Scholarly publishing: time for a regulator?

“…price rises coupled with high profits, mis-selling scandals […] and a lack of transparency over bills have destroyed consumers’ trust […], a committee of MPs has said in a report that also criticises the sector’s watchdog for failing to take effective action.

The […] committee said consumer fears that price rises were out of step with the underlying costs […] were valid, and the regulator was not doing enough to ensure companies were open and transparent.”

So ran the opening lines of Fiona Harvey’s recent piece in the Guardian about the UK’s energy suppliers and Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets), the arms-length body set up by government to regulate them. As I read her report I found myself wondering: why isn’t there an equivalent organisation — an Ofpub — to oversee the ‘market’ in scholarly publishing?

Ofgem operates completely independently of the supply companies and has a duty to represent the interests of consumers:

“Our priority is protecting and making a positive difference for all energy consumers through promotion of value for money, security of supply and sustainability, for present and future generations. We do this through the supervision and development of markets, regulation and the delivery of government schemes.

There’s a similar body — Ofwat – to regulate the water supply industry, whose job is “to make sure that your water company provides you with a good quality service at a fair price”.

And Ofcom oversees telecommunications and broadcasting services. It regulates “TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate” and is required to “make sure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services and are protected from scams and sharp practices, while ensuring that competition can thrive.”

Together these organisations are charged by the government with ensuring that citizens in the UK have good and affordable access to services that are considered to be basic necessities in a modern society. Their existence embodies government recognition of the unusual features of the markets in the provision of water, gas, electricity and communications. The markets are effectively ‘captive’ since our society agrees that everyone should have reasonable access to these services. Moreover, several of the major providers were previously nationalised industries and part of the role of the regulators is to ensure that, following privatisation, they should be actively inhibited from monopolising the markets in which they operate.

The comparison is not perfect but arguably there are strong parallels between the markets in basic utilities and scholarly publishing, which researchers would regard as an amenity that is fundamental to their work and livelihoods. The case for regulation is strengthened by the fact that the publishing market is currently dominated by a small number of large companies and that the major consumers of academic journals —universities and research institutions — are publicly funded. There is also the unusual consideration that in this market, these same publicly funded consumers are also the primary, though largely unpaid, producers of the goods that publishers sell, as authors, reviewers and editors.

So why is there not an Ofpub? It is easy to think up duties for such a body, which of course should operate independently of publishing companies.

It could be tasked with ensuring that the UK get value for money for the millions that it spends annually on journal subscriptions, and so avoiding the serials crisis; with reining in the excessive profit margins of publishing companies (whether toll or open access)*; with fostering an innovative and efficient market in open access publishing (to promote government policy); with enforcing green open access deposition mandates; with requiring publishers to display ‘health warnings’ on adverts for their highly questionable impact factors and, better yet, links to full and appropriately statistical reports on the performance of all the articles in their journals; with applying penalties to companies that attempt to game the system by publishing fake journals or by artificially inflating citation counts.

That seems to me a reasonable wish list for such a body though I appreciate  the matter is not entirely straight-forward. Academic research is very often an international affair so regulatory mechanisms based on models to govern the provision of services on a national basis may not be the most appropriate. Complications may also arise from different approaches to regulation across the globe. However, there are enough ongoing experiments in international coordination of markets and regulatory frameworks, from the EU to the World Trade Organisation, to suggest that the international dimension of the problem may be surmountable.

But to return finally and briefly to the UK, the absence of an Ofpub highlights a fundamental problem in present government policy on open access scholarly publishing, as defined in the Finch report and its subsequent interpretation by RCUK: it has failed to resolve the conflicting interests of the companies that provide publishing services and the communities they are supposed to serve, the most important ones being the academic consumer-producers and the much larger group of taxpayer-citizens.

