Toward Solving the Problem of Academic Publishing

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Hanging with JC in Greenville, Pic from Patty Lou McCall, Can you believe I’ve had that YSL Jacket since I was 18?

Once again, the Southern Sociological Society meetings were a fun and refreshing event. Great to see Dave Gay, John Lynxwiler, Amy Donley, Patty McCall, Jeff Will, Brigitte Neary, and all of the rest. Especially great to see Ida Harper Simpson, 30 years after her presidency, and to get to introduce her to a new wave of students.  It was wonderful to be there for Chris Ellison’s presidency, and to introduce him for his truly path breaking address. I’ll say more about that later, as Chris threw down the gauntlet for Christianist apologists like Gorski and Smith, and rightly so.

My main task at the meetings was interesting, chairing and participating in a session organized around Pam Oliver’s wonderfully cogent critique of publishing. Pam’s rants from Scatterplot were revised and published in the American Sociologist, and her opinions are well worth everyone’s read. I don’t agree with everything Pam says in the article, nor does she, but it is an excellent starting point for fixing some problems that need to be fixed, and preventing negative practices from infecting the publishing process. We had a great session organized by Chris Ellison and George Wilson. Pam was on fire, as always. And Jessica Collette provided an informative critique and extension of Pam’s comments. Frankly, it was one of the best panels I’ve been on in my 30 years in sociology.

Here, I want to elaborate some things I said, and make some very specific policy statements for scholars who control the means of coercion in our fields. Our situation is not age old, and it has only been in the last two decades that monopolistic firms have gobbled up ownership of journals, bundled them, and gouged our libraries for horrific fees.

This situation did not exist 20 years ago. 20 years ago, the primary cost of scholarly associations—national, region, subregional, speciality, and international—was printing and mailing the journal. Meetings generally broke even if you found a good place. Anyone who actually did the work back in the day knows this to be true. When Ellison and I edited Review of Religious Research for the RRA, we were almost the only “cost” for the association. Members’ dues and an offset of very small dime library subscribers paid the rest. And, usually, we made money—not a shit-ton, but we more than broke even most years.

But, everyone sold out to the slimebags at Sage, Wiley, Pearson, Elsevier, Taylor….The associations are now being paid money for the journals, rather than having to pay for the journal and mailing and hoping to break even. Please notice that none of the associations reduced or eliminated their membership fees, and there is no open bar buffet at the ASA meeting. I pay over $300 to be a member of the ASA, and they make money on both the journals and the meetings. Administrative bloat in our organizations is creating a climate conducive to rapacious publishers taking over our content. Our work. Our scholarship. Let’s face it, as Pam notes, we write the papers, review the papers, edit the journals, and the universities who pay our salaries then have to pay for our work. But, the ASA has a fleet of offices in DC and hordes of well-compensated staffers….

There is a solution. Abandon all contracts with for profit publishers (indeed, all publishers) and move to a pure online format for all scholarly journals (ASA, SSS, MSS, ESS, PSA, SSSP, whatever).  We have no costs. There is no reason to print. So long as scholarly standards remain in the review process, ASR is still ASR, Soc. Forum is still Soc. Forum. With cooperation among scholarly associations within and across disciplines, it could be possible to work out agreements for some compensation—and remember we still pay dues. This is not hard. There will no longer be shit-tons of money available for administrators at some of our organizations (principally ASA, most of the rest I’m in are bare bones), but we’ll still be better off than in the day when our largest budget item (by a factor of 12) was printing and mailing the journal.

Organizational leaders in our associations need to make this a priority. People running for office need to amplify this as a target goal. As a candidate for SSS President, I will move in this direction if elected.

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3 Responses to “Toward Solving the Problem of Academic Publishing”

  1. Ryan Cragun Says:

    Two thoughts.

    First, as the founding editor of an open access journal, part of the goal was to make the publications free for everyone. However, there is a detail you are missing in this post. When we first started Secularism & Nonreligion, I hosted it on my server with open source software. I already rented the server and the domain was just $15.00 a year. I also typeset all of the accepted manuscripts. It was a real budget operation that cost me time, but not a lot of money.

    However, this made me the weak link in the publication process. If something ever happened to me, if I ever became disgruntled, whatever, the journal was screwed. I could, at my whim, delete the content, wipe the server clean, and walk away or monetize the system and try to make money or, well, whatever. I controlled the server, so I controlled the journal.

    This realization is why we switched to having a publisher run the journal, even though it is still open access. With a publisher running the journal, the technology side is no longer dependent upon one person. If an editor wants out, they leave and it doesn’t change the status of the journal. My first point, then, is that self-publishing with limited or no cost is technologically challenging and not really a long-term possibility. Money has to be spent somewhere to manage the flow of manuscripts through the review process in order to ensure the process is consistent and stable and not reliant upon a single person. My preference is for open access models where scholars pay to publish, making the resulting research free for everyone to read. But that changes the cost structure and will require a cognitive shift among scholars.

    Second, copy-editing and typesetting manuscripts are time-consuming and complicated. Yes, editors can edit manuscripts. But properly typesetting manuscripts requires technical skills and knowledge. Again, it makes sense at some level to pay for these skills. That, again, means that someone, somewhere, will have to pay for this.

    I don’t disagree with your broader argument that there are problems with the current system. But moving away from the current system does not mean moving to “free” or even substantially cheaper. There are the costs associated with: hosting the journal, typesetting the manuscripts, paying for software to manage the review process, and paying for editors’ time. Larger organizations can certainly cover these expenses. But smaller organizations would struggle. I doubt RRA could cover their publication costs with a combination of membership dues and meeting registrations.

    So, how do you address the not insignificant costs associated with alternative publishing models?

    • sherkat Says:

      Yes, I’m aware of all of the work. We started printing RRR at Vanderbilt shortly after we took over. I didn’t have an RA, but Jimmy Green at Vandy Press did the setting stuff for us on 1999-2002 Adobe. Adobe is easier now….Editors don’t do everything for free. Not much pay, but still some. I think Chris and I split $5k. But, I’m sure any association can afford to play a month or so summer salary for an editor, and most editors are going to be from institutions where it is normative to give them a course off and an RA to help with production.
      Your experience is with a new entity and a new, small, and diverse organization. When you talk about bigger groups that have been around for 80 years or so, things get easier. Editors can cycle in and out, and there is continuity in the process and assurance of quality though selection by executive committees and publications committees. No editor can pick up and pull the plug or sell the journal.
      Submission fees are another thing that has largely been lost. They used to be the norm. We should reinstitute them to help stave off journal costs for the associations. They should be submission charges, not publication charges like in the fly-by-night open access world.
      Again, though, the major costs for the journal were associated with printing and mailing. You nix those costs and you can pay to have people do virtual typeset and copy editing.

  2. jessica Says:

    Thanks for taking the helm in the session, Darren. Organizing it around Pam’s paper was a great way to get the ball rolling and I appreciated you closing it with the come to Jesus talk that you highlight here.

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