Untangling academic publishing - a fascinating history and an uncertain future

Last week I read a Guardian article by Stephen Curry entitled, 'It's time for academics to take back control of research journals'. I work as a librarian in a university library, so I'm generally pretty interested in the strange landscape of academic publishing, so reading this led onto reading a report that Aileen Fyfe, Curry and others have put together called 'Untangling academic publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research' which is free to read online, and I think you should.

Most of what follows is my paraphrasing of the report. It's not necessarily my opinion, which is far less well-formed, but I think they make some really interesting points and suggestions, and I learned a lot reading it.


A bit of background

It has often struck me as weird how academics who work for universities are paid to do their job by public funding (both via their institution and often via a research grant for a project), and this includes research which leads to publications. So they go to a respected journal in their field, which is usually published by an academic publisher, and they submit their article. And the publisher looks at it, and sends it to some other academics in their field for 'peer review'. And they look at it, and suggest corrections or expansions or changes, send it back to the publisher, who sends it back to the author. And the author does what they can, sends it back to the publisher and, (fingers crossed), it is accepted. A bit later on, it is published in the journal. But not before they've probably been asked to sign over the copyright on the paper they wrote to the publisher (given them an exclusive licence to copy it, and limiting what the academic can do with it). Once it's published, it is then only accessible to people and institutions who pay for the publisher to access it. Unless it's published 'gold open access', in which case the academic or their institution has to pay a fee, often hundreds of pounds, to allow anyone to read it for free.

This basically means that the institution pays twice: they pay the academic to do the research, and they pay the publisher either to make it open access or a subscription to the journal. If this money comes from public funding, then the public are paying to read about research they already paid to happen.



The report itself is a really good read, and even as someone with a fair amount of history of science knowledge, and a librarianship degree, there was lots I didn't know. It's not too long either. It basically unpicks the history of how learned societies used to publish sort-of journals like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, but that these never made any money, and they usually paid a publisher to print and disseminate them. That's still going on - I subscribe to the British Society for the History of Mathematics, and basically my membership fee buys me access to a professionally published Bulletin published via Taylor & Francis. As well as learned societies there are University Presses, which publish books and articles by academics from particular institutions. Again, a lot of their output won't be lucrative, and so many University presses are bankrolled by their university.

But as the number of universities grew, the number of academics grew, and a lot of scholarship got more and more specialised. Publishers started to capitalise on this, and offered to create journals to go with new subdisciplines. And a few larger publishers managed to start making money. And with that, they bought out smaller publishers, and took on more and more work, and soon they were massive. The four biggest ones now are Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell. And they are big.


didn't online publishing change everything?

The authors actually make this out to be less of a big deal than some of the other changes, despite it being the one that everyone naively focuses on. It could have been the start of a brave new world of open publishing by authors. But actually, the biggest publishers managed to capitalise on the new technology and have continued to profit by it more than anyone else. As with peer review, they're effectively leasing skills which could and have been held by institutions themselves, back to the institutions.


Going forward...

This is all explained much more fully in the proper report, which you should read. But there are various interesting recommendations to the affected groups. One being that academics shouldn't just sign over their copyright - that this grew out of a history of academic writing never being profitable, but now it serves to make it less accessible to everyone. That universities should think more carefully about how they judge an academic by the 'prestige' of the journals she publishes in, and more about the quality of that publishing itself. And that they should avoid just shelling out indefinitely until a big 'crunch' when they really can't afford to pay anymore.


The wider purpose

The report came out of a workshop in April 2016 put on by the team working on a research project called 'Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: a social, cultural and economic history of a learned journal' which looks well worth keeping an eye on, if history of science is your bag, which it is mine. They have a Twitter account: @AHRCPhilTrans.