Chapter Two: Scholarly Communication in Crisis
1 This is an early draft of the second chapter of my thesis, released as part of my Open Thesis approach. Download PDF: Heather Morrison Chapter Two Scholarly Communication in Crisis DRAFT Oct 29 2011
Chapter Two: Scholarly Communication in Crisis
From: Morrison, Heather. Freedom for scholarship in the internet age. Doctoral dissertation (in process), Simon Fraser University School of Communication.
In the September 2011 issue of Action Research, Tara Leigh F. McHugh of the University of Alberta and Kent C. Kowalski of the University of Saskatchewan published an article called “‘A new view of body image’: A school-based participatory action research project with young Aboriginal women”.
When faculty or students at either the University of Alberta or the University of Saskatchewan wish to view articles in this Sage-owned publication, access is as simple as going to the journal from a computer authenticated for university access, reading the abstract for free, and clicking on PDF to immediately download the full-text of the article.
Whenever anyone not associated with a subscribing institution tries to access the article, the abstract is still free. However, to access the full text in PDF form, the potential reader is given two options: a) to subscribe to the journal – at rates varying from $91 US for an individual subscription to $719-$799 US for an institutional subscription or b) “purchase short term access: Pay per Article - You may access this article (from the computer you are currently using) for 1 day for US $25.00”. (Sage Journals Online, 2011).
In other words, students and faculty at wealthy universities in the developed world have ready access to the results of this research, while for almost everyone outside of these institutions, the cost is a significant, if not insurmountable, barrier. A young aboriginal woman using a school computer or public access terminal at a public library, wishing to see the results of this research would be invited to pay $25 for one-time access, for one day, at one computer. School, public, and most government libraries cannot afford access to academic journal subscriptions in the $700 a year range, and so this article is practically inaccessible to teachers, parents, social workers, and government officials even in wealthy regions like Western Canada.
Taking advantage of the access I have through my own university, I can see in the acknowledgements that this research was conducted by doctoral students with support from two of Canada’s research councils, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The list of people who are invited to pay-per-article at $25 includes the taxpayers who fund the research councils and a significant portion of the university budgets, as well as the staff at the research councils. Outside the wealthy west, the economic barrier looms even larger.
It is ironic that participatory action research results are reported in a manner that is inaccessible to participants, those who are motivated to help the participants take action towards better lives, and those who funded the research. This is not the exception, but rather the norm in scholarship today. Scholars and those who fund them generally aim to extend the collective knowledge of humankind and to solve problems, then frequently freely hand over the results to a system designed to maximize profit. The remainder of this chapter will provide a brief overview of scholarly publishing, situate the scholarly publishing system within overall trends towards commodification and rationalization, and sketch out a few potential alternatives identified to date.
Scholarly Communication: A Brief Overview
From the perspective of the scholar-author, the scholarly communication system is largely a gift economy. Funded through university salaries and research grants, scholars give away their journal articles and provide peer review, and often editing as well, for free. This gifting of labour and the results of labour is conducted, not for monetary exchange but rather as a means of contributing to the collective conversation of scholars in a given field (and hence earning tenure and promotion). The result is a well of knowledge from which all draw as well as contribute. Royalties are common for scholarly monographs, and so scholars are likely to see monographs as a source of financial rewards rather than as a pure gift economy. Whether the sums involved really make sense as a financial incentive seems doubtful, given the small number of copies of scholarly monographs typically produced today. The scholarly communication system on the surface is free to the scholar in the developed world as reader. The journals and books are supplied by the library in a manner that conceals the underlying financial transactions between libraries, publishers, and suppliers.
The mission of the traditional scholarly society publisher is generally aligned with the gift economy. The purposes of a typical society are to serve scholarship, and often society in a broader sense. If there is a surplus of funds from publishing, this is used to fund other activities that are useful to scholarship, such as subsidizing conferences, educational activities, or graduate scholarships. Up until the end of the Second World War, the vast majority of scholarly journals were published by the not-for-profit sector. Mabe (2003, p. 194) characterizes the period from 1900 to 1940 as one in which almost all scholarly publishing was in the hands of the scholarly societies.
