The digital revolution is changing the world in often unexpected ways, although sometimes widely-predicted changes can take longer to appear than first suggested. “The end of the book” has been predicted for decades now: while UK physical book sales were still running at £1.5bn in 2012, they seem now to be in a slow, long-term decline in the face of e-book sales. The value of UK recorded music sales is also showing steady decline for the same reason – digital competition.
The world of academic journal publishing looks as if it is now about to undergo the same sort of digital shock-treatment. Academics have long grumbled about the handful of profit-making publishers – often, very handsome profits – (Elsevier; Palgrave-Macmillan; SAGE; Springer; Taylor and Francis; Wiley-Blackwell) which dominate the journal market. The Economist recently said that these firms possess “that rare thing in the media industry: a licence to print money”. That’s because they can get their authors and editors to work for nothing, and then sell the finished products back to the universities that mostly employed the authors and editors in the first place.
When journals were entirely printed artefacts, found mainly on the shelves of university libraries, commercial publishers arguably provided expertise in their production, quality control and distribution – although journal publishing had begun as a university-run activity, which over the years had typically been handed over to commercial firms, with their economies of scale. But now the internet seems to be putting the boot on the other foot. The unlovely term “disintermediation” is key here: the internet can cut out the middle-person, making it practicable for (in this case) academic research to be made directly available to anyone who fancies reading it. The editorial and peer-review costs need to remain, but these hidden subsidies to the publishing industry can now be brought in-house by the universities. Copy-editing, typesetting, indexing and so on also still have to be paid for: but again, digital technologies have simplified most of these processes.
Naturally, the big journal publishers have not taken this existential threat to their businesses lying down. They are pushing the model of the “gold” open access, online journal, which will be free for all to read – but funded by the authors paying “article processing charges”, or APCs. It is thought that these will average out at around £1,500 per paper. So the publishers’ income will still come from (mainly) the universities, but in the form of APCs rather than journal subscriptions. Better still, APCs will probably be easier and cheaper for the publishers to collect – no more sales people trudging from university to university to sell subscriptions – and university staff will still be doing the unpaid peer review and editorial work. If you’re a publisher, what’s not to like?
Luckily for universities, fee-paying students and the taxpayer (because most of the journal publishers’ profits ultimately come from these sources) there is an alternative. The “green” open access model publishes papers in online journals after the usual peer review and editorial processes, without APCs. The green journals can be owned and managed in a variety of ways, but are essentially non-commercial. Naturally there are costs involved, but the total costs of the green publishing model will always be much lower than the gold alternative (the title is well-chosen) because the profits of multinational corporations don’t enter into the equation. Instead, green publishing will get research into the public domain quickly and cost-effectively. By embracing green publishing, universities will reclaim one of their historic missions: producing and disseminating knowledge as a public good.