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Reshaping Academic Publishing in a Digital World

Lightbulb with text: copyright the author SOURCE: iStockphoto The “markets” for scholarly works are changing, and scholars in the humanities and social sciences – and the institutions where they work – need to both take control of how their works are published and distributed and become much more actively involved in setting the terms for the digital publishing world.

The rapidly developing digital publishing world is driven by an underlying tension between economic interests in controlling access to digital products and the distributive logic of interlinked digital media. This tension has been playing itself out in well-known ways in the music and entertainment industry, the Writer’s Guild of America strike being one of the most recent incidents. The entertainment industry and, in the academic sector, the hard sciences have gotten the most attention, but humanities and social science scholars need to recognize that though there is less money and less cyberinfrastructure in place, they have professional interests to protect, as do institutions such as universities and scholarly professional organizations. Scholarly and research communities in the humanities and soft social sciences are well behind their peers in the hard sciences on open access and digital publishing in general. Because peer-reviewed scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is as much a public good as is research in the hard sciences, academic institutions and authors, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences who have not been paying attention to the shifts in the digital publishing landscape, need to both take control of how their works are published and distributed and become much more actively involved in setting the terms for the digital publishing world.

There may be markets—and therefore, potential profits—for materials in which hitherto no one had an interest.

What’s so new about digital publishing? One short answer is long tail economics. In 2004 Chris Anderson published “The Long Tail” in Wired, followed by a book of the same title. He argued that traditional production and marketing follow the Pareto Principle, or the “80/20 rule:” 20 percent of the population holds 80 percent of the wealth; 80 percent of profit comes from 20 percent of goods produced. For example, 20 percent of movies will be “hits” and produce 80 percent of a studio’s profit. Anderson argued that the 80/20 rule operates under conditions of scarcity, but that under conditions of abundance of goods and of access to those goods, there is potential for profit in that hitherto untapped 80 percent of goods, which can be cheaply produced and marketed. This is the “long tail,” in which there are niche markets for nearly every product. It’s easy to see how this applies to the entertainment world. But who would have an interest in obscure or difficult scholarly publications in the humanities or social sciences? I don’t think we know. What we do know is that if millions, and perhaps eventually billions, of people have access to on-line search engines and digital media, as Michael Jensen pointed out in his article, “The Deep Niche,” there could be many “niche” markets that simply wouldn’t have existed before. There may be markets—and therefore, potential profits—for materials in which hitherto no one had an interest.

Academic—especially commercial academic—publishers have already begun to exploit such new potential markets. Here is just a sampling:

  • A typical journal article can be purchased as a PDF at Science Direct for $30; at Kluwer for $32; at Ingenta for $42. Ingenta began in the academic and research sector, and has expanded to include other forms of publication. Its motto for publishers is “maximizing the value of your content digital assets.”
  • Articles in JStor, a subscription journal database, appear in Google searches with a link to a page where an article can be purchased.
  • The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly philosophical journal, sells individual articles and book reviews linked to the books they review at Amazon.com for between $5.95 and $9.95, depending on year of publication, as well as a subscription to the journal for $40.
  • Individual book chapters as well as entire books can be purchased as PDF files at the National Academies Press. Just recently, a print copy of a new book was $45.86, a PDF file of the book was $15, and of an individual chapter was $2.50.
  • Highbeam.com is an on-line research service that maintains a library of scholarly articles; like JStor, its articles are indexed by Google. In order to view the articles in its database, one must pay a membership fee: $29.95 per month, $199.95 per year, with a 7-day free trial period. Highbeam pays a publisher a licensing fee, just as JStor does; and each may “sell” an article or access to it.

While the profits in the humanities and social science may be small compared to those in the entertainment industry and the hard sciences, the underlying economics are the same. Whether academic or commercial, the publisher’s main interest, just like that of the Hollywood studio’s, or any media entity’s, is in profit; for the publisher, maintaining control over and asserting copyright is a means to profit.

