More Democracy

(March 21st, 2017) In a recently published white paper, five scholars say that we need a new revolution in academic publishing. Scientists themselves or scientific organisations should take over paper publishing.

For too long now, academic publishing has been in the hands of a few big publishing houses. Five scholars argue that it's time to “break up this corporate publisher conglomerate” and let scientists regain power over their work. Through democratising journal publishing – making knowledge and resources for journal production available for everyone – scientists will again have the freedom to choose where to publish and at what price. How could this revolution be achieved? We asked neurobiologist and open access advocate, Björn Brembs (University of Regensburg), who was one of the contributors to the white paper. Here's his email reply:

“Most would agree that the crucial point of democratising publishing lies in the transition from institutions, providing unsustainable read-access towards providing sustainable write-access. It is more contentious, however, as to how sustainable write-access can be provided.

A currently, hotly-debated proposal is a transition to so called gold Open Access, where authors pay article processing charges to the existing publishers for write-access. Even a brief reflection on what such a situation entails, makes it very clear that such a transition is highly likely to make our currently already dire situation even worse.

Instead, what is required, is the transition to an intramural write-access infrastructure, where institutions can decide whether they'd rather work with suitable service providers (such companies already exist) or provide the services themselves, very similar to how, currently, essentially all other infrastructure components are being maintained, such as water, HVAC, electricity, etc.

In order to make this transition, we need to drop all subscriptions. Currently, our institutional subscriptions provide access on the journal level, irrespective of how many articles in any given journal are actually being used. However, no single library provides access to all ~30,000 scholarly journals. Therefore, we, the faculty, are used to certain journals not being available at our institution.

Drawing from several new digital sources, institutions can now provide access on a per-article basis without subscriptions. In most cases, such per-article access covers a similar, if not increased, percentage of articles as the previous subscriptions. The only difference would be that the lack of access is not on the journal level any more but on the article level. This means that most users today would hardly notice, if their institutions now dropped all their subscriptions and implemented per-article access instead.

Modern publishing services cost about 10% of the price legacy publishers currently collect - for identical service. This allows institutions to take 10% of their current subscription budget and either offer them to the lowest responsible bidder, or invest them to provide their own write-access services.

This transition can happen within about three to five years; it would ensure that every article that we need to publish gets published (i.e., no interruption in services) and save 90% of the current subscription costs.

Importantly, this constitutes merely a technological decision by our institutions to subsidise modern, cost-effective write-technology, rather than expensive, antiquated read-technology. We have seen this sort of transition playing out, for instance, when our institutions started providing computers rather than typewriters. Today, faculty may choose to write on a typewriter but they will have trouble getting reimbursed for the machine. Likewise, faculty may choose to continue to subscribe to certain journals but they will have trouble getting reimbursed. Also, as today with typewriters, it will likely be difficult to find any scholarly journals, to which to subscribe. After all, funding from institutional subscriptions has run out and manuscripts are no longer submitted there by anyone. There is no coercion or mandate infringing on academic freedom. Faculty are free to read or write what and where they choose.

Journals are an antiquated, 17th century concept that is long past its due date. Today, we can copy any journal-like functionality, without any of their negative consequences, without a construct such as 'journals' and vastly improve our reading experience.

It is precisely a modern sort, filter and discover system that would simply be bought (the technology exists) from some of the remaining 90% of our subscription budgets. This system would make journals not only obsolete, it would constitute an enormous improvement over the current way we follow the literature. Inasmuch as journals are used to make hire, funding or promotion decisions, a world without journals would also allow us to finally place these processes on a solid, evidence-based footing.

Other infrastructure would be implemented to automate archiving and accessibility of our data and code from the remaining 90%, to ensure nobody will ever have to worry about the sustainable archiving and accessibility of their data and code, ever again.

Even after all of this is implemented, there will likely be 30-40% of the current subscription budget available for other scholarly endeavours - perhaps to drive innovation, such that public scholarly institutions will again be driving digital development, instead of following it with a lag of 20 years?

Of course, the only obstacle to this transition is a collective action problem. As in the 1980s for the internet, our institutions also now need to cooperate and agree on common technological standards, to be able to make the different institutional write-infrastructures compatible and interoperable. Again, similar to the 1980s with tcp/ip, http, etc., such standards also exist today, institutions only need to agree, upon which they wish to build.

Taken together, all we need is for our institutions to coordinate a common plan, to implement a new technology, analogous to what they already did for the internet. In contrast to the 1980s, however, we do not need any additional funds. On the contrary, this implementation is more than fully-funded by the savings of dropping subscriptions - it will likely save approximately US$3-4 billion every year.”


Photo: pixabay/badalyanrazmik

Last Changes: 04.11.2017

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