Is the Academic Publishing Ecosystem Unbalanced?

The world of academic publishing has got to be a case study in scholarly symbiotic relationships waiting to happen. (Or, for the cynical, a study on parasitic relationships.)

On the one hand, you have the faculty who need to get published in order to maintain their steady progress through the tenure process (for those lucky enough to get tenure, but that’s another story). In writing their papers, they need to have access to other scholarly work in order to support/contrast/argue against so as to build upon established and accepted works. The faculty rely on the library to procure these sources, whether through subscription (most likely) or article requests (a different sort of expense from my understanding). The faculty get their sources, write their papers, and get them published in whatever journal they can get accepted to.

On the other hand, you have the journal providers. They have gone out and made the deals necessary to be the owners or distributors for these journals. These providers want to put their subscriptions into the hands of the greatest number of institutions for both basic revenue reasons and the idea of building a scholarly following. (I might just be engaged in wishful thinking, but I would imagine that part of their mindset would be something like this.) The more subscribers they have, the greater chance that their papers will be cited, the more citations means that there will be a greater demand for that journal as time goes by, therefore the more potential future subscriptions could result. Their relationship with the library is crucial to getting the information and data into the hands of the faculty.

Does it sound right so far? Faculty need the journals for both research and publishing for advancement; the journals need people to submit papers, subscribe to their content, and increase the academic reputation of their holdings. Everyone gets something out of it so everyone is happy; it’s a (relatively) balanced scholarly ecosystem.

Unless, like any real ecosystem, you change one of the variables. Like raising subscription prices. Or making exclusive deals. Or restricting or limiting access. Or writing licensing agreements that are not research friendly. There are possibly a few things that I’m missing that my readers will be happy to point out, but you get the drift.

It is hardly a surprise that there is a movement towards open access; it’s a natural reaction towards a change in the scholarly environment. Because when “you have to have it” meets “we can’t afford it” or “it’s unreasonable to get it”, something has to give.

I’m going to be following this closely since it creates a remarkable dilemma. Will it create a slowing effect on the pace of academic research, thus depriving these journals of the quantity and quality of papers they need to continue? Will faculty seek alternatives that defy the traditional scholarly order and looks towards open access or shared research consortiums? How much can either side afford to give in order to continue their respective work?

I look forward to any comments or insights on this one. Because from my vantage point on the outside, it doesn’t look like a healthy environment.


I want to acknowledge these posts since inspired me to write this little ditty:

Meredith Farkas, Faculty inertia and change in scholarly publishing

Barbara Fister, Breaking News: Academic Journals are Really Expensive!

If you don’t subscribe to them in your respective reader, you really should.