A footnote - Far from it, publishers are key in advancing scholarship

Journal owners want academics to work with them towards the shared goal of furthering and disseminating research, says Graham Taylor

October 13, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

In recent weeks, academic publishers have been accused of everything from unfairly raising costs to presiding over a sector-wide monopoly of Genghis Khan proportions. But the greatest charge laid against us is that we are becoming, or have become, obsolete. One could argue that there might be a point here. We don't write what we publish. Much production work is outsourced. Often it is not us who sell you what we produce. So what's left?

Crucially, we nurture the professional editorial skills that select, craft, refine and organise the quality material that you want to read. We take authors to the market. We build the brands readers rely on to make choices in a world of information overload.

We are risk-takers, investors in the market potential of intellectual property, and creditors of last resort to the supply chain that delivers what you read. If a project fails, we take the loss. If it succeeds, authors earn royalties or enhance their reputations, retailers sell books, platform providers expand, we all pay taxes - society benefits.

We evolve scalable, sustainable enterprises that enable intellectual freedom and the flow of culture and scholarship. Beyond a copyright framework to protect our investments, we strive for the widest distribution and access to our publishing that we can achieve.

We work constantly to maintain standards. We represent the vehicle for integrity and objectivity so vital to scholarship. We produce learning material fitted to syllabus and assessment, which is vital for academic success. We provide information sources for the professions.

Some academic publishers are globally successful, and those in the UK collectively export more books than any country on earth. Some would argue that we need that experience in international markets to fuel growth.

But hasn't the internet left us wrong-footed? Certainly not. We have been using digital delivery for years - 95 per cent of academic journals are available electronically, and the UK is more advanced in using digital learning resources than any other country. Publishers are enablers of all that.

Of course, the paradigm is shifting. Searchable archives on the internet will make us redundant, so the argument goes. But without selection, investment in editorial skills, quality filters, marketing, supply-chain management and customer service, our absence would soon be felt and we'd most likely be reinvented.

We hear that the academy should "reclaim" the means to distribute its own outputs. But the academy has never lost it. Many, perhaps most, journals are owned by learned societies. Publishers provide a service and economies of scale, but the revenue from society journals funds scholarly communities and more research. And publishers do not control what gets published - that is the role of editors and editorial boards. Peer review is for the benefit of science and scholarship, not publishers.

We are termed "monopolists" by some, but there is no monopoly in 1.5 million articles published in 20,000 journals by 2,000 publishers around the globe each year. Surely some sort of market supported by scalable business models must prevail to manage this volume of output, which grows every year, or we risk drowning in a scholarly Sargasso Sea to which all "research outputs" are eventually consigned. The command economy in research outputs favoured by some has yet to transform the existing organic open market. Why? Probably because the market is not failing. There are issues, some of them serious, around extending access, rising research investment fuelling ever more submissions, and cost recovery; but the market is evolving to address these, and centralist solutions are unlikely to be as effective.

Taxpayers fund research but not the journals that carry research outputs to the market. The cost of that work has to be recovered. Currently, that comes from the demand side, largely library subscriptions. There are numerous experiments to reverse all that and fund distribution from the supply side via grants so research outputs can be made open-access. Virtually all scholarly publishers now offer open-access options, and new offers appear each month. But the transition will take time, and might never be completed. Only sustainable models will survive, and a decade of evolution has produced no "best way".

And all the time we hear "the market doesn't work". Really? Never before has so much access been delivered at such low unit cost as right now. Investment and innovation by publishers has brought us here. We can, moreover, keep extending access while reducing cost. Our message is: work with us, not against.

Publishers are needed to maintain quality standards, build brands, enhance discovery, enable access, fund the supply chain, invest for the future, and nurture the authors who express our culture. Without us, there is the "information superhighway" to fall back on, but soon enough that would become an unmanageable "digital deluge".

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