When we turn to the knowledge/culture creators (e.g., scientists, writers, scholars and academic authors, artists, actors), there is more divergence of interests. Most artists and (non-academic) writers think that they, the creators, should have a share in the potential profit of their work. For example, the recent WGA strike was over writers’ share in the profit from “reuse” (sale, on-line streaming, video and DVD downloading, and ad revenue from on-line streaming) of their work. On the other hand, as users, many artists find the permissions and fees for reuse stifling of creative work, and in that respect, are interested less in profit than in looser interpretations of fair use. Academic and scholarly authors (especially in humanities and social sciences; less so in the sciences where there may be commercial gain to be had from the application of scientific work) have shown little concern for issues of monetary gain, and typically have been most interested in dissemination of and access to scholarly works for the sake of ongoing research, scholarship and educational purposes. This is a reflection in part of the academic value of open availability of ideas and knowledge and in part of what has been the economics of print publication. The academic value in openness of ideas is also tied to the fact that the producers of academic and scholarly work have been—and so far still are—the primary users of the work produced, and as such tend to be more interested in open access than in monetary gain for the knowledge/culture creator.

Traditionally, academics have focused on the research and/or “prestige” values of their work, and traditional criteria for tenure and promotion have reinforced the latter. Prior to digital media, in principle, anyone could have purchased a scholarly article. But, in practice it was pretty unlikely because the means of developing an interest in a topic and gaining easy access to the sources did not exist—unless one were associated with a university or research institution—and the sources themselves were scarce and expensive (e.g., small print runs, materials going quickly out of print, high subscription costs). Moreover, in the humanities and social sciences, unlike in the sciences, there is usually no commercial application from which profit could be made. But with digital production (and hence cheap storage and reproduction), the costs of maintaining and delivering digital inventory is miniscule compared to the costs of maintaining print inventory, as Anderson pointed out in his “long tail” analysis, and with on-line search engines there are potential markets even for infrequently purchased items. As the examples above indicate, publishers are already exploiting these markets.

In addition to potentially new dispersed “niche” markets, there are corporate and university markets. The Copyright Clearance Center negotiates, on behalf of publishers, hefty fee structures for corporate access to and reuse of scholarly and research databases. Same with the copyright fees charged to university libraries for “reuse” of scholarly material in the form of Electronic Reserves, course packs and the like. These are all forms of profit, which are magnified by digital media.

If the “markets” for scholarly works are changing, and developments in digital technology—the cyberinfrastructure—suggest that they are, then academic authors and institutions need to take a very different stance towards the conditions under which authors’ works are published and distributed, and to become much more actively involved in reshaping the digital publishing world.

As long as academic authors continue to sign exclusive and restrictive publishing agreements, publishers will control the market.

Whether the interest is profit or dissemination, academic authors need to stop signing restrictive publishing agreements. First, if there is profit to be had, academic authors should have a fair share of it. An academic publishing contract which stipulates that an author collects no share of the sales in each form (e.g., print or digital) until at least 300 copies of that form are sold annually does not give the author a fair share of the profit. There is no extra cost to the publisher annually; once produced, the sale of a digital product is almost entirely profit; similarly for print copies if print on demand is well-established. Second, for purposes of dissemination, authors may be poorly served by a standard restrictive publishing agreement which grants publication and distribution rights exclusively to the publisher. If a publisher decides to not distribute or “print” the work, the author may have little or no avenue for having her or his work distributed.

Universities, too, have an interest in how this new world is structured. As things stand now, universities already pay the salaries of academic authors, and hefty subscriptions to journals and research databases. Thus, when a university has to pay copyright fees it could, ironically, and unlike corporate clients, end up paying twice or even thrice for the use of material. For example, if the school puts a digital copy of one of its print journals on E-reserve, or if a faculty member posts a digital copy of an article from one of the university’s print or electronic journals on a course management website, the university may have to pay a copyright fee—yet the university already owns that material, paid for it, and may even have paid to produce it, as one of its own employees, or an employee of another university, which is in the same boat, may have created it in the first place.

There have been attempts by academic organizations and universities— such as MIT, and most recently Harvard—to have open access digital repositories of at least their own faculty members’ works, but thus far, these efforts have not been particularly successful. Until such efforts are widely coordinated among all universities—and not just a few elite ones —and equipped with indexed and searchable information, this does not constitute the kind of system-wide restructuring of the publishing domain that would be in the broad interest of researchers, scholars, and the public. There is a lot of discussion about this—for example, at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and at the information technology non-profit Ithaka, but thus far no coordinated action.