It is not hard to see how this happened since the composition of the Finch working group included publishers’ representatives and Dame Janet Finch has acknowledged publicly that part of her working group’s remit was to not damage the publishing industry. It is clear from the report — now just over a year old — and from the very mixed reaction to it from scholars, that the publishing representatives did a very good job of protecting their interests.

The government’s approach to scholarly publishing contrasts markedly with its attitude to the regulation of other public utilities. Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom operate independently of industry interests on behalf of the nation and its citizens. Is it not time to establish a similarly robust and independent regulator for scholarly publishing?

 

*Earlier this year, Ofgem revealed that some suppliers were earning profit margins of 24% and above on energy generation, but some major publishers are reckoned to extract margins closer to 40% (see reports in Nature and The Economist).

This entry was posted in Open Access and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Scholarly publishing: time for a regulator?

  1. Graham Steel says:

    “Is it not time to establish a similarly robust and independent regulator for scholarly publishing?” ABSOLUTELY.

    I seem to recall this was briefly touched upon during the House of Commons BIS Select Committee Inquiry into Open Access.

  2. Absolutely. I’ve been saying this on and off for about 5 years. But the self-appointed gurus of #openaccess shout the idea down. I had hoped SPARC could have done some of this. As it is it’s left to irregulars like us to point out the the unacceptable practices. Why do libraries not do this – they’re paid to manage scholarly pub? But their time is now past.

  3. Whilst we wait for a proper regulator… we do have some limited options.

    May I suggest we write a detailed letter of complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (http://www.asa.org.uk/) about some of the misleading marketing that the traditional publishers do, particularly around ‘open access’.

    The ‘open access’ that many of the traditional publishers are selling as a service/product for customers (UK academics) does not conform to the very definition of open access (http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read).

    As such I would think this comes under the remit of the ASA, no? Many academics are *actively* being mis-sold products/services that they mistakenly believe to be ‘open access’. We just need to gather of examples those conned into buying CC BY-NC et cetera. I’m sure there are a few. Nor is this any laughing matter – I’m sure they’ll be consequences for academics who don’t comply with the new RCUK OA policy. So it *is* a matter of importance, and something that should be investigated and ideally, regulated.

    • Stephen says:

      I presume we can rely on RCUK to enforce its policy. It has promised to do so. Although the actual mechanisms are yet to be detailed, they should probably follow Wellcome in enforcing future grant penalties if the policy is not complied with.

      But the idea of a regulator is to take a wider view of the whole publishing industry to take up the cause of consumers.

      As regards ASA complaints (an approach that has worked well with challenges to alternative medicine), we would need an enforceable definition of ‘open access’. Might be worth a test case.

  4. Jason Hoyt says:

    Completely agree with you, Stephen. Last October WIRED argued for the same transparency in the health care industry in the US, something that dramatically improved the auto industry for consumers in the 1950s. What’s needed is an “auto sticker price” for scholarly works; the industry is too opaque.

    The only thing to look out for in any regulation is whether it has potential to hamstring startups who already have difficulty navigating numerous regulatory requirements. Startup margins are usually pretty thin, such as with PeerJ where we’re charging just $99 for life to publish Open Access. Depending on the regulation (e.g. requiring expensive income audits), it might make sense to set a revenue threshold, so that small startups have fewer barriers. Regulatory barriers are a double edged sword that large corporations can utilize to their advantage as it stifles competition from upstarts. Thinking through the potential pitfalls and setting up thresholds can mitigate any unintended consequences.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree one has to be careful about setting up regulatory mechanisms. However, a body set up in the interests of the research community would surely be able to find a way to foster innovative start-ups.

  5. Given the major publishing houses adoption of ludicrously twisted definitions of “open access” I wonder if there’d be any mileage in a prosecution under the Trade Description Act? It’s very down on misleading sales material: up to 2 year prison sentence if guilty.
    I’m sure there’d be more than a few people happy to chip in a tenner to pay the lawyers to help get such a case under way.

