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‘Untangling Academic Publishing’ – OA Week event summary

On Tuesday evening The University of St Andrews Library hosted an event titled ‘Untangling Academic Publishing: Launch and Discussion about the past and future of academic publishing’. The event took the form of a panel discussion preceded by a brief overview of the history of academic publishing delivered by Professor Aileen Fyfe of the School of History. This historical lecture was a summary of a recent report co-authored by Aileen called ‘Untangling Academic Publishing‘, in which she and her co-authors shed a critical light on today’s academic publishing landscape. The report concludes with some recommendations for ways forward that could disentangle academia from a publishing system that has become increasingly unsustainable. Below is a summary of Professor Fyfe’s lecture and the Q&A session that followed.

Copyright 2017 University of St Andrews

Following John MacColl’s introduction and welcome, Aileen began her talk with a quotation:

Maintaining the highest attainable standards in publishing scientific papers is the greatest service scientific societies could render to the community… [through] high-class refereeing. Scientific societies must continue to predominate in scientific journal publication, for the moment commercial gain began to dominate this field the welfare of the scientific community would suffer. (David Christie Martin, 1957, Chief Executive, Royal Society)

In the early days of academic publishing by and large there were two types of venue. There were the journals like Nature (1869), published weekly and with an emphasis on shorter articles presenting preliminary findings. Generally these articles were then written up into longer full length article that were published in a society journal, after peer-review (refereeing). Peer-review was seen as being the essential added value that made the learned society journals so prestigious. You can read more about the history of peer-review in an earlier blog post.

Copyright Aileen Fyfe. From presentation slide: ‘Untangling Academic Publishing’, St Andrews, 24/10/2017.

By the 1950s learned society journals were under increasing pressure as refereeing was no longer unique to them, indeed many independent journals were now offering similar review processes. This post-war period also saw the Government invest heavily in science, higher education and universities. As science advanced new sub-disciplines were born, and in reaction to this new journals began to appear to serve these niche areas. This period also saw publishers shift their focus from individual subscriptions to charging higher sums to institutions, so libraries were beginning to ever increasingly foot the bill.

The explosion of new journals, and the new desire for specialist journals with a small niche audience put ever more pressure on learned societies. The independent commercial publishing houses were able to take advantage of this by simply scaling up production, but for the non-profit society journals this was not as easily done. Although they too were able to take advantage of these ‘golden years’, the society journals did not take full advantage of the commercial gains available. But others certainly saw the opportunity, and took it. 

The 1980s saw the end of the ‘golden years’. Library budgets were beginning to fall and so were individual subscriptions. In tandem prices began to rise in order to protect revenues. This made the gap in aims between the commercial players and the not-for profit society publishers more pronounced than ever – that is, the gap between those concerned with commercial viability as opposed to those that consider breaking-even to be a goal (Self-help for Learned Journals (1963)).

This is where Aileen brought the talk back to the present day, and posed the question:

Why are we stuck with a model of academic publishing that is past its use-by date?

Today the big commercial publishing houses are able to utilise economies of scale, and publish journals at a very low cost. Furthermore, a small set of publishers have been allowed to grow ever larger due to mergers with smaller publishing houses, thus today we have an oligopolistic system where a small number of publishers are able to dominate.

Where publishers do push creative developments, these new models tend to be commercial in kind, and do nothing to challenge the overall systemic problems of the academic publishing system. In recent years the open access movement has sought to redress the balance of power, by ensuring authors understand their rights, make their work freely available, and where possible retain copyright in their work. This will help to shift the focus away from the commodification of research articles, to the service offering that publishers provide. They will actually have to answer the seemingly simple question: ‘what is it that publisher A offers that publisher B does not?’

Aileen finished her talk with the prediction that publishing will become more closely associated with scholarly societies and universities. Indeed we are already seeing this in the recent moves to reintroduce university presses. Many universities are taking the prestige back, that for too long has been bound up in commercial entities. The next thing will be subject associations and learned societies to make a stand, and for academics themselves to speak up and reform the recognition systems that are too focused on ‘where’ something is published, rather than ‘what’ is published.

Copyright 2017 University of St Andrews

Panel discussion. 

Panel: Aileen Fyfe, Stephen Curry, and Martin Kretschmer. Chair: John MacColl

Q. I wonder about Aileen’s comment on academic prestige.  Is there any way to change academics’ attitudes towards citations? 