There are alternative copyright licensing structures, such as Creative Commons or the GNU Free Documentation License, that might serve as models of what could be developed for publishing digital works. But whatever the models developed, the main point is that as long as academic authors continue to sign exclusive and restrictive publishing agreements, publishers will control the market. Once an author has signed the copyright and licensing rights to her or his work over to a publisher, the law is on the side of the publisher who enforces copyright as a means to making profit. Such enforcement can include curtailing the author’s ability to disseminate her or his own work, as well as collecting clearance and reuse fees through the Copyright Clearance Center and issuing “take-down” notices of electronically posted material.

Under The Copyright Term Extension Act, copyright for a work created after January 1, 1978 subsists from its creation and (with some specific exceptions) endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death. If an author has signed a standard exclusive and restrictive academic publishing agreement, and if a work unexpectedly “sells,” the profit will go exclusively to the publisher and the licensing fees will be collected exclusively by the publisher.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act gives copyright holders, usually commercial publishing and media companies, legal tools to enforce alleged violations of technological anti-piracy measures on digital media. DMCA is particularly worrisome since it appears to give greater control to the copyright holder of digitized works that are encoded and encrypted in digital media than to copyright holders of print media; the former appear to have exclusive control over access and use for an indefinite period of time. Copyright infringement does not have to have been established for a “take down” notice to be issued under DMCA, even when a strong or reasonable fair use defense could be made. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent this will adversely affect things like Interlibary Loan of digital materials and any subscription or password protected materials.

All the more reason then for academic authors with the luxury of salary and tenure to take the lead and to be actively engaged in widespread coordinated action to restructure the publishing world—untenured academics are in a more vulnerable position until the profession reconceives its criteria for tenure and promotion. For example, authors could stipulate in their publishing agreements that no reuse fees be collected from universities and public libraries. Or, they could play a role in pricing so that even those not affiliated with a university could afford to purchase scholarly work. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition has developed tools for authors to help them renegotiate agreements with publishers and this might be a place for individual academic authors to start.

Universities, too, need to engage in coordinated, systematic action to facilitate more reasonable conditions for the dissemination of ideas that is the lifeblood of research.

At the same time, individual attempts to negotiate with publishers may not be a sufficiently coordinated action to make a dent in current publishing practices and to overcome each individual’s interest in publication for other reasons—for example, getting their ideas published, prestige, tenure, and promotion. All the more reason, then, for scholarly organizations and universities to get into the act if humanities and social science scholars are really going to reorient themselves to the technology and new economics of digital publishing. Even in the sciences, which are ahead of the humanities and social sciences in terms of grappling with the implications of digital publishing, a huge amount of scientific scholarship still lives behind a subscription wall, earning publishers huge amounts of money. However, the sheer volume of research available in open-access repositories like PubMed Central (for life sciences) and arXiv.org (for physics and computational sciences) is evidence of very different approaches in the sciences: not negotiations with publishers, but either Federally-mandated access (for NIH-funded research) or total circumvention of the traditional publishing route (despite the fact that many of the papers uploaded to arXiv.org are eventually accepted for publication in professional refereed journals). In the humanities there have been some developments in this regard, including Ars Disputandi and Philosophers’ Imprint, but thus far, they have tended to be somewhat isolated and marginal.

Universities, too, need to engage in coordinated, systematic action to facilitate more reasonable conditions for the dissemination of ideas that is the lifeblood of research. Right now publishers compete with one another developing software tools that may be of little use to users, and there is tremendous duplication of effort and resources both among universities—between presses, libraries and IT departments—and publishers building the cyberinfrastructure for producing and managing scholarly work. Universities are the primary customers and users of scholarly work, and therefore, have tremendous leverage if they exercise it in a coordinated fashion.

While there may be some discipline-specific issues such that a single model won’t work for all areas, institutions—i.e., universities and scholarly organizations—and academic authors from all areas need to take an active role in setting the terms for digital publishing and in exploring the development of systematic and coordinated reputable peer reviewed open access venues. ”Open” need not necessarily mean “free,” but it does mean that publishers’ interest in profit should not be the controlling force of the digital publishing world, at least as far as scholarship and research are concerned. Researchers, scholars and academic institutions need to take the lead. Doing so would encourage treating knowledge and culture products as public goods, rather than only as property, and as part of the information commons that nourishes open and informed democratic societies.

©2008 K.A. Wallace

K.A. Wallace is a Professor of Philosophy at Hofstra University.

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