Is Academic Publishing in a Downward Zombie Death Spiral?

When I was invited to the panel “Protests, Petitions and Publishing: Widening Access to Research in 2012,” I was on the fence about attending. Did I really want to spend two hours of my day hearing the debate on open access, anticipating that it would be filled with much controversy? Because it was close and I was confident that I would learn something, I made the short trek earlier this week from the Bronx to Morningside Heights, even scoring a parking spot in front of the Columbia building housing the event on a day on which alternate-side-of-the-street parking was in effect. The press release indicated that the event was meant to consider how Occupy Wall Street, the Research Works Act (RWA), the boycott of Elsevier journals by a growing number of academics, and other recent developments are informing the debate over access to research and scholarship on open access. The event was hosted by Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS) and included a diverse panel of speakers. I’ll do my best to summarize the session based on my notes drafted the old school way on a notepad in barely legible handwriting. (This exercise made me realize that I need to embrace the iPad more.) The audio will be available shortly, so I will post a link on the Digital Digest when it is. The issues are complicated, and there are no easy answers as was evident by the talk on Monday. Alex Golub from the University of Hawaii called current publishing models a death spiral. As most of us know, the hard sciences are very different from the humanities. The AAUP made an official statement about three pieces of legislation related to research policies that have resulted in a flurry of mixed responses from university press directors.

Here goes with my summary.

Allen Adler, Vice President for Legal and Government Affairs in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), kicked off the talk by stating that the goal of the panel was to answer the following questions:

What is a journal publisher’s role in informing the public about research policies?

What are publishers’ achievements in this process related to innovation, technology, and business?

What is publishing with federal agency–funded research, especially by nongovernmental officers?

What does the government currently do to disseminate federally funded research?

Adler mentioned that the National Institutes of Health Policy requires that peer-reviewed articles be made open access one year after they appear in a journal.

He emphasized that we need to understand the diversity of the field.

Oona Schmid, Director of Publishing at the American Anthropological Association (AAA), gave her perspective as a representative from one of the leading academic societies in America and publisher of the venerable journal American Anthropologist.

I give her credit for talking to this crowd knowing that it was going to be a contentious conversation and that her society was not always looked upon with the highest esteem.

Schmid began her talk by emphasizing that AAA is interested in the dissemination of scholarly information, believing that knowledge can solve human problems. She made the following points:

  • The academic system is tied to peer review.
  • Authors need credit for their contributions.
  • Citations need long-term archiving.
  • Publishing needs balance: cost versus readers’ desire for visibility and widespread dissemination.

Schmid stressed that AAA has huge costs for publishing 20 journals, 600 articles per year, and 482 reviews because of duration, personnel, and overhead.

She said that 63% of journal costs are covered through the sales of library subscriptions, 36% through sales to members, and 1% through ads. Open access would wipe out that 63%.

She continued by saying that AAA could increase members’ dues but that’s unlikely to happen because of major resistance from members and key stakeholders at the association.

Schmid mentioned that author fees work well in biomedical fields and that anthropologists do not have a centralized grant funder.

She asked about nonresearch commentaries and reviews.

Possible support mechanisms she pointed out: Produce more informal scholarly content; make use of social media.

Her new funding ideas include charging for premium functionality and super-user fees.

Peter Woit, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Columbia University, was up next and spoke from the angle of a researcher and a professor.

He said that of the 7,500 scholars boycotting Elsevier journals, 1,400 were mathematicians, 1,000 were biologists, and 650 were physicists.

A major reason he cited is that Elsevier journals are expensive and there have been problems with quality.

He stated that monographs are important. (Smile on my face.) He showed a picture of his office with bookshelves behind his desk. Two bottom shelves were filled with books published by Springer, as was obvious by their yellow spines. Other key publishers in his field included Oxford, Cambridge, and Princeton university presses.

He said that high quality is expensive; Elsevier could go away and he wouldn’t care, but monograph publishers are a different story.

Woit made the point that middle-class students are taking big loans to pay for tuition at expensive universities.

He said that detailed, high-quality content doesn’t work on blogs because discussion is difficult and has a time constraint, going so far as to say that the “Global village has a village idiot. You can’t replace academic scholarship.”

