Beyond the zombies: How we might get out of the science publication disaster

By now, everyone knows that scholarly publication is serious trouble. The actual costs of disseminating content have plummeted drastically, and yet academic institutions are paying more and more to the commercial publishers. This feels deeply wrong – as if Facebook charged us for posting cat videos. In some fields such as linguistics, there has been a lot of discontent for quite a while. Johan Rooryck’s efforts to take the old “Lingua” away from Elsevier have been widely publicized, and Elsevier’s handling of the situation, as well as the continuation of “Zombie Lingua”, are regular talking points among linguists.

But while it’s easy to agree that Elsevier’s behaviour is outrageous, it is not so clear what a good general solution will look like. Some of us had hoped that the Lingua/Glossa example would be taken up by more and more other journals, and linguists (as well as academics in other fields) would increasingly move away from the commercial giants and adopt “fair open access” publication models. Authors would increasingly submit to the good journals (e.g. those on George Walkden’s platinum open access journal list), and there would be more book-publishing brands like “Language Science Press” which are based on community collaboration and charge neither authors nor readers.

Is this happening? I’m not sure. Most of our colleagues seem to have sympathies with what we activists are doing and saying, but at the moment, it takes quite a bit of extra effort to find an alternative model for one’s journal, or to typeset one’s book manuscript in LaTeX (as is required by LangSci Press). And with all the other pressures on academics, few people have these extra resources. There are over a hundred well-established linguistics journals, and the great majority of them show no signs of wanting to change their publication model.

One can understand this, because individual scholars are not really affected by the disastrous situation. While paywalls are sometimes a nuisance, the access we have to the literature has actually been getting better and better. This has largely happened thanks to developments that had nothing to do with our traditional literature providers (our academic libraries): First, more and more colleagues uploaded their papers to their personal websites (a development of the early 2000s), and then, and ResearchGate made it very easy to share one’s research with one’s colleagues. Again, it’s a nuisance that often one has access only to the manuscript version of a paper (because only the manuscript is truly public, while the “published” version is paywalled), but we’ve learned to live with this. We know that our institutions waste a lot of money on hugely overpriced content, and we feel that our libraries are less and less needed. But these problems do not affect us directly.

For a long time, open access seemed to be the solution to the problem of high subscription prices and lack of access – and it was taken up eagerly by politicians in some countries, because it seemed reasonable that the results of publicly funded research should be publicly accessible. But these politicians did not understand the logic of academic publishing: They saw research papers as providing insight that might benefit the society, whereas for an academic, a branded publication is a way to measure their professional success. And of course the default funding model of open access publication has always been APCs (author fees), so if a linguist is told that they should pay €10.000 to publish an open-access book with De Gruyter , they naturally prefer the traditional paywall route, and share the PDF privately with all those colleagues that are actually likely to read the book.

So the “science publication disaster” is a nuisance for ordinary academics, and a true disaster only for science funders, who have to spend more than US$10 billion per year on publication (i.e. about US$5,000 per article). Publishing an article does not cost more than a couple of hundred dollars, so one billion should be enough, and science would gain US$ 9 billion per year if we could “take back control”.

Probably the most successful academic-led effort to disrupt the disastrous system is Sci-Hub, which now gives access to 77% of all research articles (including 97% of Elsevier’s articles). This is not a legal site according to Western standards (although using Sci-Hub is at least partly legal, according to an expert opinion from Germany), but it is widely used by scientists from around the world, even for access to articles that are available through their institution – naturally enough, because Sci-Hub’s interface is as easy to use as Google.

Sci-Hub (or its successors) will not go away, so it seems clear that the transition to full open access will be very quick. Thanks to Sci-Hub, all paywalled journals are now zombies for the publishers. Even small, family-owned linguistics publishers like De Gruyter and Benjamins will charge linguists for publication in the future, maybe even the near future – there will not be any alternative business model left.

But will this solve the problem that science funders spend $9 billion too much for publication? No, because the publishers have the same costs and want the same profits. If they can get away with it, they will charge the same amounts in author fees that they have traditionally received through subscriptions. And since we need their brands, they may well get away with it.

The only long-term solution that I see is for scientists to implement the principle of non-profit publication (as recently argued forcefully by Jefferson Pooley on the LSE blog). We take the academic freedom that comes from the non-profit nature of our research for granted – and in the same way, we should demand non-profit publication to free ourselves from the publication zombies.

If publishing were funded in the same way as research (e.g. by giving 20-year tenure to a journal after it has been evaluated positively), then it could be vastly cheaper, because the funders/publishers (mostly universities, but maybe also charities like the Gates Foundation) could buy the technical services from the cheapest bidder. The value of publication brands (like journal titles or book imprints) would be used in the same way as university brands are used at present: To attract the brightest minds and to motivate people to do the best science, rather than to extort money from science budgets.

This will not be easy, because our evaluation system relies on prestigious journal labels and book imprints, which are mostly owned by for-profit organizations. A book publication with Cambridge University Press still carries a lot of weight on everyone’s CV, and a paper in Springer’s NLLT is much better than a paper in the platinum journal Catalan Journal of Linguistics. The brand owners will do everything they can to preserve the value of their brands (this is what we see with Lingua, a brand whose value has been severely compromised, but that Elsevier doesn’t want to give up on).

Thus, even if we had enough funders willing to redirect money from their libraries to journal publication, there would still have to be a shift in the behaviour of the community. We would have to distinguish between “best-practice publishers” and “legacy publishers”, and there would have to be some mechanism for rewarding best-practice publication and penalizing legacy publication, to counteract the prestige of the old-style labels.

Thus, I see no easy way out of the current predicament. But maybe a disruptive development will come from a direction where nobody is expecting it now. One thing is for sure: The present system is a disaster, and is ripe for major change, going far beyond individual journals and individual disciplines.


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