Should we do away with academic publishers?

One of our brilliant students, Alan Hyunh, posted this article on my wall:

Why do we need academic journals in the first place? by Mathew Ingram.

There has been lot written about the boycott of Elsevier journals in the blogosphere, so I will be responding primarily with links, as my opinions have already been captured by others, with better writing than I can produce.

Let’s look at some of the original content from the NYT:

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

There has been a huge shift in the past 30 years in the way that content is delivered. Mathmaticians no longer hand over pages of handwritten text to department secretaries to type and mail. Nor do publishers typeset with blocks anymore. For most mathematicians, you write in LaTex, and what the publisher has to do to get that to publication quality isn’t as time or labor-intensive as it once was.

Anthony Horowitz takes up the question about whether authors need publishers at all over at Gaurdian. He has a point: his publisher for his adult book allowed the book to go out with 35 typos in it.Publishing companies are notoriously unwillingly to do much marketing and promoting for your book. One wonders what, exactly, publishers do in the digital era if they aren’t proofing and marketing much.

Scholarly service and production is largely paid for by universities or external sponsors. Academics control the content, for the most part, voluntarily: most of us never get paid to review, and while editors are often paid, it’s not usually all that much. Elsevier and academic publishers make money off the ever-increasing pressures to publish: we’re clamoring to give them our intellectual property because our departments force us to, if we want tenure and promotion.

Moreover, Elsevier doesn’t really do all that much to promote particular journals. So what value are they adding, at the same time they are charging libraries very high prices for subscriptions?

That high pricing strikes me as the problem more than the idea that we should get rid of academic journals. And there’s a difference between getting rid of an academic journal and getting rid of an academic publisher. Journals still provide people with some services: they attract content according to a particular theme. They do editing and peer review, and we need peer review. In fiction publishing, you need a great story. In research, you need rigor in addition to a good story.

Tim Leunig has a response in the LSE blog (which you should be reading, as it’s excellent), where he responds to Elsevier’s excuse-making with “Hey, set your prices as you see fit, but the rest of us are entitled to note that your prices are too damned high.”

We should also point out that associations are just as guilty of this abuse of monopoly power. Scholars are expected to present their work at conferences, and this is extremely important for young scholars. And yeah: conference registrations are sky-high, and hotels scrape in the money from people who have no choice but to go if they want to remain scholars and/or get promoted. Departments are notoriously stingy with giving travel funds, so a lot travel gets funded out of the young scholar’s pocket, when they can hardly afford it.

My own opinions are captured very well by Don Taylor, also at LSE: The role of peer review journals cannot be replaced by Twitter, blogs, or anything else (and I really believe in blogs!). Absolutely everything Taylor says is right-on. Blogs are a supplement to, not a replacement for, carefully vetted writing of peer review.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve thought about shutting down this blog. It’s undisciplined writing, as fun as it is, and as much as readers may enjoy it. I see it as an extension of my teaching.

You could, of course, peer review blogs, but that’s where we are heading with online journals anyway, so why do we need a blog format? The journal Science does the best job, I think, of levering web publishing. There are the short, accessible articles. Then there are the dense, for-academics, detailed appendices. But it’s all still as great and as rigorous as the old print version of Science–actually, it’s better. (And I’m old enough to have an informed opinion.)

Take a look at the Journal of Land Use and Transportation. It’s as good as anything that’s out there offered through a traditional academic publisher, better than many print planning journals. This is the future. (My only quibble: they should require people to submit their data the way the American Economic Review does. But this takes server space, I understand.)

Editors matter tremendously in journals, and that is what has made all the difference for JTLU. No, peer review isn’t perfect, and mistakes do get by, and brilliant new ideas do get blunted through consensus, and there’s too waaaaay too much politics. But that won’t change if you move to blogs or whatnot.