Untangling academic publishing

Most academics would agree that academic publishing is in a period of rapid change, even upheaval; some would even argue that it is not acting in our interests. We produce the primary product, typeset it, act as editors or referees for journals, and then have to buy it back from publishers who have profit margins of 37% in at least one case.

Aileen Fyfe, a professor of history at the University of St Andrews, headed a panel who wrote a report entitled “Untangling Academic Publishing”, available from the doi 10.5281/zenodo.546100. (I hadn’t come across Zenodo before; it seems to be a bit like the arXiv with some extra features.) This week we went to the Scottish launch of the report. Aileen spoke for nearly an hour, and then was joined by a biochemist and a lawyer for a question-and-answer session.

The report had grown out of an AHRC-funded project on the history of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which claims to be the world’s oldest-surviving scholarly journal. At a certain point in its lifetime, this project spun off a new initiative to look more broadly at academic publishing.

As befits a talk by a historian, the emphasis of the lecture was on how we got to where we are now. In short, in the nineteenth century, academic journals were given away to interested parties; Aileen showed a remarkable map showing the distribution of Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. at the beginning of the twentienth century, including two dots in the middle of Siberia. Of course, this was expensive for learned societies, and unsurprisingly they began to sell subscriptions to provide an income to defray the costs.

The revolution occurred in the mid-twentieth century. In Britain, partly as a result of the Cold War and partly because of wider social changes, university education began to be greatly expanded; many new universities were founded at this time, and some colleges were upgraded to universities. The generous funding allowed these universities to appoint staff, and to equip their libraries with the books and journals these staff required. (The number of staff at UK universities rose from 4000 in the 1930s to 200000 in 2015.) Probably a similar story is true of other countries.

Entrepreneurs, including Robert Maxwell (does anyone remember Pergamon Press?), were quick to spot the chance to make money. They were able to set up journals with editorial boards and refereeing systems which could compete with the journals published by learned societies. The number of journals worldwide rose from 10000 in 1950 to 62000 in 1980.

It was inevitable that the Golden Age would end; firstly, money became tighter, and second, the rise in the number of journals led to a “serials crisis” where no university could afford to subscribe to all the journals its staff needed.

The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s brought in the possibility of electronic publishing. (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, one of the first journals free to authors and readers in the modern age, was founded by Herb Wilf and Neil Calkin in 1994.) By this time, the publishers had become addicted to high profit margins and were very reluctant to give them up; so, along with page charges and subscription bundling, they tried to keep control of metadata such as citation indices.

This, of course, is related to the other use of academic publishing, in judging our research for the purposes of appointments, grant applications, and so forth. The use of publication records in academic appointments has been traced back to Prussia in the late eighteenth century, and of course is in full flow now. Appointment panels routinely filter candidates by the “quality” of the journals in which they publish, judged by one (extremely dodgy) number.

This brings us to where we are now. What can we do to take back control of academic publishing? I have discussed this on many previous occasions. I believe we should do all we can to encourage genuinely free journals such as Electron. J. Combin., by publishing our best papers in them, refereeing, and joining editorial boards. But we must also use what influence we have to persuade university administrators and grant-awarding bodies that the quality of a publication cannot be reliably inferred from the impact factor of the journal in which it appears, and that it is in their interest as well as ours to take these journals seriously.

I found myself quite strongly in agreement with almost everything that was said. In particular, it is up to established academics to take the lead on this. (I am old enough that I no longer have anything to lose, but I cannot say the same for young colleagues.)

The one exception was the question of impact. As I have said before ad nauseam, the current rules for impact are not fair to academics. However, one panel member defended impact, as the best way to persuade politicians and others of the importance of what we do. Clearly I am not a politician!


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Untangling academic publishing

  1. Would appreciate your comments on Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics breaking free from Springer.

    • Well, there had been a previous occasion when the editors-in-chief threatened to resign because of the publishers’ policy; they asked for the back archive to be opened and the subscription cost to be reduced. I think the second was done but not the first. So when matters came to a head again, almost the entire editorial board agreed to the move, so clearly we all felt it was the right thing to do.
      I cannot see back issues of my own papers in JACO unless I am sitting at my desk in St Andrews. However, I have been pointed to the site
      where back issues of this and other journals can be found. The publishers clearly felt that this unpublicised site meets the first point. I don’t think I agree.

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