  6. While it is a good idea in principle. most such regulators have proved hopelessly ineffective (and expensive). Too often, they end up endorsing bad practice.

    A simpler, and far cheaper, option for biomedical sciences (where, sadly, the largest problems seem to lie) would be to set up a system like the physicists’ ArXiv, and bypass the old-fashioned publishers altogether.

    • Stephen says:

      Trouble is, I don’t see that happening any time soon – even though PeerJ are experimenting in that direction.

      For all their faults, the regulators do at least provide an authoritative focus for publicising criticism of poor service or profiteering.

      • Well it could happen quite quickly. The problem is to find the right person to get it off the ground.

        Anything that adds to the already extortionate costs is not a very satisfactory solution. In the age of the web, publishing should be very cheap.

        I don’t think any organisation would have much success in regulating Elsevier or NPG. But it would be easy to put them out of business.

  7. Interesting idea, although several major distinctions between UK public “utility” markets and scholarly publishing come to mind:

    1) Publishing is part of a highly international market. UK-based publishers are only a fraction of that market, and they themselves get much of their research and revenues from outside UK — those outside parties aren’t subject to UK law. By contrast, UK utility customers are entirely in the UK.

    2) Who are the ‘consumers’? You suggest it’s primarily UK researchers, but I’d say it’s at a minimum all UK citizens, if publicly funded, and by scholarly or Open Access principles, it’s for global public good. Also, corporate researcher are major producers and consumers of research materials, regulating them may raise issues.

    3) Utility markets are generally regulated because they have characteristics of natural monopolies, or were public monopolies. There’s essentially only one water-delivery system, power grid, or electromagnetic spectrum. Publishing, particularly Internet-based, in theory is close to the exact opposite situation — low barriers to entry, new entrants all the time, and wide-open competition for every user’s income or attention. It’s also rapidly evolving and innovative, the circumstances which a regulator is perhaps least able to handle well.

    4) Finally, and perhaps most crucially, publishing is freedom of expression. Knowledge and speech, especially as expressed in publishing, have a unique historical, cultural, and legal position, based on recognition of their crucial role in maintaining an open society. Controlling any part of the publishing system with a regulator raises all kinds of issues of prior restraint, censoring, harms from regulatory capture, etc. It would probably be subject to extensive challenge on press-freedom grounds.

    Many of the duties you describe giving the hypothetical OfPub seems sensible, and perhaps in part of happening via e.g. RCUK and HEFCE policy-setting. However, I’d fear that if I needed to get an OfPub license, and demonstrate adherence to all its regulations for your listed goals, before I could publish in the UK academic market, this could be a powerful restraint of trade and knowledge production.


    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick tjm.org Palo Alto, California

    • Stephen says:

      To respond to your points:

      1) The provision of utilities in the UK is also, arguably, part of an international market; for example, EDF (Electricite de France) is a French company. The regulator could confine themselves to protecting UK consumers, though as I mention in the post, the possibility of internataional level regulation (e.g. at EU level) should not be overlooked.

      2) I included UK academics and taxpayer-citizens in my definition of ‘consumers’ – not ‘primarily UK researchers’. I would expect a regulator to look out for the interests of all users.

      3) The dominance of scholarly publishing by a small number of very large companies, coupled with the fact that journals are non-fungible and that most users are insulated from the real cost of the goods, raises the threat of monopolistic behaviour and inhibits effective competition between vendors. A regulator could be charged with finding ways to promote competition. One possibility in the context of UK policy on open access might be to refuse to fund hybrid open access charges — the present RCUK policy allowing these tends to favour established players.

      4) The proposal has nothing to do with content; it is primarily concerned with charging mechanisms in a market dominated by public expenditure. Your argument on this point is framed so loosely that a policy favouring open access might be regarded as interference in ‘freedom of expression’!