In the decades since the Second World War, there has been a steady increase in involvement by the commercial sector in scholarly publishing. At the same time, growth in the number of scholarly journals was exponential. This was not a new phenomenon. Research on the growth of scholarly journals over the centuries has noted a remarkably constant exponential growth rate of scholarly journals since the 1600’s (De Solla Price, 1963, p. 17), with just a slight increase in the decades immediately after World War II (Mabe and Amin (2001), Mabe, 2003). Mabe (2003) calculates the average annual scholarly journal growth rate at 3.46% per year from the 1600’s to the present day, with an increase to 4.35% from 1946 to 1976 and subsequent fall to 3.26% after 1976.
In the decades since the Second World War, there has been increasing involvement by the commercial sector in scholarly publishing and increasing concentration in the market, so that today a very substantial percentage of the world’s estimated 20-25,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals are published by just four companies: Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Informa.plc (also known as Taylor and Francis) (Crow, 2006). Three of these companies (Reed Elsevier, Wiley, and Informa.plc) are publicly traded corporations, while Springer is owned by private equity firms.
All are in the for-profit sector, and the profits are enormous. As reported in the Economist (2011): “ Elsevier, the biggest publisher of journals with almost 2,000 titles, cruised through the recession. Last year it made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion—an operating-profit margin of 36%”. Springer’s Science + Business Media (2010) reported a return on sales (operating profit) of 33.9% or € 294 million on revenue of € 866 million, an increase of 4% over the profit of the previous year. In the first quarter of 2012, John Wiley & Sons (2011) reported profit of $106 million for their scientific, medical, technical and scholarly division on revenue of $253 million, a profit rate of 42%. This represents an increase in the profit rate of 13% over the previous year. The operating profit rate for the academic division of Informa.plc (2011, p. 4) for the first half of 2011 was 32.4%, or £47 million on revenue of £145 million, an increase of 3.3% over the profit of the previous year.
The U.K. Office of Fair Trading (2002, p. 12) noted that the profitability of commercial science, technology and medicine (STM) publishing was high, not only in comparison with not-for-profit publishers, but also in comparison with other commercial publishers, and that there would be substantial savings for customers if these publishers were to charge average profit rates.
The above-average profits of these large commercial publishers contrast with the present financial situation of universities and the academics who give these publishers their works and services. For example, in the U.S., the Association of American Universities (n.d.) has a website section reflecting the 2008 financial crisis, called Universities address the economic recession, which states that “many have taken such actions as furloughs or hiring freezes, pay cuts for senior administrators, and delays of capital projects”.
McMillan (2011) comments on discussions at the University of California system in May of 2011, where after three years of furloughs, layoffs, student fee increases and program cuts, the budget was predicted to include a further $500 million in cuts. The American Association of University Professors has a list of “Financial Crisis FAQs” on their website, which states that the current challenging financial situation is being used to justify a number of measures that impact on academics, including “hiring and salary freezes, furloughs, salary cuts, layoffs, nonrenewals, reduction and elimination of academic programs and colleges, revision of curricula, changes in academic policy, elimination of tenure, substantial changes in workload, and more”.
Prosser (2011, p. 60) notes the ‘brutal’ cuts to the U.K. higher education sector, including an announcement that over the next few years the state would withdraw altogether from funding teaching in the humanities and social sciences.
The effects of the global financial crisis are being felt to varying degrees everywhere. In 2010, the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) reissued its Statement on the Global Economic Crisis, reiterating anticipation of long-term cuts to budgets for libraries and library consortia and a call to publishers for restraint on pricing increases.
This is an inelastic market; changes in the abilities of customers to pay have little or no impact. There is no competition in the system, as noted by the U.K. Office of Fair Trading (2002) and the European Commission (2006), among others. One cannot substitute a cheap article on one topic for an expensive one in a must-have science journal that a researcher is depending on for research needed to obtain grants. If the only goal of scholarly communication were profits, this would be a healthy system.
However, from the perspective of serving scholarship, this system leaves much to be desired. The serials crisis has been well documented elsewhere (Association of Research Libraries, 1989), and will not be covered here in detail. In brief, the prices of journals, particularly in the science, technology and medical (STM) areas have been increasing at rates far above inflation over a period of decades, with the result that not even the largest research libraries can afford comprehensive collections anymore, resulting in a loss of access to the scholarly literature for research. The crisis is ongoing, as illustrated by the Research Libraries UK (2010) call to publishers for pricing restraint, stating that if prices are not reduced, some of the largest universities in the UK will need to cancel the ‘big deals’ of some of these journal publishers.
