Publishing is a button: what Clay Shirky didn’t say
June 12, 2013
Looking again at Clay Shirky’s “How we will read” interview, I re-read these now classic words:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.
Here’s what Shirky could have gone on to say, but didn’t.
An unfortunate side-effect of this shift is that we still have these big, lumbering publishing corporations clogging up the landscape, with nothing constructive to do. And the reason that’s a problem rather than merely a waste, is that whereas it used to take special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public, now it takes special professional skill to make words and images invisible to the public, and that’s what these corporations are now dedicating their energies to.
This is the true tragedy of modern “publishers”: that as the world has become able to do the job that once only they could do, they’ve not stepped graciously aside, but devoted their energies to preventing works being available. The publishers’ outdated business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their mission.
Why do you think legacy publishers’ open-access APCs are so much higher than those of all-OA publishers like PLOS, F1000 Research, eLife or Peerj? Sure, part of it is sheer profiteering, but even when you factor that out their prices are outrageous. It’s because they have to pay for:
- The paywalls themselves
- Authentication systems
- Integration of their own authentication systems with others such as Athens and Kerberos
- Lawyers to sue people who access published materials in ways the publishers don’t like
- Spin doctors to fabricate reasons to mistrust open access
- Public Relations people to grope for explanations of why their own behaviour is not reprehensible
Bribescampaign contributions for politicians to perpetuate their obsolete business model.
- Media people to guide the anti-open policies of special-interest groups
- Countless executives to waste time on conference calls about text-mining (in this case, three Directors, a Deputy Director, a Vice President and an Account Manager.
All of these are the costs of not publishing openly. In a world where infinite perfect copies are free to produce, it costs a fortune to avoid publishing.
No wonder Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and Blackwell are all converging on APCs on the order of $3000*, while PLOS ONE charges $1350, F1000 Research $1000, eLife free and PeerJ a one-off fee of $99.
1at the request of David Mainwaring, I here note that legacy publishing doesn’t always mean $3000 fees. They can be much higher (e.g. $5000 for Elsevier’s Cell Reports) and sometimes rather lower. In particular, the SAGE charges £800 for SAGE Choice in humanities journals, and $99 for the SAGE Open humanities megajournal.