  8. in response to Ross Mounce and Douglas Carnall: the notion that use of term “open access” can be restricted to a single usage, or is definitively and finally set by the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration, is essentially a fixation of a minority of open-access advocates, primarily from STEM disciplines, who refuse to accept longstanding other ways the term is used. There is no trademark, settled usage, or enforceable definition, upon which any claim of false advertising, deceptive trade practices, etc., could be based.

    The topic has been debated for many years, and a BOAI-specific meaning rejected by leading figures in the field, such as Stevan Harnad, Peter Suber, and John Willinsky, as well as in general usage in the publishing field, Wikipedia, the UK government, etc. To keep promoting it now suggests either unfamiliarity with the field, or a dogmatic view and lack of openness to other viewpoints.

  9. Everything that Tim McCormick says reinforces my view that regulation wouldn’t work. Elsevier is much too big and to rich/greedy for that, The only way out is to make Elsevier redundant. If you don’t write for their journals, or referee for them, they’d reform or go out of business. It isn’t very hard.

    • Stephen says:

      There’s no doubt that the current regulatory mechanisms for utilities in the UK are far from perfect, as this editorial in today’s Guardian on Ofwat makes clear.

      But I still feel that a regulator could draw attention to the defects in the current market — including excessive profiteering by the likes of Elsevier and Wiley.

  10. > The proposal has nothing to do with content;

    I think that from a legal standpoint it’s difficult to distinguish regulation of publishers from regulation of published content. In a US context, for example, anything that would requires a publisher to be pre-authorized would probably be challenged as a form of “prior restraint,” i.e. presumptive censorship. We had a bit of a go-around with your people in the 18th C, after all, and your government’s system of requiring publishers and documents to be regulated and taxed, i.e. the Stamp Tax. That was a key US colonial grievances leading to (what we call the) U.S. War of Independence.

    > Your argument on this point is framed so loosely that a policy
    > favouring open access might be regarded as interference in
    > ‘freedom of expression’!

    yes, correct. For example, if an ‘OfPub’ regulator sought to require that all scholarly publishing be open access — as opposed to current policies which just in certain ways mandate it for published journal articles from publicy-funded research — then I’d see it as a clear interference with freedom of press/expression. Freedom of the press means presuming against letting the government exercise any control, beyond those sanctioned by established legal doctrines such as copyright law, libel, perhaps obscenity or inciting violence, etc.

    In general, I think a legal/economic analysis might question the concept of researchers as a “captive market.” What truly compels any researcher, university, or funding body to continue paying or contributing to any publisher? If anything, an outside observer might be struck by the unusual degree of power the academic/research community has to take action by itself, since it is the primary supplier of the publishing industry’s total labor and content.

    Arguably it’s a collective-action failure on the part of the academic/research world, which has not yet weaned itself from or reformed the outmoded status structures it has institutionalized. In theory any scholar, lab, department, library, or university could, tomorrow, stop any further allocation of money or labor to any publisher they wished — and many researchers/scholars have already done exactly that. Not all, but some actors in the system have tremendous power to take action: for example, senior and tenured professors, the members of tenure committees, and the administrators of top universities. Yet by and large they’ve let inertia, immediate self-interest, and fear of losing position in the status contest prevent them from taking necessary actions.

    I’d also observe that the path of addressing these issues through government policy has led to the present Finch/RCUK policies, which appear to have been heavily influenced by commercial publishing interests, and led to an internationally-outlying Gold-OA-centered system which is quite amenable to keeping the conventional publishers in business. This illustrates the problem of regulatory capture, or how regulated parties/industries tend to exert some or total control over their regulators.

    Governments tend to take a “stakeholder” approach to issues, which means serving the current and best-represented, best-lobbied interests, which aren’t necessarily the future’s or the public’s or the academy’s. I think universities might better display their distinct and high value by exercising moral and intellectual leadership by themselves, and unilaterally acting to break the ‘status cartel,’ as they could, rather than hoping the government will do it for them, and suffering further unintended consequences when it doesn’t.


