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.