Thursday, March 8, 2012

Peer Pubs

The land of academic publishing and peer-reviewed journals is a strange land indeed. The business is dominated by a handful of publishing companies, notably the big four: Elsevier, Springer, John Wiley & Sons, and Informa. And don't think its just a niche market; those companies make tons of money and are hugely profitable. In the first quarter of 2011, Wiley made over $250 million with a profit margin of 43%! The largest of the four, Elsevier, made over $1.1 billion in 2010 and 36% of that went straight to the shareholders as profit. Wow. How in the world can there be such a giant market for publications like The Journal of Small Ruminant Research ("The official journal of the International Goat Association")? And why is it such a profitable business?
Well, here's how it works. These refereed journals are periodic anthologies of  scholarly papers and articles on fairly narrow topics (like goat research). They are written, understandably, by academics and researchers and they often document painstaking research and, sometimes, groundbreaking results in thousands of different fields of study. To ensure the accuracy, novelty, and relevance of these results, a long-standing peer review process has evolved in which highly reputable members of the same research community review, accept, or reject submissions. The collections are planned and organized usually by an editor, who is also a member of the same research community, like, for example, the community of researchers in the field of parallel and distributed computing.

Great!, you say. We want these smart, creative researchers to make gobs of money because they are actually adding huge value to our body of knowledge and, eventually, our economy as well. Out of those billions of dollars, how much does the author of one of these articles get paid? Well, nothing typically. They probably are getting a salary from a university or corporate research lab, and publishing research is considered part of their jobs, so they rarely get paid anything by the publishing companies. And besides, they get their name on the papers and enjoy all the fame and glory that comes from publishing a well-prepared, carefully researched treatise on ruminant husbandry or, ahem, byzantine agreement.

So what about the reviewers, whose names do not go up in lights? Yeah, they don't usually get paid either. Again, it's an expected part of their jobs. The editors? Nope.  It is such an honor to be asked to edit a series or even a volume of these prestigious publications that members of that same research community (heck, let's just call it a teamspace) do it for free. So basically, all the intellectual heavy lifting required to produce one of these journals is born by the teamspace itself with little or no monetary compensation expected.

The publishers keep all those $billions for themselves. But surely they provide some useful service, right? The answer is, they used to. In the old days, before the Internet, the publishers handled typesetting, copy editing, printing, distribution, and promotion (marketing). But today, either that stuff is being done by the teamspaces themselves (typesetting, copy editing, promotion) or simply isn't required anymore.  We love the Internet! It makes things cheaper for us consumers and more readily available to all of us. Since the hard work of peer-reviewed publishing is being done free of charge by all those various teamspaces, and since printing and distribution costs have essentially disappeared, I bet you think those journals and the research papers they contain can be had for a song now. Right?

Think again. A year's subscription to the Elsevier journal pictured above, just twelve issues, will cost a library about $1,200.  And that's the online cost! The publishers simply turn a switch  to give you access to somebody else's hard work and they charge you $100 per month per journal for that. University libraries must buy hundreds, perhaps thousands of these subscriptions and most researchers have little choice in the matter because they are required by their employers to publish in certain journals. The kind of open access we've come to expect on the Internet doesn't exist for these types of works, because the publishers make the authors sign over copyrights, again without compensation.  And then to pour salt on an already infected wound, the publishers spend some of that unearned revenue to lobby congress to pass vile, anti-competitive, anti-Internet laws with sickeningly misleading titles like the Research Works Act (RWA), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

To state the obvious, the international research community is composed of a bunch of really smart folks, and they won't allow this situation to persist for too much longer. Already, nearly 8,000 of them have signed a petition, a bill of rights really, called The Cost of Knowledge, pledging to boycott Elsevier's publications. And there appears to be stirrings of a broader revolt against this ridiculous status quo in the blogosphere.

Most researchers agree that the only real value-add provided by the publishers in this scenario is to provide a framework in which peer review can take place. Not that they actually do the reviews, that's done by the peers themselves. But they provide a framework, a societal network where researchers on any particular topic can socialize, collaborate, swap critiques and comments, reach consensus about which papers to publish in a given issue, and recognize and honor those members who have contributed in a positive way to the body of knowledge. It turns out, reputation is big in academia.  Does this framework sound familiar?

The land of academic publishing will, almost inevitably, evolve into something like the Ethosphere. There's little doubt about this, in my opinion.  To phrase it another way, an Ethosphere teamspace as I've described it in this blog is nothing more nor less than a topical, peer-reviewed, online publication without the parasitic middlemen.

In the Ethosphere, perhaps knowledge needn't cost so much after all.


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