An open letter from the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2010) illustrates that the crisis is global in scope. If current trends continue, the effects will be particularly strong in the developing world. The National Science Library letter says, “To our dismay and anger, a few international STM publishers, using their monopolistic position, recently demand to raise the subscription prices for their full-text database at a yearly rate of more than 14% for the next 3 years”, and by 2020, to raise the prices for developing countries to the level of those of the developed countries.
While the for-profit sector has taken over a substantial portion of scholarly publishing, particularly journal publishing, there remains a mixed market of not-for-profit society and learned journal publishers and university presses, which are still involved in publishing over half of the world’s scholarly journals (Crow 2006, p. 1). This sector maintains a close affiliation with the mission of scholarship, and their journals are typically more cost-effective. For example, Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006, n.p.) conducted a study comparing journal costs across a range of disciplines, concluding:
For example, in the fields of economics and ecology, the average institutional subscription price per page charged by commercial journals is about 5 times that charged by non-profit journals. These price differences do not reflect differences in quality as measured by number of recorded citations to a journal. For commercial journals the average price per citation is about 15 times that for non-profit journals. Similar price differentials are found across a wide variety of scientific disciplines.
The trend toward commercialization and consolidation in scholarly publishing was particularly acute in the early days of the transition to an online environment, roughly the 1990’s, as smaller and not-for-profit publishers did not have the resources to compete with the larger publishers. Today more affordable options are available, opening up the potential for a more competitive environment for smaller publishers, and, arguably, a renaissance of scholar-led publishing (Edgar and Willinsky, 2010).
While the profits of a few commercial STM journal publishers have grown to above average rates in recent decades and continue to grow even at a time of global financial crisis, other areas of scholarly publishing have experienced decline. Thompson (2005, p. 63) documents how the rise of powerful commercial players in STM has “squeezed the budgets of university libraries with dire consequences for academic publishers…”. In the 1970’s, a scholarly monograph publisher would typically print 4 – 5,000 copies of a hardback; by 2005, due to declining sales of monographs, this figure was reduced about tenfold, to about 400-500 copies (Thompson 2005, p. 93-4). One result of declining sales is that some disciplines or subdisciplines are less attractive to scholarly monograph publishers. Many scholarly monograph publishers are aiming to survive by moving into other areas such as textbook or trade publishing (Thompson 1980, p. 139).
Brown (2010) explains the dilemma of the university press in the U.S., perceived as outside of the core mission of the university, subsidized for the common good, receiving little by way of attention, opportunities to participate in planning, and resources. When the press is successful, subsidies are cut back. When the press runs a deficit, it is expected to cut back. Yet, Brown notes how the university press can balance a scholarly mission with profit in a way that the commercial press cannot. The university press is more likely to publish important scholarship that may not be of value in a commercial sense. As Thompson (2005, p. 17) notes, young academics need to publish specialist knowledge, while publishers are looking for books with broad appeal. In this sense, the ultimate goals of universities and the commercial sector may clash – for example, the university has a stake in looking for more cost-efficient ways of publishing to enable publication of more scholarship and new formats, while the focus of the commercial publisher is to maximize revenue.
Harley, Acord, Earl-Novell, Lawrence, and King (2010, p. xiv) express concerns about a monograph crisis which may be driving scholars in specialized subfields toward more readily marketable areas of scholarship, and making it difficult for scholars to publish in areas deemed by university presses to be less commercially viable. Withey, Cohn, Faran, Jensen, Kiely, & Underwood 2011, p. 3) note that the crisis of monograph publishing threatens many of the intellectual characteristics most valued by the scholarly enterprise itself: concentration, analysis, and deep expertise.
To summarize, scholarly publishing today is characterized by a small number of STM journal publishers enjoying above average profits in an inelastic market that reaps growing profit margins even at a time of severe cutbacks for the universities where most of the content sold by these publishers is written, reviewed and read by academics, at no cost to the publishers. Scholars and their university libraries are challenged by high and increasing prices and resulting loss of access to needed works. Meanwhile, other areas such as monograph publishing are experiencing crisis due to declining sales as an increasing share of library budgets go to the packages of the STM journal publishers. There are profound impacts of this system that undermines the ability of scholars in some specialties to publish their work, especially if the work is of extended length.
