Let’s Fix Academic Publishing

Recently I emailed a user of the site and got a very frustrated response. I think I’ve done a poor job at explaining the idea. The idea was that you would submit your paper to a board of editors on Academia.edu, and if it was found to be worthy by an editor, it would receive a recommendation. It would work exactly like the Public Library of Science and most Open Access publishing, in which you pay to publish and only pay if you are accepted. The goal with those systems is to benefit readers — for example readers in less rich countries who can’t afford access to the material. The cost of publishing is then shifted to the authors rather than to the readers(1).

I’d like to stress that this is just an idea and just the beginning of the conversation on how to fund academic publishing. Take this example of a paper published in Signs. As someone who does not have a university subscription I have to pay 14 dollars to the Chicago Press to read the article.

Paying that much per article is prohibitively expensive for an individual attempting serious research without access to a library subscription(2). I don’t think authors paying for publications and opening up their work undermines the publication. The separation of the editorial and financial staffs is not just built into the system, it’s built into the character of every reviewer who works hard to legitimize the works of their peers. When I was a grad student, there was no amount of money someone could have paid me to fake a review, and I’m sure most academics feel the same way. We’re trying to optimize for a system that is open, affordable and fair. I think we can agree that charging authors instead of readers may be difficult on authors but does not correlate with undermining the legitimacy of publications. Publications are not equal to recommendations, but they are similar in that they both rely on the objectivity of academic reviewers to legitimize them.

Academia.edu was started by a PhD and is staffed by academics, writers, artists and one historian. What we’re trying to do is accelerate the publication and dissemination of research in a sustainable way. We hate paywalls. Almost 60% of our traffic comes from Asia, from universities that often can’t afford journal subscription fees. A lot of these researchers benefit from the free availability of work online. This is crucial for us. Even many existing institutional and departmental repositories are closed silos that don’t allow people from outside the institution to connect or participate. At UCSD, my alma mater, we use the eScholarship system, which allows only members to post and offers no ability to connect with authors. I believe that any researcher from any university, or none, should be able to find, read and participate in the sharing of research regardless of accreditation or background.

Academic publishing is broken. Paywalls, double dipping and private library subscriptions are all examples of things that hurt both readers and authors. But funding academic publishing is not an easy problem to solve. There are all kinds of costs that go into any publication you’ve ever read, even in the existing system where authors and peer reviewers are typically not compensated: servers, editors, typesetters, engineers, etc. In fact Cell Reports charges an astronomical $5,000 for an accepted publication, and even at the low end of peer reviewed OA publications, PeerJ charges $700 per article. Our goal in the idea I floated was radical inclusivity: price it to include as many people as we can into the market, then waiver everyone else in.

We need to have this discussion. Clearly it won’t be an easy one but it’s necessary. Not only is traditional publishing making the world more closed, it is draining universities of funds that could go to faculty, infrastructure, student resources or any number of things that move the university forward. The folks at the OLH believe that either APCs or library memberships are the future of OA humanities publishing(3). To go from free publishing to paying is a hard pill to swallow, but on the macro level I think there’s a good case that it makes the system better. I’m happy to have this conversation with anyone who wants to debate the points. Feel free to send me an email if you want to fix publishing.

Special thanks to David, Ben and Nate for reading early versions of this.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access#Journals:_gold_open_access

2. Even Harvard is getting priced out of journal subscriptions. http://techland.time.com/2012/04/26/if-harvard-cant-afford-academic-journal-subscriptions-maybe-its-time-for-an-open-access-model/

3. In his book, Open Access and the Humanities, Martin Eve talks about how to fund OA publishing. http://ebooks.cambridge.org/pdf_viewer.jsf?cid=CBO9781316161012A0019&ref=false&pubCode=CUP&urlPrefix=cambridge&productCode=cbo