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.

3 thoughts on “Is the Academic Publishing Ecosystem Unbalanced?

  1. Thanks for the provocative article. It’s certainly a complicated situation, made more so by the very possibility of a more open-access arrangement. The ecosystem analogy is an apt one.

    I don’t think the first possibility that you propose at the end there is very likely – publishing is already incredibly slow and cumbersome, but fortunately it hasn’t stopped academics from conducting research or seeking outlets to present it (a lack of funding and university investment is a bigger worry there). The second possibility – academics turning to alternatives to the old order – is more likely, and in fact there are already plenty of examples: from classic “popular” venues like magazines and op-ed pages to the rise of scholarly blogs and web-portals to edited but rapid-turnaround online publications like and others. A major study on some such alternatives can be found here:

    But despite this diversification, peer review is an invaluable tradition and it isn’t going anywhere, nor are, in one form or another, the journals. This is where there is a third element to the ecosystem: reviewers. Both journals and authors are dependent on them, but in most cases this element is even more ‘out of balance’, with little incentive to complete anything on time and a skewed population of potential reviewers within the closed systems of individual journals. These are things we’re hoping to address at Scholastica (

    Thanks again. As a graduate student researcher and author (and frequent reviewer) myself, I’m also very curious to watch how all of these developments, from peer-review to the many alternatives, will change – and hopefully improve.

  2. Ok… spent some time reading and re-reading this and I think I have some valuable insight here. The first thing I’d like to point out is that the system has already started to change, albeit slowly and with much difficulty. Just yesterday the University of Kansas announced the formation of COAPI (Coalition of Open Access Policy Institutions) which includes 21 high profile universities who have all adopted open access policies calling their faculty to consider alternative options for publishing their research. Many schools tenure and promotion committees, including Florida State University where I am working on this exact issue, are adapting the faculty bylaws and allowing open access research and digital publications to hold some weight in the tenure process.

    In addition to what university adminisrative bodies are doing, individual faculty members and groups of interested folks are taking these matters into thier own hands and recreating the entire system of scholarly communication from the ground up. Take for instance Media Commons – this project aims to “transform what it means to “publish,” allowing the author, the publisher, and the reader all to make the process of such discourse just as visible as its product.” Basically, it is an experiment in “open peer review,” allowing the ubiquitious comment feature of the modern web to serve as the process by which the scholarship is tested and approved. Projects like this are a long way off from adoption in many schools with ridgid processes and guidelines about how Scholarship is supposed to work, but its picking up steam.

    The underlying point that all parties agree on is that juding scholarship by peer review is the most essential aspect of its value, and that model must remain in place. The good news is open access institutional repositories, open access journals, digital publications (like blogs), juried art exhibits, etc. etc. all are totally compatible with the peer review process. So no big deal right? Wrong. The issue lies with the culture of how and why faculty publish in journals, and the gift economy that complicates the journal’s place in this process.

    Here’s the scenario – Prof. A writes an article. She is 2 years from tenure and need to publish it in a high profile jounral. Lucky for her, the article is accepted to said jounral. She donates her scholarly work – the article – for free, to the journal. Prof.’s B, C and D serve as reviewers for said journal. They read (peer review) the article, donating their time, for free, to continue the process. Finally, said journal publishes the article in a nice fancy booklet, and perhaps a digital version too, and sells that product to the very library and the very instituion where Prof. A is employed. The library MUST have this jounral available and pays ever increasing rates to ensure access to these articles for faculty and students on campus. And thus continues the cycle. Free work from scholars is sold to their libraries.

    Open access offers an option to alter this system. Scholarly blogging offers another option. But, fundamentally, faculty at our universities continue to participate in this cycle because it’s just what they do. Teaching, Service and Research – where service and research are wrapped up in this off-kilter model of production. My work right now, and I think the work of many librarians in the future as this stuff grows in profile, is to inform faculty that there are other options to consider. And you know what? It’ll take a bold, rebellious faculty member to consider breaking outside of the cycle to try something new. The bottom line, and a selling point for open access that seems to ring well with faculty, is that publically funded research, morally, should be publically available. I think on the horizon that open peer review will be a plausible model in which peers, grad students, undergrads and the general public will all be able to openly participate in the scholarlship of our professorate. But, for now it’s still an uphill battle.

    I could go on for hours – if you’d like to explore this more, feel free to email me, or comment below. I’ll be posting this to my personal blog too.

  3. Pingback: An (imaginary) clash between the humanities and sciences « teasandbooks

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