Productivity, or capture of science & scholarship by expanding capitalism
Marx noted how the key to capitalist production:
is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value…The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes toward the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a schoolmaster is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. Marx (1976, p. 644)
De Solla Price describes a break between the period of ‘Little Science’, before the Second World War, and ‘Big Science’, after the war. According to De Solla Price, “…the most abnormal thing in this age of Big Science is money” (1963, p. 92). While the number of scientists was doubling every 10-15 years at that time, in constant dollars, expenditures on science were doubling every 5 ½ years, so that the cost per scientist was doubling every 10 years. De Solla Price calculated that the cost of science was “increasing as the square of the number of scientists” (p. 92). De Solla Price asks, if the first half of the century belonged to the lone, long-haired genius scientist, whether the period after World War II belonged to the scientist “honored in Washington, sought after by all the research corporations of the “Boston ring road,” part of an elite intellectual brotherhood of co-workers, arbiters of political as well as technological destiny”? (1963, p. 3).
Mandel (1980) has noted a likely reason for this expansion in investment in science: an inherent tendency of capitalism to continuously expand into new spheres. Mandel talks about rents from technological innovation becoming the main source of monopolistic surplus under what he calls “late capitalism”. Invention, according to Mandel, “ becomes a branch of business” only in late capitalism (Mandel 1980, p. 249). Technological innovation from a traditional Marxist perspective was a key driver of surplus profits or unusually high profit rates, generally short-lived until competitors catch up with the new technology.
Polanyi (1957) argues that one distinguishing feature of the market economy from all other economies is that it subsumes society. Prior to the emergence of the market economy, all societies had economic aspects, and many had markets, however markets and economy were subservient to other social relationships and needs. Labour is one of what Polanyi describes as the three fictitious commodities of the market economy, along with land and money. It is the transformation of labour and land, human society and the means of production, into commodities that creates the conditions that subsume human society and the earth itself into the economy.
Knowledge as property: the creation of a fictitious commodity
Today, we need to add to Polanyi’s list a fourth fictitious commodity: knowledge. The short-term nature of high profit rates from technological innovation is based on the classic notion that knowledge is a perfect public good, nonrivalrous in nature (if someone else knows what I know, this does not diminish my knowledge) and nonexcludable (Hess and Ostrom 2007) and Drahos and Braithwaite (2002, p. 215), among others. However, while knowledge in intangible form is nonexcludable, the tangible forms of knowledge, whether as books, scholarly journals, or bytes, are excludable. And exclusion is a temptation:
From the point of view of individual profit making, knowledge is the ideal object of propertization since it is non-rivalrous in supply. The same knowledge can be endlessly recycled to many generations of consumers, each new generation having to pay for its use. The incentives for individuals to seek profit through a redefinition of the intellectual property rules that form the basis of the knowledge economy are great (Drahos & Braithwaite 2002, p. 216).
The invention of “intellectual property”: enclosure of knowledge
The term “intellectual property” is relatively new, having entered into popular discourse only in the 1970’s (Vaidhyanathan 2004). The purpose of intellectual property, according to Vaidhyanathan (p. 87), is to create artificial scarcity.
Boyle (2003, p. 12) refers to a second enclosure movement, of the “intangible commons of the mind”. Hess and Ostrom (2007) situate the enclosure of knowledge within a broader context of new technologies which have made resources which were once open enclosable; not just knowledge, but also the deep seas, the electromagnetic spectrum, and outer space. While there is some truth to the statement that new technologies have enabled new enclosures, it would be more accurate to state that human beings have developed and/or shaped technologies in order to enable new enclosures. Feenberg (1992, 2002) and Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (1987) explain how technology is socially created. Numerous examples and cases study are provided by these authors. One such is Feenberg’s argument that sidewalk curbs are not immanent to sidewalk technology, but rather were developed as a result of concerted struggles by disabled persons. This is important to understand when examining scholarly communication. For example, while digital rights management (DRM) is a technological tool, it is one that was developed specifically to artificially create new forms of enclosure.
Mosco (1989) counters the common viewpoint that information technology is changing the world. His view is that we are witnessing a “pay-per” society that reflects ever-increasing commodification, and is part of an overall transition from feudalism to capitalism. The ability of information to permit “pay-per” (call, bit, etc.) makes possible an intensification of commodification.
