Publishers, where is the added value?
October 28, 2014
It’s nearly two years since Alexander Brown wrote Open access: why academic publishers still add value for the Guardian, in which he listed ways that he feels publishers make a contribution. I wrote a lengthy comment in response — long enough that it got truncated at 5000 characters and I had to post a second comment with the tail end. At the time, I intended to turn that comment into an SV-POW! post, but for some reason I never did. Belatedly, here it is.
I’m a bit nonplussed by this article, in which a publisher lists a lot of important services that they claim to provide, nearly all of which turn out to be either not important at all (if not actively harmful) or provided for free by academics. Let’s go through them one by one, and see how they measure up against the average cost to academia of $5333 per paywalled academic paper.
strong, skilled editors to ensure that research can be universally understood
It is authors who make their work understood. As the author of a dozen published papers myself, I’ve certainly never received any help from an editor to make my work more comprehensible. But even if I had, this would have been done by a handling editor, who is a volunteer academic.
to recognise emerging fields and create new journals
Publisher don’t recognise emerging fields, researchers do. The last thing we need is more journals — there are already far more than anyone can keep track of. The more fruitful trend is the consolidation into a smaller number of more generalist journals, with tools for finding papers relevant to each individual researcher’s interest. (PLOS ONE exemplifies this.)
to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.
Journal brands are actively harmful to science. Please stop building and maintaining them.
recruitment and management of editorial review boards
Yes — this, at last, is a real cost in return for a real benefit.
coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record
This is done by volunteer academics at no cost to the publisher.
Yes, editorial board members and reviewers are by and large unpaid. However there are still scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature.
This seems more like confession of inefficiency than a claim of achievement. No doubt Google could double the number of managers they have to look after their engineers; but that would hardly result in doubling their output. The real question here should be why traditional publishers feel they need so many staff to do so little.
helping customers learn how best to find what they need
How does this happen? I have never had a publisher help me to find anything.
rigorous efforts to acquire content
This means sending spam emails inviting researchers to submit to journals. Like everyone else I know, I bin these on receipt. Researchers know what journals they want to publish in, and when they discover new journals it’s by word of mouth from trusted colleagues.
publicise the brilliance of our authors
Please. This never happens. Authors need to publicise their own work, with or without the help of their institutions, but certainly without significant help from publishers. Often the publisher’s most significant contribution to the publicity process is to release a paper prematurely, thus destroying any attempt at co-ordinating press embargoes.
Developing systems and platforms that can cost well into the tens of millions of dollars/pounds/euros
Again, the fact that a publisher spends this much only shows how inefficient they are. There are several free journal-management systems, including Annotum (used by PLOS Currents) and Open Journal Systems (used by 11,500 journals). If publishers don’t use these tools, that’s no reason to charge researchers more.
with the advent of mobile technology, the job becomes exponentially more difficult as we add “whenever they want it” to the list of our customers’ needs
I have no idea what this means. Any open-access journal’s article are always free “whenever they want it”, whatever device someone is reading on.
While the dissemination of research may not require ink and paper like it used to, distribution remains a very real cost
Yes. To pick a well-known large-scale example, it costs arXiv about $7 per paper to accept, host, archive and serve each of its papers indefinitely. A bit less than $5333, admittedly.
Also included in these activities are archive projects like the Springer Book Archives, a massive undertaking to digitise more than 150 years of previously unavailable titles
This is indeed a valuable programme. But it has nothing to do with ongoing publishing, and is a red herring in the current discussion.
for OA authors Springer deposits a researcher’s work into the institutional repositories these scientists are often required to use, helping to provide further access to scholarly works.
This is good. It saves the author a good fifteen minutes. £5333 well spent!
It is hard to imagine how anyone with an internet connection could do this with the speed, efficiency and added value with which publishers operate
On the contrary: it’s hard to understand how publishers manage to do it so inefficiently.
I just find all this baffling. Any researcher who has actually been through the process of publication knows that it is researchers who do all the significiant work: not only the research, but the writing, the preparation of illustrations, the editorial process, the peer-reviewing, the copy-editing, and increasingly even the typesetting. Hosting, archiving and replication can be done for $7 per paper. So I still don’t see where the publishers are adding any value that is of value to the academy.