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Understanding why scholarly publishing today is a cultural, not technological, issue

The assessment of scholarly writing has traditionally been outsourced by institutions of higher education to revenue-driven publishers.

The central idea was that if a publisher judged a work to be good enough to help meet their financial goals, it was publishable and creditable. The prestige of the publisher determined just how creditable its assessment was. Thus, scarcity was assured and scholarly publishing sustained itself for a great many years.

Publishers took on the substantial capital investments involved in publishing on paper: editorial and marketing staff, paper, ink, printing operations, warehousing and transportation. However, those publishers also received content and peer-review services at little or no cost owing to institutions crediting those activities toward faculty promotion and tenure. In return, higher education was provided with very sophisticated assessments of faculty scholarship at next to no cost.

Faculty were provided with the opportunity to have their scholarly work validated in ways that would enhance their prospects for promotion and tenure. Research faculty additionally received improved prospects for their grant proposals as their publishing reputations grew.

This symbiosis worked astonishingly well for all those on the production side of scholarly publishing. Publishers met their financial targets, colleges and universities were able to inexpensively promote and assess scholarship, and faculty could gain the recognition and validation of their work which, in turn, earned them enhanced status and income. Publish or perish wasn’t so terrible because there was an entire ecosystem devoted to the publication of good scholarship.

On the consumption side, access to scholarly publications could be had through subscription or à la carte purchase. Academic libraries were the biggest customers for journal subscriptions and scholarly books, providing faculty and researchers no-cost access to as much of this content as an institution could afford. Except for textbooks, scholarly publishing was a nicely balanced market.

This was also a fine tuned and delicately managed symbiosis that had evolved over many, many years. It was imbedded so deeply into academic culture, sharing the fruits of academic work this way seemed to most at the time as simple best practice. So, what could possibly go wrong?

Three things: declining subsidies for public higher education, legislative open access mandates, and the emergence of e-publishing technologies. Let’s look at each of these separately.

The e-publishing revolution

Although digital technologies entered the world of publishing in the mid 80s, the output continued to be in the form of paper. There was a very capable genie doing page layout and automated typesetting, but still confined to the bottle controlled by a small, elite group of publishers.

Thanks to Adobe’s Portable Digital Format (PDF) and, later, the International Digital Publication Forum’s (IDPF) EPUB format, it became possible to dispense with capital intensive paper entirely. Now, almost anyone could afford to create digital documents readable by almost anyone else with any kind digital device. The genie was out of the bottle.

The concurrent rise of the internet provided the last piece of the machine that would enable everyman as publisher. Those digital documents could be duplicated and dispatched to any part of the globe within seconds and at little or no cost to this new plebeian publisher.

Open access mandates

In the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world, governments became acutely aware of the issues arising from taxpayer supported research not being freely available to taxpayers. This led to legislation and policy mandating open access to publicly supported research. Indeed, this concept has spread even to research organizations receiving no government support. It has even spread to the development of learning materials from entire e-textbooks to single concept simulations, diagrams, or images. These are collectively referred to as open educational resources (OER) and commonly reside in open educational repositories. Rather than asserting an “all rights reserved” copyright, these materials normally carry a “some rights reserved” Creative Commons license. Often, free use is permitted on condition of attribution alone. It is an idea whose time has obviously come.

Declining financial support for public higher ed

The last recession (2007-2009) saw radical cuts in state subsidies to American public colleges and universities.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are still funding higher education at below pre-recession levels and the outlook for the near future is not optimistic.

These as yet un-recovered higher education budget cuts resulted in tuition increases exceeding all other Consumer Price Index categories, including health care. It is no wonder that student debt rose to astronomical levels. At the same time, higher education budgets for library acquisitions were severely cut. Academic access to research journals and scholarly books actually declined.

Together, these three factors provide the motive, the opportunity, and the means with which to disintermediate the traditional scholarly publishing enterprise, and that process is ongoing. However, the transition isn’t going to be pretty because cultural change in higher education has never been easy and the obstacles are not insignificant.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle in the path toward open scholarship is what to do about the assessment and valuing of academic work.

The current limitations of open access publishing

Even where traditional publishers continue to be involved, open access mandates dilute or negate the validation of academic work in the minds of many who serve on promotion and tenure committees. There are two models of open scholarship involving publishers: gold and green open access. Green OA is where an author publishes with a traditional publisher and then posts a version of that work on the web so that it is freely readable by any and all. Gold OA is where an author publishes with an OA publisher paying an article processing charge (APC) to cover the costs of publication, instead of that cost being covered, for example, by subscription fees to libraries.

The problem here is that Gold OA publishers needn’t exercise the same cautions in deciding to publish since the APC provides all of the income they can legitimately expect. Indeed, a new kind of publisher, one that exercises no cautions whatsoever, is on the rise. Beall’s List of predatory open access publishers shows the number of these organizations growing.

Similarly, Green OA publishers cannot expend as many resources on evaluating submissions as a closed publisher can because many of those who would have paid for access will now read the free open version instead. They simply don’t have the income to sustain a high level of scrutiny. Consequently, promotion and tenure committee members find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between green or gold OA publishing and vanity publishing.

Yet, they must find a way around this dilemma. Failure to find satisfactory procedures to value open scholarship will only serve to disadvantage an institution in the quest to attract and retain top academic talent.

Even worse is the predicament of faculty who opt to create OA learning materials such as e-textbooks and other educational objects, posting them to open educational repositories that are not refereed or juried in some way. Since anyone can share open resources that are not subject to pre-publication assessment, the value of being “published” in these venues is questionable. Young, tenure track faculty may find themselves, like Sisyphus, exerting great effort toward open scholarship without promise of reward or relief. Publish or perish remains, but finding a traditional publishing venue is harder than ever and getting properly credited through open publishing is much trickier. They find themselves far more perishable than their predecessors.

Moving toward post-publication assessment

So if pre-publication assessment isn’t working, what about post-publication assessment? Can we develop and implement systems and organizations that bring ex post facto assessment to the fore? We do have an exemplar in Merlot, an open repository with a fully developed peer review process coupled with crowd-sourced assessment. Merlot shows us that it has been and can be done. The trick will be to scale this concept to encompass all of scholarly publishing.

Recall that peer reviewers who work for publishers are usually compensated only by institutional recognition. Can that recognition encompass work done for organizations like Merlot? What about faculty who participate in crowd-sourced evaluation? Might those institutions find ways to encourage that too?

Publishers have failed to deliver high-quality assessment of academic work under open access conditions. It’s time to look elsewhere. Institutions of higher education can bridge this gap by crediting work in open repositories with peer review systems in place and by participating in the development of organizations like Merlot that conduct post-publication review in all areas of scholarly publishing. In other words, it is a simple matter of leadership.

Higher education is both the primary producer of scholarly work and the primary consumer of that same work. It is no longer necessary or prudent in this digital era to add unnecessary cost to scholarly publishing via outsourcing. The return is too small. It will actually cost higher education less overall to bring scholarly publishing in-house, not at the institutional level but at a much larger scale, so that critical publishing services, such as editing, can be made available to OER contributors in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

This is largely a matter of cultural and organizational, not technical, change.

Frank Lowney is projects coordinator for the Digital Innovation Group at Georgia College & State University.

This article is part of a content collaboration with eCampus News. The article also appears on eCampus Symposium.

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