Drahos and Braithwaite (2002) situate the gradual enclosure of information through intellectual property rights within their concept of an incomplete project of information feudalism, a movement away from capitalism. Superficially, Drahos and Braithwaite’s information feudalism is very similar to Mosco’s pay-per society, however it is interesting to note that their overall visions of the implications are very different. While Mosco’s pay-per society is an intensification of capitalism, Drahos and Braithwaite present information feudalism as a threat to capitalism; for example, they state: “Ironically, information feudalism, by dismantling the publicness of knowledge, will eventually rob the knowledge economy of much of its productivity.” (Drahos and Braithwaite 2002, p. 219).
Elsewhere, I have written about the potential impact of usage statistics (basically the pay-per model) on scholarly communication (Morrison, 2005). One concern is that usage-based pricing inevitably tends to discourage use. If every download of an article incurs a cost, it will be tempting for universities with limited funds to implement reading limits for undergraduates, discourage research assignments, or refuse to provide service to walk-in users. Another concern is that it is likely that researchers will find it difficult to publish in less popular fields, regardless of importance. For example, while the importance of the environment is broadly understood in our society, the potential readership of scholarly literature on any one of the species under threat of extinction will be limited (excluding the famous and cute species such as whales as koala bears). Since academics need to publish in order to work, this could impact what subjects are studied. Harley et al. (2010, p. xiv) note “concerns that publication challenges in specialized subfields [of history] may be driving scholars toward more readily marketable areas of scholarship”.
Scholarly publishing and the enclosure of knowledge
The non-scholarly content industries (music, movies, etc.) “have been clear about their intentions to charge for every bit of data…and crush libraries by extinguishing fair use” (Vaidhyanathan 2004, p. 53). Some people and companies in the scholarly publishing industry are also working to enforce the enclosure of knowledge. Van Leeuwen (1980, p. 266) notes that the common interests of international scientific publishers in fighting copyright policy was the chief purpose of a resolution proposed by Robert Maxwell of Pergamon Press in July 1968 at the International Publishers’ Association which was the start of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM).
Copyright and legal affairs remain key issue areas for STM. For example, STM’s CEO Michael Mabe, in a submission from STM to a consultation on the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, Mabe (2011, p. 2-3), argues that publishers require exclusive copyright so that the substantial investments they make in scholarly communication can be recovered, ostensibly to serve the public interest. Mabe does not address the question of how best to ensure that the public which provides the funding for most academic research, the authors, peer reviewers and research participants benefit from the results of the research. Giving exclusive copyright to any one party is arguably a disservice to all of the other parties who contributed to the research, or for whom it was conducted.
Two consequences of the movement of capital into the sphere of science are outlined by Mandel. The first is the growth of scientific intellectual labour, reflected in an explosion in universities after World War and in the proletarianization of intellectual labour. That is, “the more higher education becomes a qualification for specific labour processes, the more intellectual labour becomes proletarianized, in other words transformed into a commodity…”, and the more the price of this commodity tends to be forced down to its conditions of reproduction (Mandel 1980, p. 263).
The creation and popularity of the Edufactory group and journal, connecting activists within universities worldwide who are protesting growing proletarian conditions, supports Mandel’s prediction. The Edufactory Manifesto (2008) begins “As once was the factory, so now is the university”. Some scientists may be celebrated and influential in Washington and the Boston Ring Road as De Solla Price claims. But, today, typical science graduates are far more likely to be chasing down ever more elusive and precarious academic positions while simultaneously attempting to pay down mounds of unforgivable debt. For example, Cauchon (2011), quoting the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education and private sources notes that student debt in the U.S. is anticipated to hit the trillion dollar mark before the end of 2011 – debt that can’t be shed in bankruptcy. Cauchon notes that “the credit risk falls on young people who will start adult life deeper in debt, a burden that could place a drag on the economy in the future”.
Brophy (2011, n.p.) explains the situation for today’s graduate students thus:
Graduate students, faced with diminishing prospects of a secure job in the academy are increasingly confronted with their status as relatively cheap and plentiful labor in the provision of undergraduate education, a factor that creates growing affinities with those whose service work keeps the lecture halls clean, the courses running on time, and the cafeterias pumping out food
and notes that in recent years there has been an increase in struggles in the post-secondary sector around the world.
The second consequence is the crisis of the classical humanistic university, above all for directly economic reasons, resulting from a shift in the main task of the university from developing men of judgment and property to developing intellectually skilled wage-earners (Mandel 1980, p. 261). Basken (2008) quotes Diane Auer Jones, who resigned as assistant secretary for post-secondary education in the U.S., as saying “the Education Department is controlled by advisers who have insufficient regard for the liberal arts and instead are intent on judging colleges largely by their ability to provide economically measurable talent for industry”. As discussed above, Prosser (2011) points out that part of the current situation in 2010 was plans to eliminate funding for humanities and social sciences in the U.K. university system altogether.
