The Discontents of Publishing in the 21st Century


I got your open access right here, baby!

I got your open access right here, baby!

Oh boy, everyone is all fucking pissed about publishing. Reviews don’t get done, reviewers don’t pay attention, oligopolistic corporations are fucking us, free cheese is coming, we can’t do anything about it, we must have a revolution. Jesus Fuck. I can hardly keep up with the shitstorm.

One thing that struck me in reading a lot of the discussion from many a rant is that this is all short term memory and reactionary shit responding to a long time corporate strategy to monopolize publications and engage in some good old fashioned rent seeking behavior. What kind of befuddled me is how people have simply swallowed this very new model as if it is the only way of doing business other than reverting to anarchy. NO, we don’t have to have some of the arrangements we have now. But, YES, we have to reform this from within the existing models of scholarship, and some aspects of those models are imperfect perfection. Peer review is as good as it can be, you fuckers just need to swallow your pride and do your fucking reviews. Reviewers should not need to be paid, people submitting articles should only pay nominal costs, none of this pay for play shit.  They do not and should not pay editors as if they were full time employees. We have jobs as college professors. Generally, that limits us to a maximum of 3 months salary for other work. Journals should never cover 3 months of cost for an editor, unless it is a for-profit journal. But even then, it’s basically volunteer work.

From 1999-2002 I coedited Review of Religious Research with Chris Ellison. I did all of the finance and production end, and one of the things we did was to move our independent journal linked to the Religious Research Association —a group of scholars and researchers who basically pay dues for a journal and to go to meetings—from a small Mennonite Press to Vanderbilt Printing Services. This cut costs and raised quality by a considerable margin. Most of the “costs” for the RRA were for the annual meeting and for the journal. The bulk of the costs for the journal were for printing and mailing–like 95% of the costs.

We have to keep the existing journals going and going well. Radical change is not a good plan. People’s tenure and reputation depend on this. And, there is only one way to break the backs of the oligopoly–for long-established associations to break ranks with big publishers and go free.  This has already happened in several academic areas. The way the oligopolies responded was to create and intensify journal bundling. Sure, AJS may be able to go on its own, but the oligopoly can handle that and will assume that TSQ and Soc Forum (and etc.) are too fearful of library cuts which produced the bulk of the revenue under the old system, though now this is brokered through bundling….Of course, until very recently, associations were just tickled pink if the journal was in the black.

What has gone unnoticed in the critical scholarly community is the complicity of our associations with oligopolization. We were bought off. A few of the early innovators (sellouts) in sociology were SWS and MSS. They sold out big and were picking up huge sums of money and all of the other associations were envious and wanting to get in on the grift. Everyone was being encouraged to jump on the big publishing gravy train, “just sign off your rights on the dotted line, and you will have open bar receptions at your meetings….” Rodney Stark encouraged us at RRA not to sell out, and we didn’t. I suspect it made more money for RRA to have held out for those three precious years and maximize it’s value on the market. But then again, the way the oligopoly pushed independent publishers was to squeeze them out through library bundling. So, I don’t know what RRA got after we were gone and they sold out.

The key point is that this shit just went down in the last 20 years. Most of the oligopolization happened after 1998. That was not the beginning of time, what we have now is not the traditional way of scholarly publishing. But what has also occurred since then is a complete implosion of market entry barriers. We don’t need print. We don’t have to mail. That was the bulk of our costs. There almost are no other costs. But, now associations have a stake in continuing the racket because they sold their journals to these parasitic firms and now are raking in a bunch of money to help fuel their bureaucracies (and sometimes do good things, like have an open bar at the meetings or a minority fellow program….).

The first step to breaking this down is for well-established journals tied to dues-paying organizations to make their content free or virtually free and to break from contracts with major publishers. Anyone submitting an article should have to pay dues to the organization and maybe a small fee, but none of this “pay to publish” shit. Given that we no longer need print or mail, the associations will still be perfectly solvent, they just won’t be picking up big paychecks from Sage or Elsevier. It will be a shock for associations glued to the teat of big publishing. But, not as much as people think. Most of the “profits” of publishing as a sellout are wasted through increased bureaucracy in the associations. The associations that hit it big in the journal lottery are not using those funds to pay editors or reviewers. Until 20 years ago, most associations were simply trying to break even on their journals. Now, the greed is out of control.

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