A. I’m wary of citation counts, and you need to take into account different types of paper.
A. My Google Scholar profile has one paper that has much fewer citations, I consider it an important contribution, but owing to the fact that it is a smaller more niche subject area it has received less attention that other papers I have written. So I am wary of boiling research work down to a single number.
Q.  Do you think citations are a better measure than impact factor in journals?
A. No argument there. But there is also a preponderance for “sexy” titles to get lots of interest. And you never really know why an article is being cited (it may be cited because it is being heavily criticised).
Q. We do need a shortcut, as academics are very busy.
A. If I’m advertising for a position, I need a shorthand method of determining who the best candidate is. But I am also a big fan of having a bio sketch: name your top papers, tell me why they’re good, but also tell me what else you do that deserves recognition. There are solutions, ones that are freer than metrics, but we won’t shed them entirely.

Q. Peer-review in principle, where do you see the future of peer-review?

A. Peer-review reports should be published alongside papers, as in open peer-review, as an additional means to get credit for the work. DOIs could also be added to reviews.
A. Peer-review is a testimony of a paper’s worth, but I am not convinced that open peer-review is immune to criticism. 
A. Why do we expect it to be confidential?  What is peer-review for? We need to clarify what we expect peer-reviewers to do, this should be clearly stated upfront.
A. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, has open peer-review and also a very high impact factor, a 30% rejection rate, and widely considered to be high quality.  Because the peer-review reports are open, the authors self-regulate.  Also, one of the good things about publishing pre-prints prior to publication in a journal is the open scrutiny, this means you take additional care to iron out issues.  Around 20% of pre-prints in BioRxiv receive comments, this gives the opportunity to improve papers before publication.

Q. Do you publish papers as pre-prints?

A. The actual problem is that certain publishers ask you to remove them from servers.
A. Ability to have comments and discussion prior to publication, or to get colleague’s opinion, can be advantageous. Pre-prints encourage people to talk about research much sooner.  Why some publishers are so closed to it is a mystery.

Q. Early career researchers are encouraged to publish in high impact journals, but they also know that it is good to promote different venues.  What should we as individuals do?

A. Senior researchers are those that are in a position to take risks, especially if they have been promoted as far as they can go. Leadership is from the top.
A. I would always advise early career researchers to be selfish: publish papers and do teaching.  

Schekman boycotted Elsevier on day of receipt of Nobel prize, so the early career researchers in his laboratory are more able to follow his example. Authors can and should do their bit. 

Q. The work of peer-reviewers and editors should be recognised and paid for. More value and prestige should be placed on this work.

A. In Economics they pay peer-reviewers (in the top journals at least). There is a danger this could play into the hands of the publisher, they could charge higher fees to offset this. It could equally be the responsibility of the university to better recognise this as academic work, and this approach might be more promising.

Q. I’m the general editor of a journal. I have helped launch journals, pushed out new formats, brought new peer-reviewers on board, etc. This work is worth thinking about as another parameter of research assessment, as well as Impact.

A. Rewards are patchy and uneven, and should ideally be recognised in University promotion system.

Q. UK Scholarly Communications Licence adoption – this should alleviate double dipping. But there is still the problem that we may be sleep-walking into a situation where the academic ecosystem is still owned and monopolised by a few commercial enterprises. How can we get academia to own the ecology, not just licencing infrastructure from the likes of Elsevier?

A. In the future there should be opportunities for greater competition. But governance will be needed to prevent the further monopolisation of the sector.
A. Take Zenodo for example, how do we ensure the same level of service, and ensure in 4/5 years it is still there?
A. There is a role here for university presses, as they do not tend to amalgamate and merge, also governance structure could protect our future publishing platforms.
A. Publishers are motivated to protect their interests, so it will be difficult for us to take back control completely. There is hope that UK SCL will reassert author rights, but we also need funders to play an increasing role. There is movement in this direction, but it will be quite a battle for a long time.

Q. What would your advice be in getting academics engaged in that sticky process, e.g. licence terminology, and to push against it, as you’ve done?

A. Time and resources are allocated in different ways. Time for scholarly activity shrinks dramatically. We need credible champions, mainstream within their disciplines, to persuade and encourage younger generations of researchers to ask questions and not take the current publishing system for granted.

Q If you were asked for advice on copyright transfer agreements, what would you recommend?

A. Just shelve them, and wait until the end of the production process, this is certainly possible.
A. UK SCL should make it easier.

We hope this summary provides a flavour of the event for those who were not able to attend, and we look forward to continuing these sorts of discussions beyond Open Access Week.

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