In addition to commodification, publishing is also subject to an accompanying process of rationalization. Developing intellectually skilled wage-earners is an excellent example of behaviour carefully planned to achieve rationally calculated goals. Aspects of the system of scholarly communication described in this chapter exemplify modern times combining formal (calculating) rationality with substantive (goal-oriented) irrationality, a concept articulated by Weber (1968, p. 24-5, 85), or the cunning of unreason described by Leiss (1994, chapter 1) as the essential problem of rationality: human beings are not rational.
A participant with a long history working in senior positions for university presses provided the following example in a recent interview (Anonymous, 2011): many university departments expect scholars to publish books in order to achieve tenure. It is common for scholars to seek to turn their theses into a published book as a means of achieving the goal of tenure. In recent decades, academic library budgets have been diverted from purchase of monographs to purchase of journal packages in STM, as described above. In roughly the same time period, academic theses have become more readily available in universities, at first through electronic packages of theses such as the Proquest Dissertations and Theses database, and more recently through provision of open access theses through institutional repositories. Lacking funds to purchase every scholarly monograph of interest, university libraries instruct vendors to eliminate books developed from theses from approval plans, on the grounds that these are duplications. This erodes necessary financial support for a system that universities are relying on as part of the tenure process. Another result is gaming of the system, with publishers deliberately obscuring the connection between the thesis and book, through such means as eliminating acknowledgements of participants in the thesis process, such as supervisors and committee members. This practice diminishes the value of the work, and is contrary to the academic ethos calling for citation of sources. Each element of this process is rational in and of itself. However, these rational processes work towards incompatible goals. This is what Weber calls substantive irrationality. Colloquially, another way of expressing this is to say that the process as a whole simply does not make sense. That is, universities are relying on this system for tenure decisions, and, at the same time, defunding the system. Thompson (2005, p. 175-6) describes the paradoxical situation that universities are basically outsourcing tenure decisions in disciplines focused on monographs to academic presses, and especially to university presses, during the very same period of time when university economic support for scholarly monographs and university presses was diminishing.
Universities, as a whole, are the source for the above average profits of a small group of commercial STM journal publishers, even when universities themselves are facing brutal cuts. The means to this dysfunctionality for universities exemplify instrumental rationality, defined by Weber (1968, p. 24-5) as behaviour that is “determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and of other human beings” which are “used as “conditions” or “means” for the attainment of the actor’s own rationally pursued and calculated ends”.
To return to the McHugh and Kowalski article at the beginning of this chapter, it is perfectly rational for the authors to seek to publish in a journal that will be highly regarded by tenure and promotion committees, serving the instrumental value of career advancement. However, publishing in a journal that is not accessible to people who could use the information discovered through this research, is contrary to the value of helping people implicit in this kind of research – substantive irrationality, where behavior that is formally / instrumentally rational is not compatible with our basic values.
Sage, Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial publishers are behaving rationally in pursuing actions to maximize profit, the purpose of existence of their organizations. Universities in times of decreasing revenues quite rationally seek to contain costs through such means as cutting subsidies to university presses. To see how individually rational approaches add up to a system that is arguably dysfunctional for the universities it is meant to serve, it is necessary to consider the whole picture rather than individual elements.
Another aspect to the increasing tendency to formal rationality of assessing scholarly work involves a focus on quantity. For example, more competition for academic jobs means that scholars are expected to publish two books instead of one to obtain tenure; this rush to publish is in contrast with the time it takes to write scholarly books (Thompson 2005, p. 176-7). Harley and Acord (2011) note that one of the results is a growing glut of low-quality publications, and recommend that we “encourage scholars to publish peer-reviewed work less frequently and more meaningfully. Limit the quantity of work that can be reviewed to remove the incentive for over-publication” (p. 7), including eliminating the requirement of two published books to achieve tenure.