He went on to say that Google is the elephant in the room. Google Books show a few pages with ads. They can run your e-mail and analyze your online activity and make purchase suggestions. What will Google’s role be in this?

Gail Drakes, a doctoral candidate in the Program in American Studies at NYU and Associate Faculty at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, spoke next.

She concentrated on the Research Acts, Elsevier boycott, and Occupy movements. She began her talk by saying that research was unavailable—behind pay walls—for her area of humanities, American Studies.

She talked a lot about cultural commons.

Drakes said that the RWA gives the government protection of funded research, causing the cultural commons to shrink, and that intense lobbying is taking place.

She expressed wild enthusiasm for the Elsevier boycott and said that it represents a tension between academic structure and for-profit publishers.

Drakes felt that academic publishers do enough for cultural commons and support authors.

She suggested that we all take a look at the Fake Elsevier Twitter account, @FakeElsevier.

Drakes also stressed that we need balance. In her own case, her professor omitted an important piece in the course pack because of its high costs compared with graduate students’ budgets.

She enthusiastically talked about how Occupy Wall Street created the people’s library that currently has 9,000 titles—check out Library Thing—which is an affirmation of the importance of access to information. The library started out as a box moving to a tarp-covered area (cleared during the raid) to a clear plastic–covered area. Now it is organized by librarians with Masters of Library Sciences degrees who are part of the movement.

Alex Golub, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University Of Hawaii, had some strong statements to make (via Skype).

He asked if authors and publishers are ready to embrace open access? His answer: No. Publishers: Never. Authors want open access and always have.

He continued by saying that scholarly research won’t ever be completely free.

Golub said that we need to innovate. Existing models don’t work. There is a forty-year chunk of stuff trying to get open access.

He didn’t hold back, stating that AnthroSource is slow and embarrassing. “Fig leaf covering the Wiley thing.” He continued by saying that the Mellon-funded AAA program is different from what was originally planned. He said that Wiley took over the journal American Anthropologist and has a different agenda. (It was formerly managed by University of California Press.) He thinks that academic publishing as outlined by Oona’s presentation is in a downward zombie death spiral. The AAA is broken—volunteers to pay scholarly publishers’ profits. AAA pub models don’t work and we need a radical rethinking of how we do things.

He emphasized that we can’t sit on the fence anymore.

He asked the following:

Do we need peer review, and who pays for it?

Is scholarship less true if some words are spelled wrong or the phrasing is unclear?

Do we need expensive annual meetings?

Alternatives he suggested:

Small regional conferences


Social media

Civil service and partners. Editors and librarians are at cross-purposes.

Golub was definitely animated and wanted to push buttons. I appreciated his candor and his challenging the status quo. I agree that publishers need to think of new ways to make scholarly content available while at the same time recouping the costs for doing so. I don’t have the answers, but I think it is beneficial to hear what our constituents are saying

There were some audience questions at the end but I’ll let you hear those when the audio is available.

I would like to share a comment (made by Jim Jordan, Director of Columbia University Press) that will resonate with a lot of university press folks. He said that 8% of his budget is subsidized by Columbia but the university wants it reduced by 4%. And that 90% to 98% of the library’s budget is subsidized. Universities should do more to re-fund their presses. I agree.

I’m still wrapping my brain around the whole discussion but am glad I made the trip. Academic and university presses need to be innovative and creative with publishing models and work with their libraries to determine how best to meet the needs of their patrons. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to research policies. This may all seem obvious but I think the more we hear it the more it will sink in.

Posted by Fred Nachbaur, Fordham University Press

4 thoughts on “Is Academic Publishing in a Downward Zombie Death Spiral?

  1. Thanks for the summary, Fred. I look forward to viewing the video. But I have to say right away that I don’t think Alex Golub could have read the AAUP Statement on Open Access (which i drafted and was released during my presidency) or anything else that people in university press publishing have been writing, such as my 2011 essay on “Back to the Future: Old Models for New Challenges” available here: Otherwise, he couldn’t have been so adamant about stating that publishers will never accept open access.

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