    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick tjm.org Palo Alto, California

    • Stephen says:

      Some interesting points Tim, though some I’d take issue with.

      Firstly, “your people”? Careful now. It’s complicated.

      “if an ‘OfPub’ regulator sought to require that all scholarly publishing be open access — as opposed to current policies which just in certain ways mandate it for published journal articles from publicy-funded research — then I’d see it as a clear interference with freedom of press/expression”

      I’m not proposing that. Nor I think has anyone else. The regulator I envisaged in my post would look to oversee all scholar publishing, irrespective of funding model.

      As regards the captive market, well you might equally argue that no-one is obliged to use electricity… The comparison with utilities holds, in my view, because publishing is an intrinsic and basic activity at the heart of scholarly research. And the serials crisis indicates that the market isn’t working effectively (in part because researchers are blinded to costs).

      “Arguably it’s a collective-action failure on the part of the academic/research world, which has not yet weaned itself from or reformed the outmoded status structures it has institutionalized.”

      This point has more legs and I largely agree with you that academics and our institutions are partly to blame. However, there is also the question of making sure we get good value for money for public expenditure on journal subscriptions and APCs. There is the taxpayer to consider.

      “I’d also observe that the path of addressing these issues through government policy has led to the present Finch/RCUK policies…”

      I’d observe that’s an example of bad regulation since the government has not prioritised the interests of the consumers or taxpayers. Clearly, politics has got in the way and I suspect you are right about governments listening to all stakeholders (their well paid lobbyists) but all I am asking is, if regulators are appropriate for services such as the gas and water supply, why not scholarly publishing?

      • > As regards the captive market, well you might equal
        > argue that no-one is obliged to use electricity…

        Everyone using/needing something doesn’t, in itself, make it a captive market. We all need air, food, shoes, and clothes, but face little constraint on from whom we get them. A captive market is one where potential consumers face a severely limited number of competitive suppliers.

        In a sense the scholarly publishing market has such qualities because:
        a) there is oligopolical concentration in publishers, particularly in STEM journals with Elsever, Springer, & Wiley publishing 40%+ of articles and capturing very high profit margins; and
        b) research publications (non-open-access) are observed to be “non-fungible,” i.e. a specific published work is typically published and available in only one place, so one cannot substitute another source for it.

        On the other hand, re. a) there is also a large number and “long tail” of non-oligopoly suppliers, and sufficiently low barriers to entry in the market to allow many significant new entrants, e.g. PLOS, BioMed Central, Frontiers, PeerJ. Regarding b), as I suggested above, the academic/research world in theory has great agency to address the problem itself, e.g. by setting policies of not funding, purchasing, working for, or basing career advancement on legacy/oligopoly/conventional publishing.

        I tend to think that if the research/academic word could address these issues by itself, then by contrast inviting in government regulation as solution could be a Faustian bargain. There’s nothing assuring, even necessarily predicting good regulation, and incumbent parties are actually in powerful positions to mold the situation to self-advantage. Also, the academic/scholarly community would further subject itself to risks of political/managerial control, which is already a major issue with the REF, and especially in HSS disciplines, in which there is perception of hostile political ideology behind moves such as the fees regime and drops in funding for non-STEM subject teaching.

        > Firstly, “your people”? Careful now. It’s complicated.

        quite. I say this in jest, and irony particularly since I’m a dual US/UK citizen, grew up 1/2 in UK, & have British (Irish Catholic) mother. It’s funny to be a citizen at once of two countries that spent a good part of their modern histories at war with each other. Growing up, Thanksgiving & Independence Day were a bit puzzling — my mother liked to refer to the 4th of July as “a day of mourning” for the lost colony..

        • Stephen says:

          It’s true that there is a long tail of smaller outfits but market inefficiencies revealed by the prevalence of bundles and the ongoing serials crisis still suggest that big players have too much clout. The point I am particularly concerned about is that most of the funding for subscriptions comes from the public purse; as a taxpayer, I think measures need to be taken to ensure better value for money.