The Georgia State copyright case is one illustration of the irrationality of the system. The case involves publishers seeking higher rents from use of their works by universities; it is ironic that two of the publishers prominently involved are university presses, Cambridge and Oxford. As Kevin Smith, one of the interviewees in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2011, May 30) puts it:
As it becomes clear that the three publishers who have initiated the lawsuit in search of higher profits are willing to attack the very heart of the system by which scholars live, academic authors will rightly feel betrayed. The plaintiffs are, after all, asking the judge to fundamentally change the copyright rules for higher education. If the rules in the proposed injunction were widely accepted, fair use in this field of endeavor, supposedly favored, would actually be more restricted than in any other activity. Yet the works at issue in the lawsuit are mostly written by scholars for the use of other scholars and students. If those uses become impossible or exponentially more expensive, which today is the same thing, academic authors will need to reconsider whether they are receiving sufficient benefits for the free labor they contribute to scholarly publishing.
Cambridge and Oxford, unlike U.S. university presses, return a profit to their universities (Thompson 2005, p. 87). This is an example of a system developed through rationality that becomes irrational – a system meant to help universities harms them instead. This illustrates what Marcuse (1964) and Leiss (1994) discuss as the tendency of instrumental rationality, designed to dominate nature, in the end, dominating man. In scholarly communication, the quest for simple metrics to assess quality in academia (the impact factor, # of books published, by which presses), initially meant to help achieve the goals of the academy, instead become the goals themselves.
It is important to consider the tendency toward rationalization in our society along with commodification. There is some overlap in the two tendencies, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but the roots are different and the remedies may well be different, too. Both are often present in the same situation. The nonprofit university press is a good example, subject to expectations of cost-recovery (rationalization), which in turns leads to pressure to focus on the market value of scholarly materials (commodification). The overall remedy to the substantive irrationality of this system, I would argue, is the kind of systemic analysis presented in this chapter and several of the works cited in this chapter. A university press may find a variety of ways to combat commodification, for example advocating for subsidies, or developing commodified product lines designed to provide income to subsidize the publication of scholarly monographs.
The concept of the commons, once in general use to refer to land shared in common, has re-emerged and expanded in recent decades to include immaterial commons such as the information commons or knowledge commons (Lessig (1999), Hess and Ostrom (2007), Boyle (2003) and Bollier (2007)). Boyle (2003) and Bollier (2007) point out that there is a need to articulate the concept, similar to the need for articulation of the concept of the environment. Boyle argues for the proactive creation of a concept of commons as public domain, a reification of the negative to protect this space. Bollier (2007) sees the rise of the commons paradigm in scholarship as a needed alternative to the market and the state. Bollier also discusses the idea of inalienability (some things belong to all), and also public trust doctrine, from Roman law; the idea is that some things belong to the public, and are administered by the state as a trust. Bollier points out that commons and market are not incompatible; in fact business needs a commons (e.g. roads, telecommunications).
Whenever the commons is discussed, it is important to be aware of a group of arguments against the possibility of a commons collectively known as the free-rider problem. Ostrom’s book (2007) Governing the Commons explores in depth relevant theories and presents case studies of physical commons or collectively shared resources such as fish or water. Acknowledging that commons are not always successful, Ostrom provides important arguments that explain why the free-rider problem is by no means inevitable, even with physically limited resources (Ostrom 2007, p. 6-7). The free-rider argument per se, based on an article by Hardin, is often cited but has never been examined empirically, and Ostrom presents many counter examples of successful sharing of resources in common. One example is the Huerta irrigation institutions in Spain; formal rules were written up for these institutions in 1435, however they were not new at this time. Through significant monitoring and enforcement, cheating rates in these institutions have been remarkably low in spite of significant temptation; in medieval Castellon, the cheating rate was below 1%. A related argument, the prisoner’s dilemma, a game which appears to show that people do not cooperate, is based on the assumption that people do not communicate, an unrealistic assumption outside of actual prisons.
Immaterial commons such as knowledge or information commons are nonrivalrous in nature, and many exemplify “the cornucopia of the commons” in which more value is created as more people use the resource and join the social community (Bollier 2007, p. 34). The article by McHugh and Kowalski cited at the outset of this chapter is a great deal more valuable if it is read by other researchers, young aboriginal women, social workers, teachers, and government officials.
My vision of the knowledge commons is one where humankind’s collective knowledge is readily available to anyone, anywhere. A similar vision focusing on the area of medicine and the life sciences was articulated by the Public Library of Science (2001) in their Open Letter to Scientific Publishers, signed by thousands of researchers around the world. From my perspective, key to development of a knowledge commons is open access to scholarly literature, a concept that will be discussed in depth in the next chapter.
