How do you get from open-access journals to a co-operative university in three easy steps?

How do you get from open-access journals to a co-operative university in three easy steps? Could co-operative academic publishing be a back-door route to the Co-operative University?

Before Christmas I had a chat with Professor Harvey Goldstein about co-operative activities in Higher Education. Harvey is (among many, many other things) a section editor for an open access academic journal (Longitudinal and Life Course Studies) run on open-source software. We discussed the factors bearing upon the wider spread of this model.

Others have written about the Finch Report, and the debate on green- and gold-access. I won’t reprise those arguments here. Instead, I will ask if turbulence in the academic publishing sector in the wake of the Finch Report could lead to potential opportunities for co-operators?

Academic publishing is dominated by a few companies such as Pearson, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell Taylor & Francis. However, a wide variety of specialist and University presses continue to operate sustainably in niche markets. As Gusterson notes not all academics are happy with the status quo, where the most labour-intensive writing of all (the peer-reviewed type) pays nothing and costs their institutions a considerable amount of money to subscribe to, thus limiting access to what they have produced.

Academics and Universities share a pecuniary interest in developing a model of academic publishing that is more financially efficient for both producers and consumers. Given that the principal producers and consumers are academics and the tab for their production and consumption is being picked-up by their employers the universities, the existence of the publishers as ‘middle-men’ seems somewhat perverse.

Forward-thinking academics like Harvey are already developing alternatives to mainstream academic publishing, under their own steam, and often with the backing of professional associations. Their efforts are resulting in low-cost access to the latest research. It is not difficult to envisage how important debates might shift over into open access journals, leaving commercial counterparts trailing in the impact factor rankings.

Here, we have a recipe for some significant change, (and perhaps for formal co-operation) in Higher Education:

  • Academics are both producers and consumers – they are able to exercise both labour and consumer power in the choice of where to publish, and what to read.
  • The networks required in order for joint decisions to be made across an academic discipline already exist in the form of the ‘invisible college’ of learned societies, conferences and other disciplinary structures.
  • There is a clear potential for shifting the financial advantage to academics and universities, and away from publishers.
  • All the technology needed to automate the submission and review processes already exists in the public domain, meaning that there are minimal start-up costs or ongoing administrative requirements.

Despite the laudable decision to keep subscription fees minimal or free, I can’t help reflecting that Harvey’s Journal’s business model involves doing everything on a shoestring, there is a lot of free time involved, no free lunches, and it depends on the continuing support of universities. This is noble work, but is it viable in the longer-term? The failure to capture the full economic costs of publishing may limit this sort of venture in the long term. One does not have to be a ‘fat cat’ to expect to be paid for one’s work. The ability to pay for the full costs of production, and to generate a surplus for investment in worthwhile activities would offer open-access journals a more sustainable future. This could be achieved by academics, Learned Societies and Universities co-operating to exercise greater control over the business of academic publishing.

Universities, learned societies and academics hold all the cards. Co-operation might offer them an opportunity. Universities (or individual academics) could obtain a modest income for the time spent in writing and reviewing, learned societies could agree to keep access policies and fees egalitarian in return, but still high enough to ensure sustainable finance for their work.

Academics would benefit from:

  • Explicit recognition from their employers of their work in academic publishing and peer reviewing – paid work, not just good citizenship
  • Wider or open access to their published work
  • Well-funded learned societies

Universities gain from:

  • Lower or no-cost subscription to journals
  • A modest income stream for academic time spent on journal work

Learned Societies gain from:

  • A stable source of income from their work in publishing
  • Disciplinary communities gain/maintain substantial control of journals

In addition, society at large could gain from more egalitarian publishing practices in line with the best open-access journals. What’s not to like?

All that’s needed is a business model that balances the interests of the parties, and ensures their continued co-operation. I am not close enough to the industry to propose this detail, but at the very least some management costs ought to be able to be stripped-out from the publishers’ existing models. A co-operative structure would seem ideal to balance the needs of the different stakeholders, preventing profiteering from any party, and aiming towards a balance of the parties’ interests.

The Finch Report recognises that the landscape of academic publishing is shifting. The time is opportune for old business models of academic publishing to be challenged, and for new models to take root. What needs to happen next?

  1. A disciplinary community decides to follow this path and to take control of the process under the auspices of an existing recognised organisation (probably a learned society).
  2. Capital is raised from an organisation willing to see this business model develop. This could be any of the parties already mentioned, or a well-meaning third-party, such as the JISC, HEFCE, or even a benefactor like the Co-operative Group.
  3. The business plan and Rules are developed, and the journal is marketed.

If a venture such as this were to succeed, it would 1) prove that financially sustainable academic organisations can be operated on a co-operative basis. Other aspects of higher education would seem more obvious avenues for further experimentation. Before we know it, we could be working for a co-operative university sector.

Gusterson, H. (2012, September 23). Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Want-to-Change-Academic/134546/