricing has been aimed at Elsevier, the truth remains the company is a for-profit business that will charge what the market can bear. The real culprit in all this is the tenure-track culture of higher education that places a market-distorting emphasis on publishing in prestigious journals, often at the expense of academic freedom and efficiency.

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