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Value Added by Publishers?

Thanks to Mike and Brett for inviting me. I’m a long-time reader and it’s great to get a chance to post here.

Let me kick things off with a comment on this piece in Seed Magazine, covering legislation to make a good deal of federally funded scientific research open-access. Given that tax dollars support the research, it’s astonishing that publishers have managed to lock up access for so long. As John Willinsky has documented, they are starting to loosen up in some ways. But they oppose this legislation, arguing

There needs to be an income stream from the core scientific community, the libraries, the research institutions, and . . . corporations and scientific laboratories within the private sector. If you give it away for free the income stream dries up. The system of control and value-adding just withers away.

But just what is this “value-adding?” Amanda Schaffer suggests it doesn’t amount to much:

Academic scientists, some backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of public moneys, provide their findings and articles to most journals for free. Peer-reviewers, who perform the crucial quality-control work, also offer comments on research papers for no charge.

Should a company like Reed-Elsevier make a 30% profit margin for proofreading? (By the way, I’d support that 30% figure with a link to a Rick Weiss article in the WaPo documenting it, but you’d have to pay for accessing it. It should come as no surprise that closed access systems tend to defeat arguments against them. Only those “on the inside” can afford to get access to the data….and they in turn have an interest in maintaining that informational advantage. Admittedly, the Washington Post appears to me to add a lot more value than, say, the publisher of Proceedings of the Congress of Amygdala Studies. )

Well, I don’t have much more to say on this today (and you’re probably too busy to read more!). My final reaction is to be saddened that it’s taking Congressional action to open up research findings, given Samuel Trosow’s very convincing arguments that the relevant agencies likely already have statutory authority to do so. But I can be convinced otherwise if I can hear a good account of the “value” publishers add.

6 thoughts on “Value Added by Publishers?”

  1. They add crucial value, which is prestige. Each journal is like a brand and has a prestige rank and vets manuscripts with its own cadre of peer reviewers, not to mention editorial taste. Open access sounds like we just dump all articles in a barrel. How do we recruit a high-powered academic to provide free refereeing for a manuscript that’s a candidate to be just one more article in the barrel? When we look in the barrel, how do we now which articles were stringently reviewed? Without the splash that comes from landing in a high prestige journal, there’s no way to decide which new articles to look at first. The journal branding flags an article as likely to be good and interesting and important. There’s tons and tons of junky and derivative and incremental work being done, creating a din of noise within which to hear the signal. I suppose with modern IT some fast sifting method will arise eventually, but in the mean time, total open access sounds like a wheel in the spokes of how scholarship gets done (or at least science scholarship, which I know better).

  2. I suppose one way the academic market might react to total open access to peer-reviewed articles is with a drastic contraction of the number of articles published. When the barrel is small enough, getting into it will carry enough prestigious that editors should be able to recruit good free referees. Another way the market could react would be to start rewarding referees in some other way than they are rewarded now (affiliation with a prestigious enterprise, early info about the most important work in their subject, and the establishment of a relationship with the editors of a journal they want to get their own manuscripts into). Otherwise I imagine peer review as we know it will disappear and some more social process will determine the relative importance of articles after they are published.

  3. You could also think of a journal as providing an article with a kind of credential. The lack of credentials and authentication online seems a large part of why scholars tend to dismiss it. It sounds like snobbery, but it’s entirely practical. Plenty of people with great ideas write badly. Plenty of people who write wonderfully have bad ideas. Plenty of people assert confidently what they are not confident. And people differ hugely in what kind of evidence and how much it takes to make them confident. So why bother reading any piece of text ever? Descartes may have been saying something worthwhile, but his writing certainly didn’t draw me in. In lieu of a reputation, we settle for credentials, and without credentials (or any credential besides access to the Internet) the potential rewards are far to meager for the effort and/or risk. Scholars earn their living in part by reading text, and so were journals to disappear and were no system for ranking the importance of new articles immediately to replace them, scholars would have no choice but to look for text credentials elsewhere–e.g. whether the purported author purports to have a PhD or a professorship at an Ivy League school (open-access systems still will have to earn reader’s trust for truly and accurately stating authorship and credentials). If we came to rely on this we might end up with even more an intellectual caste system than we have now. People might only read publications out of the top 3 schools. Of course, there’s so much gold to be mined from the publications that come from less prestigious schools that someone will figure out some IT scheme to efficiently extract it. In the meantime though, dissolving journals as I said above I think would be a stick in the spokes. This is just to argue for their value, which the post seemed to call into question. I suppose the actual political proposal doesn’t mean dissolving journals exactly but just preventing them from making money from subscriptions (there’s still advertising).

  4. Just a quick response to MT’s first comment that OA sounds like dumping articles in a barrel.

    OA articles can be preprints (not yet peer-reviewed) or postprints (peer-reviewed). If we’re talking about postprints, then they have the same journal- or brand-identification that you seek as a remedy to the barrel problem. Either they were published in OA journals, which conduct peer review, or they were published in non-OA journals, which conduct peer review.

    Did you realize that there are over 2,200 peer-reviewed OA journals today? See []. Did you realize that of the non-OA journals, about 70% already permit their authors to deposit their postprints in OA repositories? See [].

    For more background, see my Open Access Overview [] and blog [].


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