          I appreciate American sensitivities over ‘regulation’ (perhaps sharper than in the UK); however, the US does have pretty robust anti-trust legislation. In any case, regulation can be about adjusting the market that everyone is free to participate in.

          With regard to the point that the academic community should get its act together in its own financial interests, I have to ask: how? We don’t appear to have a unified organisation. Creation of a regulatory office — at arms length from government (like Ofgem etc and the research councils) — staffed by people from the academic domain (former researchers, librarians etc. from across different disciplines), might give the community the focus it needs to take action.

  11. Mike Taylor says:

    This idea appeals to my sense of humour, but I don’t see it really getting us much closer to where we want to be. When the likes of Elsevier are bringing in $5000 for each paywalled article and slicing off 30-40% as profit, then a regulator that insisted on a smaller, or even zero, profit, would cut this down to $3000-$3500. But that is still an absurd amount. What we want is surely not a one-off reduction in subscription budgets, but a proper shift to proper open access provided by publishers who exist to make publications public.

    I agree with David Colquhoun that it’s easier to put parasitic publishers out of business than the meaningfully regulate them. But it’s also better to do so.

    • Stephen says:

      You could well be right but I suspect a regulator could make them feel uncomfortable and bring much unwanted attention to their poor value for money.

    • Richard Sever says:

      I sympathize with the sentiment. However, the shift in the industry from subscriber pays (profit maximized by quality) to author pays (profit maximized by quantity) favors publishers who can gain economies of scale. Thus it’s the small publishers – often non-profits and societies – who are most threatened. The likes of Elsevier are possibly least likely to to be “put out of business” but instead merely adapt to a business model pioneered by PLoS and, as we have seen, just start bringing in $5000 for each non-paywalled article.

      It would be interesting to see whether a regulator could control APCs. The big problem here is that competition to bring the price down will inevitably come at the expense of costs/services (plagiarism detection, image screening, etc.) that are of little interest to the ‘customer’ (the paying author) but potentially important to readers/science. Add the economies of scale and you may have a situation where a standard, “fair” APC leaves room for a hefty profit for a large commercial publisher but little margin for a small non-profit.

      As for the notion of ‘zero’ profit, while that might appeal to the old European socialist in me, I don’t think we live in a world where that’s conceivable.

      • “As for the notion of ‘zero’ profit, while that might appeal to the old European socialist in me, I don’t think we live in a world where that’s conceivable”

        Not is only perfectly conceivable, but it already happens, in physics and especially in mathematics. Biomedical sciences seems to be far more transfixed by publishing on particular journals (i.e. transfixed by the ghastly impact factor) than other areas of science.

        It’s perfectly easy to bring down profiteers like Elsevier, as Tim Gowers has pointed out. Just stop submitting papers to their journals and stop refereeing for them.

        I don’t know how many times it needs to be said before it penetrates the brains of biomedical scientists and administrators. There is NO detectable correlation between the number of times a paper and the impact factor of the journal in which it appears/

        • Oops. Last comment should end
          There is NO detectable correlation between the number of times a paper is cited and the impact factor of the journal in which it appears.

        • Richard Sever says:

          Hi David

          I’d love to believe you. Indeed, this fall we at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are launching bioRxiv, a non-profit pre-print server for biology [see bioRxiv.org ] that will complement the physics arXiv (its creator Paul Ginsparg is on the Advisory Board) to attempt to do just this.

          My point was really that I don’t think profit-making entities will go away in this sphere, like most of the world. In physics, arXiv exists alongside numerous traditional journals, the majority of which make a surplus/profit. Moreover in biology, as you point out, many authors appear to be ‘transfixed’ by the Impact Factor. Thus while it may be easy to “bring down profiteers like Elsevier” in theory, I’d suggest that all the evidence – from the original boycott letter >10 years ago that demanded public access within six months, to the successful launch of commercial OA journals like Nature Communications and Cell Reports, alongside the continued health of their subscription-based siblings – indicates that this won’t happen in practice.

