Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fragments: Academic Self-Publishing

After traveling to Sweden, I'm behind on The Economist. The May 28th issue had an interesting article on academic publishing. The essence of the article is that academic publishers are doing very well, university libraries (and the university system in general) struggle for money, and the approach publishers use of bundling journals together to maximize profit. Don't believe me, you can read the article, Of Goats and Headaches.

Having paid a lot of attention to the e-book market and POD publishing for fiction, I find it interesting to contrast fiction and the academic markets. Fiction writing includes a number of costs: the writer, the cover art, editing, marketing, physical printing, warehousing, etc.. Whereas academic publishing doesn't pay the writer, cover art can be very simple, and the editors often work for free as well. The journals, or rather the editors, act as gatekeepers performing peer review and determining which papers are of publishable quality.

I'm surprised that the academic market hasn't switched away from expensive journals. Especially since, the intent of the writers is to be read -- largely so they can be cited which will be an indication of the quality of their research and therefore help in their promotion. Many professors publish their papers on their webpages. It would seem to me that it would be trivial for a professor to create an e-book, or to do the POD publishing themselves. However, the most important aspect is distribution and the discovery of articles. Academic libraries should encourage their professor colleagues to consider electronic distribution. The money that was saved could be spent on improving search and discovery methods for papers.


  1. The problem with this is what you already mentioned: the peer review. Peer Review is of paramount importance in academic publishing. Nobody's going to cite an academic paper that hasn't been peer-reviewed. But without an established procedure for obtaining that peer validation prior to publication... how could self-publishing work?

  2. Hi Stephen, I probably wasn't clear. When I say self-publishing, I'm thinking of the academics who are acting as editors, not the academics writing the papers. In my opinion, there is no value for the professors who are acting as editors to the big publishers.

    (1) The editors aren't paid.
    (2) The editors already post the calls for papers, etc. so they won't stop getting submissions.
    (3) In at least computer science, chemistry & physics, the editors are responsible for getting papers to final galley-proof, so the primary value the publishers provide is the channel to sell to libraries.

    Publishers primarily provide distribution. However, the people being sold to in this model are academics & libraries and neither of these two rally depend on the publisher for finding the appropriate journals.

  3. Ah, that does clear things up a bit. I'm not in academcis, so I don't know that much about what goes on there... my exposure mostly comes in the form of references in journalism/news to papers "Published in the Journal of X", where "Journal of X" is an academic, peer-reviewed journal.