Sunday, September 02, 2007

The publishing industry strikes back

I mentioned briefly in a post last month that I've been working on a piece on cultural studies and the politics of academic journal publishing. It's evolving, and I have other projects in line ahead of it, so I haven't yet had time to give it the polish it deserves.

In the interregnum, I've been doing my best to stay on top of trends in this no-longer-so-small corner of the academic publishing universe. (It's a multi-billion dollar industry, in case you didn't know.) And I've been fortunate in this regard that Julie Bobay, a colleague of mine at IU and Director for Scholarly Communication Initiatives, has put me on her mailing list. A week or so ago she sent me a copy of this Washington Post article, which reports on an organization called Prism. Its job? To fight open-access journal publishing, beginning in medicine and the sciences.

For those who don't know, open access refers to a range of publishing initiatives, all of which are designed to make knowledge cheaper and more readily available to researchers and the public at large. In some cases publications may be made freely available on a website; in others, they may be placed into sophisticated digital repositories, where they're not only made accessible, but they're also massively cross-referenced with other published research. In most cases, open access tends to respect authors' and users' rights better than the scholarly publishing industry. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The case for open access is especially--though by no means uniquely--acute where the research in question has been funded by public money. Consider this: a state university (for example) may subsidize a given professor's research. She or he is then expected to sign away key rights (e.g., copyright, translations rights, electronic publishing rights, terms of access, etc.) to whatever press has agreed to publish journal articles related to this work. The university then will essentially have to buy back that research, typically in the form of a high-priced journal subscription. Now, this isn't to suggest that traditional academic journal publishers don't add significant value to the work they produce. They do. But it is an odd situation, don't you think, when universities and other institutions are expected to pay for their employees' research on both the front and the back ends?

Prism apparently is a none-too-thinly-veiled public relations front for the Association of American Publishers (AAP), whose aim is to convince scholars, administrators, and especially government officials that cheap and accessible knowledge is a very bad thing. You'll see from Prism's website (if you care to go there) that it's "on message" and fairly, if predictably, astute from a rhetorical perspective. I say "predictably," because one of its main tropes against open access is the tired old saw, "big government." One of the organization's main aims is to convince you, or whoever cares to listen, that open access portends government control, and worse yet censorship, of published research; it also claims that the established publishing industry, and only the established publishing industry, can safeguard the rigorous peer review standards that help give published research its legitimacy.

I won't refute Prism's arguments here. That work is already well underway elsewhere. For now, I merely want to point out one significant danger that Prism poses: it has the ear of the US government. The AAP is headed by Pat Schroeder, a former US Congresswoman, who no doubt was hired because of her contacts in Washington. The Prism website also has lots of nifty wizards that make it easy for you, dear reader, to generate emails and letters to send to your Congressional representatives, proclaiming the evils of open access publishing.

I take comfort in the fact that librarians, scientists, doctors, mathematicians, and others outside of the humanities are rather well-organized in opposing Prism and what the organization stands for. It's my sincere hope that more scholars in the humanities will become aware of the issues, realize they affect us as well, and sign on to this important cause.


nomes said...

Hey, I read your blog from time to time. This is a very important post, thanks for sharing.

Do you think you could elaborate on the alternatives to secretive scholarship that -- as you say -- safeguards the rights of academics and users? You probably don't have much time, so any links or pointers you have would be greatly appreciated.


Anonymous said...

For more on open access publishing, see Peter Suber's excellent overview and blog.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Nomes,

The link below should have some leads. As for other options, there are many online journals that circumvent the publishing industry. The trouble in the humanities is that most aren't well-recognized or accredited, for whatever reason. (Math, the sciences, and medicine have been much better at this.) There are also digital archive or article repositories such as the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), Public Library of Science, and others, which allow different versions of scholarship (some pre-print, others post-print) to be made freely available online.

Hope this gives you some good leads. You also might want to check out Thompson's Books in the Digital Age if you want more information.