Talkin’ about an Academic Publishing Revolution

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“Why aren’t we all just publishing our stuff open access?!?!” This question was asked by a frustrated scholar during a dinner I recently attended following a rant about the perils of dealing with academic publishers. A number of people in the room had decades of experience in publishing their work in book form, and nostalgically recounted early experiences with excellent editorial support, and fairly-priced, high quality final products. Various cost-cutting measures, the forced extinction of editors, and the mountain of price tags standing between scholars and the publication of their work were among the issues raised. I nearly swallowed my tongue in horror when a family member who is a scientist told me that one of his colleagues was recently charged $5,000 to publish a 35-page article.

However, publishing open access does not necessarily mean that these problems will be fixed. Publishing open access often comes with a price tag and without a trusty editor to work their magic on your manuscript. I caught myself giggling at this tweet the other day:

Then I remembered that this isn’t really the case anymore. Many academic book publishers expect you, the author, to send in your final manuscript print-ready with little or no dedicated editorial support. That means you take care of the editing and proofreading, including any costs involved if you want to avoid the torture of self-editing. One of the guests at the aforementioned dinner party exclaimed, “We may as well be self publishing!”

It’s true. We all act as peer reviewers in official and unofficial capacities, reviewing manuscripts at the request of journal editors and book publishers, as well as at the request of colleagues in need of a second opinion. Why don’t we take this experience and put it to good use? Could we not set up publishing houses run by and for academics, and adopt the kind of barter system we already use informally: “If you wouldn’t mind reading over my article before I send it off, I’ll read something of yours?” We could do the same with our books:

  1. you get your manuscript peer-reviewed, edited, proofread, and published,
  2. then you agree to peer review, edit and proofread one or two manuscripts in return.

Share and share alike is not just a hallmark of a Creative Commons license. It is (or should be) the cornerstone of what we do as researchers.

A democratic system of peer review where we all act as editors and authors wouldn’t be without its issues. But it’s not far from what we already do. Of course there are costs involved in setting something like this up. Publishing ebook-only would certainly cut the costs of printing. No doubt there would be debates as to whether books should be free or sold for a price, etc, etc. An answer to all of this would be to turn to crowdfunding to raise an initial sum to cover the costs of setting things up, and then designate a little corner of the website for people to donate a small amount as a token of their appreciation (if they so wish) for a democratic, open system that produces and shares quality research. Am I recklessly optimistic???

Why shouldn’t we have these debates, and see if we can hash out an alternative means of publishing our work that forgoes the price tags and lack of editorial support that frustrates all of us right now? I am hopeful that something like this will develop out of the many discussions, events and ideas generated by projects like the Academic Book of the Future research project, or the MediaCommons Press. Academic publishing is broken, and rather than waiting around wringing our hands in frustration, maybe it’s time we ourselves start creating alternative possibilities for the dissemination of our work.

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