The future relationship between university and publisher | Samuel Moore
peter.suber's bookmarks 2021-08-01
As rumours circulate about the forthcoming UKRI open access policy announcement, fierce lobbying is underway by publishers worried that the policy may undermine their business models. Elsevier has even taken the step of directly emailing their UK-based academic editors to criticise the rumoured policy and encourage academics to relay the publisher’s views to UKRI. While these disagreements may not seem particularly new to anyone familiar with the open access movement, it also feels like things are coming to a head between academic publishers and the university sector. Ultimately, as I’ll argue here, universities need to take a view on what their future relationship with publishing should be.
In some respects, the debate over open access has always been about the antagonism between universities and publishers. Although access to research is an important and defining feature of these debates, the spectre of publishing profit margins and extractive business models loomed large from the beginning. There is no getting around the fact that publishers rely on labour and content they get for free. Instead, the editorial work of publishing is remunerated by universities as part of academic salaries, which of course does not fall evenly on individual academics (many of whom precarious, overworked and/or not employed by a university). Nevertheless, the university sector funds much of what the publishing industry relies upon for its operations and expects something in return.
To the extent that it has been marketised, the publishing industry is viewed as standing outside the university and not controlled by it. This is despite the fact that academics (for the most part) maintain editorial control of the publications they edit and peer review. Having talked to numerous editors of commercial journals, there is a very real sense that their publishers are service providers rather than part of the scholarly community. They might not provide the level of service that many editors expect, but they are service providers all the same. As scholarly communication has been ceded entirely to this market of service providers, universities have lost economic and material control of the publications they rely on (which also impacts on editorial control in various ways). This is all the more apparent given the dual functions the industry serves of both knowledge dissemination and researcher evaluation. Universities have outsourced both of these crucial functions to a separate, external industry.
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