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We Ask Martin Paul Eve: Do We Need to Rethink Academic Publishing?
road block

In his Guardian article, George Monbiot makes an excellent case against the existing academic publishing industry. Knowing that Martin Paul Eve would have much to say, we asked if he’d like to address Monbiot’s points in advance of his talk at the UKSG next year.

George Monbiot builds a good case against the corporate publishing machine that dominates the academic world and his article has had portions of the Twittersphere buzzing. I am due to speak in the opening plenary of the UK Scholarly Group conference next year – the biggest gathering of librarians and academic publishers – to make a similar argument: we don’t need academic publishers. While I won’t reiterate every aspect of Monbiot’s piece, there are several aspects, here, that are worth unpicking, especially where I diverge from Monbiot’s stance.

Firstly, Monbiot approaches, but never directly engages with, the driver of prestige in academia. He mentions the necessity of publishing with high impact factor journals and states that we can “start reading” new OA journals, but can’t “stop reading the closed ones”. Actually, we can, but only if people stop publishing therein. This will not happen in the UK because of the Research Excellence Framework and its insistence that the higher “impact” band a journal, the more weight a piece will have. This is a delegation of the critical task of the researcher into the arms of a commercial entity. While peer review serves as a useful filter, merely trusting this, based on journals which achieve their prestige based on rejection rates, is a foolish move, driven by the equally foolish baseline of a research assessment dependent on corporations. The REF, alongside competition for academic jobs, drives this system.

Secondly, publishers are able to use institutional libraries as a shield to hide a researcher’s autosubversive behaviour. Consider that, by publishing in a closed, proprietary journal, a researcher actually limits his or her own access to material by constricting his or her own institution’s library budget. This is not how it appears to the researcher, though, because the spend is at one remove. Researchers publish for prestige and it is the library’s fault if material is not forthcoming. Open Access supported by commercial entities does make a researcher aware of the problems, because in this case they will be asked to pay up front. However, most reactions from researchers to this tend to be: “I don’t want to pay, let us revert to the model where I didn’t pay”. In this way, publishers have built a “command and control” system for an entity that functions, in its obfuscation, distribution and resilience, in a mode most akin to a piece of computer malware. Libraries must educate researchers of their own complicity in this web.

Thirdly, though, centralization is not the answer. Monbiot suggests following Brembs’ idea of  a single repository for worldwide knowledge. This seems to me to be the same folly of a panel of generalized experts evaluating work, made global. Instead, autonomy should be extended outwards towards a proliferation of specialized niche journals which operate independently, without prestige fears, run openly by experts in the field. As a single case study in its infancy, see my forthcoming enterprise, “Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon” and the enthusiasm with which this was embraced. Each journal would thereby present itself as the obvious research output destination and academic communities could thrive on collaboration, rather than competition. Rather than standing on the shoulders of giants, with all their prestige, communities of academic practice could offer one another leg-ups and still see farther.

Monbiot’s article has served as an excellent wake-up call to researchers, but an alarm clock is not what is needed. We need a call to arms. Researchers: get yourself a copy of Open Journal Systems installed. Get your journal set up and ask your library for support! This game has gone on too long and only through action can the system ever be changed.

Martin Paul Eve is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex.

  1. Monbiot’s article had the advantage of engaging some realpolitik. There are a lot of “musts” and “shoulds” in this piece but little on how an individual researcher builds a viable career outside the closed system, which might be more effective than telling them how bad the system is. I know my complicity in the system, I don’t need a library to tell me, but at the end of the day I engage the system for purely institutional reasons that will not be shifted through self-publishing, which I do anyway.

  2. >>This will not happen in the UK because of the Research Excellence Framework and its insistence that the higher “impact” band a journal, the more weight a piece will have<<

    Have you a reference for this? There was a recent denial that articles in any journals are excluded from consideration in the REF. In Business and Management there is a privately compiled list of journals which may be influential both in submissions and then in panel members judgements but none of this adds up to 'insistence' by the REF. MMU's for example guidance mentions this correctly.

  3. As part of our Subject Centre work we created an on-line journal, Bioscience Education, to promote, enhance and disseminate research, good practice and innovation in tertiary level teaching and learning within the biosciences disciplines. We charged nothing for the whole process.

    Academics exchange good ideas on best practice in teaching more easily with their colleagues teaching similar disciplines in similar situations. Other subject centres established similar journals which also proved popular with their communities, leading to improvements in HE teaching in the UK, and a raised profile for teaching. However, it is very difficult to secure an impact factor so academics are discouraged from publishing through us by their management, which prefers to spend academic time on improving REF scores. We are at the mercy of inadequate metrics.

  4. Thanks Charlotte Frost!
    Your post is really useful. Academics exchange good ideas on best practice in teaching more easily with their colleagues teaching similar disciplines in similar situations.

  5. So great to see your site and writing! Thank you so much!

  6. Hi,
    Great info!I live in vietnam its my passion to influence others positively. Looking forward to identifying an institution that can offer me coaching skills.

  7. >>This will not happen in the UK because of the Research Excellence Framework and its insistence that the higher “impact” band a journal, the more weight a piece will have<<

    It's been confirmed that this is not the case. See Panel Criteria and Working Methods, Jan 2012, PDF (p. 8).

    53. No sub-panel will make use of journal impact factors, rankings or lists, or the perceived standing of the publisher, in assessing the quality of research outputs.

  8. So great to see your site and writing! Thank you so much!

  9. Very interesting to read this article.I would like to thank you

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