Many of the suggested alternatives focus on cooperative solutions, similar to the concept of the commons, to make it possible for smaller and/or not-for-profit publishers to benefit from the advantages of scale available to the large commercial publishers, so that they can compete. Brown (2010) recommends a cooperative solution across universities for university presses. Crow’s (2006) discussion paper for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) on publishing cooperatives provides in-depth analysis of the potential for, benefits of, and logistics for starting publishing cooperatives.
Emerging new publishers: libraries and independent scholar-publishers
While university presses are in dire straights, university libraries are increasingly becoming involved in publishing. Hahn (2008) reports on a survey of Association of Research Library members which found that the majority of respondents either were involved in publishing activities, or had plans to get involved in publishing, within the next few years. Library publishing services described are different from traditional university press publishing services in that libraries tend to focus on electronic-only publishing, to focus on technical support and hosting rather than editing, and to favor open access business models. Library publishing services are more likely to focus on journals, although some also publish monographs and conference proceedings. Unlike university presses, library publishing services are not isolated in their institutions, but rather tend to be part of larger initiatives that include similar activities such as digital repository services. Similarly, Taylor, Morrison, Owen, Vézina, and Waller (2011) found that most university libraries in Canada were hosting open access journals as of spring 2010, with more planning to offer such services in the near future.
Willinsky (2006) and colleagues in the Public Knowledge Project have been instrumental in making library and scholar journal publishing a possibility through development of the free, open source journal publishing platform Open Journal Systems (OJS). Edgar and Willinsky (2010, in press) conducted a survey of over 900 journals using OJS and found that many were led by independent scholars; they conclude that OJS may be facilitating a renaissance of scholar-led publishing.
Need for theory and analysis
Development of new approaches such as the commons requires careful exploration of theoretical perspectives, often definitions and analysis of real-world implications. In particular, macro level and critical approaches are necessary to sidestep the problems associated with formal instrumental rational approaches that can easily lead to substantive irrationality.
One example is my work on the implications of basing decisions about library collections on usage statistics. It is tempting to use such easily gathered quantitative information to aid in making difficult decisions, however if this will lead to such unintended consequences as discouraging reading and important areas of scholarship, the sooner we understand this, the better.
Open access and its intersections with scholarly communication is another area in need of thoughtful theory and analysis. As we shall soon see, this exciting remedy to the problem of commodified scholarly communication is now being avidly pursued by commercial interests – in some cases the very same commercial interests responsible for the present crisis. The implications of this need careful examination.
Dramatic growth of open access
To assess progress towards a knowledge commons through open access, it is necessary to grasp how much scholarly literature is produced, and how much is open access. A recent repeated citation of an error illustrates the ongoing need for this research. Walters and Linville (2011) repeat an error based on a publication by Morris (2006). Morris, then Chief Executive Office of the Association for Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), did an analysis of start years in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and concluded that open access publishing had peaked in 2001, with new journal start-ups decreasing after that time. One major problem with this approach is failure to account for delay in including new titles in DOAJ; because of the DOAJ vetting process, new titles are not included on first publication, but rather after they have established at least some track record for publishing. Then, too, DOAJ has limited staff, so there can be a backlog in including new titles. Recent research (see the chapter on The Dramatic Growth of Open Access) illustrates that open access publishing is growing. It is important to be aware of this trend. Libraries and scholars need to be aware of the growing OA resources in order to know to point to these. Publishers need to be aware of the trends to make informed decisions about business models for the future.
Economics of transition
Shifting from a system increasingly devoted to profits to one that can prioritize knowledge will require an economic transition. This chapter will examine the economics of scholarly publishing at a macro level as well as current and potential new approaches to scholarly communication economics.
The patterns of scholarly communication can vary widely from one discipline (or sub-discipline) to another. Some disciplines rely more on monographs, others on journal articles. Some disciplines are more dominated by commercial interests than others. This thesis will report on a preliminary investigation of the state of scholarly publishing in the discipline of communication.
Scholarly communication at present is a complex system characterized by expansion of capitalism into scholarly publishing and a process of rationalization that at times leads to irrational results in conflict with the basic goals or values of scholars. The increasing enclosure of knowledge and information through the concept of intellectual property is key in the process of commodification of resources once considered a classical public good as nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. Alternatives identified to date include the commons, cooperative approaches, open access and emerging new publishers such as libraries.
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