Complaining about high publication costs in science has become commonplace, but why is it that scientists are not choosing cheaper publication venues? As Christoph Bruch remarked recently, it seems that “scientists depend on publishers like junkies depend on their dealers”.
This has to do with prestige, a factor that is hard to describe and even harder to measure. But it is very powerful. Free access to our work is not the only thing we need to disseminate our research results. We also need prestigious brand labels associated with our publications. If I put my papers and books on my website, they will be freely accessible, and anyone can read them. But few people will read them.
We take a scientific publication seriously only after it has passed a peer selection process (often called “peer review”, but the selection is actually much more important than the “review”). The name of a journal (for a paper) or a publisher (for a book) is a symbol of this selection. In principle, the process could work differently (e.g. by “micro-awards” given by a professional society), but the current system is deeply entrenched, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be changed.
Thus, journal names and publisher names are very important for science, not only for dissemination of knowledge, but also for building scientists’ careers. They are at the heart of social value creation in science. Until two decades ago, publishers and journals were also crucial for simply spreading knowledge, but now they are primarily crucial for building careers and for selecting influential research trends.
Journal and publisher brand names are thus extremely important for science, and those who own them have a lot of power as a result of this. In the case of publicly funded science, this power structure needs to be taken into account, but it is often ignored. Public science funders are increasingly trying to force the researchers to make their research openly accessible, but as long as the journal and publisher brand names are owned by nonscientists, they will extract huge sums of money from the valuable brand names that they own. Suppose that all journals move to an author-pays mode – then everything will be open access, but journal owners can set the publication fee in accordance with the prestige of the brand. If my career depends on a prestigious brand, I will not hesitate to pay up, even if I have to pay the fee out of my own pocket (this is a frequent experience with humanities researchers in Germany, even with closed-access books).
So if public funders of science want to avoid the costs extracted by private companies via their prestigious brands, they should create these brands themselves. Publicly funded researchers could be urged to publish only in publicly owned brands, but this requires that a sufficient number of them exists. This is not the case today.
Creating such brands is easy, but making them prestigious is less easy. However, in all fields there will be a few well-established scientists who are willing to help with the creation of new brands, and the names of these established scientists will make the new brand prestigious. Once publication with publicly owned brands is required by the funders, the privately owned brands will quickly be abandoned.
If the brand names are publicly owned (i.e. owned by science organizations), this does not mean that the actual publication work has to be done by the public science organizations. Publication companies can continue to do much of the work they have been doing in the past, but they will not own the brand names. If the costs for a journal are too high, the journal name owners can simply go to another publisher. (In the case of scientific societies, this is the case even now; e.g. the DGfS took its title “Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft” from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht to De Gruyter because it offered better conditions.)
The case of books is somewhat different (and more complicated), because the publishers’ names are directly associated with the prestige of the books. This is because of our citation habits: While we only give journal titles (and omit publisher names) when citing papers, we include publisher names when citing books.
So in the case of books, there are two options for bringing the prestigious brands into public hands: (1) Set up new public publishers, in particular university presses, and (2) dissociate virtual “publisher brand names” from “publication service company names”. The latter might be easier than one thinks. Scientists could set up a virtual publisher brand name such as “Open Linguistics”, and entrust the technical implementation to a company that runs the publication services. The company’s name does not appear prominently anywhere, and if a competing company offers better services, all “Open Linguistics” publications simply move to that other company.
However, option (2) presupposes an author-pays model of open access, but even if science funders invest heavily into supporting such an author-pays model, it will still exclude many authors from poorer countries. Moreover, monographs in the humanities are most often written by junior scholars who do not have as much access to funding as senior scholars.
Thus, universities and other science organizations should think seriously about expanding the “publisher-pays” model of publication. In this model, the publication costs are borne by the publisher, who gains prestige from its free publication activities, and nothing else. But since prestige is a very valuable asset, this is a rational investment. This has been understood by many smaller organizations. In my field of linguistics, journals such as the Finnish SKY Journal of Linguistics, the Croatian Suvremena Lingvistika and the Polish Lingua Posnaniensis, the Estonian Linguistica Uralica are free for readers AND authors. I think it is time that some of the bigger players understand this as well.