          • Stephen says:

            Richard,

            I wish you the best of luck with bioRxiv – it will be interesting to see how that takes root, though I confess I’m pessimistic about the pace of cultural change required to sell this to the biomed community.

            For myself, I’m not looking to eradicate ‘for profit’ companies from academic publishing. I think good, healthy market competition can (in principle) bring innovations and affordable quality. I don’t entirely accept your original assertion that:

            “competition to bring the price down will inevitably come at the expense of costs/services (plagiarism detection, image screening, etc.) that are of little interest to the ‘customer’ (the paying author) but potentially important to readers/science.”

            For one thing, I think many of those services are of interest to authors (since they protect their reputations in the long term). For another, the size of current profit margins suggests there is certainly room for reducing prices without affecting quality.

            • Richard Sever says:

              I certainly hope you’re right. It is important to recognize the significant costs of such services (on top of archiving, XML conversion, typesetting, editing, etc.), and I worry their adoption may be slowed by asking authors to foot the bill. Billing funding agencies directly might get around this.

          • Go for it. I think you will get energy from young people in some branches of bioscience. Probably not chemistry – don’t know about biochemistry.

            Data is also a very good place to start

          • That sounds like a really good idea. I very much hope it succeeds. In the longer run, perhaps it could begin to supplant old-fashioned journals.

            I’ve signed up at http://biorxiv.org/ for more information,

            I was at Cold Spring Harbor in June. I wish I’d known about it then.

            “New journals” like Nature Communications are part of the problem, not the solution. They charge an extortionate $5000. That’s profiteering on the basis of some people’s obsession with anything that has Nature in the title, Only the rich will be able to afford that sort of amount. To them that hath shall be given.

  12. Although the idea of an independent regulator for the publishing industry is certainly appealing, I have to agree with David and Mike that the particularities of academic publishing make it easier to bypass publishers rather than to regulate them. This can easily happen when the research community reclaims the only important value publishers add to the academic “product”, which is the control of quality through administering the peer review process. In fact, publishing is no more an issue for academics as “making public” is offered for free through digital libraries and archives, institutional and disciplinary repositories and even authors’ websites and blogs. What we still need publishers for is NOT to make our work public, but to get a quality certificate that right now only publication in prestigious, high IF journals can attribute.

    So, it all depends on how soon and how efficiently the research community develops an alternative, journal-independent evaluation system to regain quality control over its own work [1]. This exactly is the motivation and philosophy behind a not-for-profit, community-based project we are about to launch this October (see: http://www.libreapp.org and http://www.openscholar.org.uk), aiming at enabling an author-guided open and transparent peer review that can start as complementary to journal peer review, but can hopefully develop into a more fast, efficient and complete evaluation system.

    Taking, eventually, quality control away from journals will force them to reinvent themselves and focus on other useful services, such as creating collections of interesting articles (already openly and rigorously evaluated by the community) and disseminating them to specific audiences, inviting review papers on hot topics, publishing editorials and letters by readers, initiating debates and engaging the academic community, etc. We should of course expect that publishers will charge more reasonable prices for these services as they will have lost the element that currently renders them indispensable for the scientific enterprise.

    [1] Perakakis, P. Taylor, M., MAzza, M., Trachana, V. (2010). Natural Selection of Academic Papers. Scientometrics 85.
    http://www.academia.edu/1222917/Natural_selection_of_academic_papers

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment and good luck with your new initiative — I will certainly be looking out for it when it launches in the autumn.

      I agree there are many problems with the idea of a regulator but I’m sure you are also aware of what barriers there are to getting the academic community to wean itself away from the journal-dependent valuation system. That’s partly why I think we might need semi-autonomous agency to provide an external kick.