Publishers can’t be blamed for clinging to the golden goose
S&S are also quite unlike those whose trade is writing (authors of fiction and non-fiction, journalists, writers of advertising copy and freelance trolls) who sell their words for a fee. Trade literature is a product, written for revenue. S&S research journal articles are not written to be sold. They are written to be read, used, applied and built upon, by other S&S. They are contributions to knowledge.
Not that S&S are altruists or independently wealthy. The extent to which their work is read, used, applied and built upon determines their careers. Their work is funded by their employers, usually universities and research institutions, and by research funding councils – the latter often governmental, with tax-payers’ money. So rather than selling their words, S&S have every interest in making their work accessible, free of cost, to all would-be users.
In the old pre-digital days of S&S publishing, the true costs of providing print-on-paper to would-be users required the services of another profession for the production and delivery. But (let’s cut to the quick) those days are over, forever. Online publication is not altogether cost-free, but the costs are so ridiculously low that all an S&S author needs pay for is a blog service-provider, rather like a phone or email service provider.
In this world, the idea of paying a £2,700 (US$3,400) per article fee to publish is as grotesque as it is gratuitous.
Not quite, but almost. There is one factor I have left out. S&S research is peer-to-peer research, from trained specialists to trained specialists. So, there is a ‘quality control’ phase, called ‘peer review’, in which experts ‘referee’ the work of their peers to evaluate it for ‘publishability’.
Peer review and publishability
Publishability where? In a peer-reviewed journal whose imprimatur and track-record certifies its quality level. Why? Because reading, using and applying research to produce further research takes time and effort. There is no time to just dip into whatever might appear in any unrefereed S&S blog posting and risk trying to use and build on it.
There is debate about this. We are living in an uncharted era of uncontrolled digital disinformation of all kinds. Some feel that relying on unrefereed, uncertified S&S information in the ChatGPT era is not only risky for S&S research creators, users and S&S research (meaning human knowledge) itself; unrefereed S&S may also be risky for the ordinary citizen whose health and safety depends on it.
Others, however, feel that S&S’s traditional quality controller, which was not just peer review and certification before publication but the cumulative, self-corrective nature of S&S research itself, across time, is enough.
In the long run, you can’t build research on a shaky foundation. This may be truer of the first ‘S’ in S&S (science, including technology), which is regarded as more objective than the second ‘S’ (scholarship). But anyone who looks more closely at the actual cognitive, social and political dynamics of scientific research may not be so confident.
With the lightning-fast, global reach of digital disinformation, it is easy to imagine the instant catastrophe that could be triggered by an unrefereed, pseudo-scientific S&S blog post convincingly authored by a ChatGPT in mercenary hands (whether for combat or commerce) reporting a bogus, fatal but widely disseminated ‘cure’ during a COVID pandemic.
This may all be too shrill, or at least premature. Besides, it is irrelevant to the issue of S&S publishing costs because peer-reviewing is not, never was, and never could be, provided by publishers. It is, and always was, provided by the peers, the S&S community itself. And provided for free.
Who is to blame?
So, you should ask, with online publishing costs near zero, and quality control provided gratis by peer reviewers, what could possibly explain, let alone justify, levying a fee on S&S authors trying to publish their give-away articles to report their give-away findings?
The answer is not as complicated as you may be imagining, but the answer is shocking: the culprits are not the publishers but the S&S authors, their institutions and their funders! The publishers are just businessmen trying to make a buck. In fact, £2,700 is the same amount they were making per article before the online-access era, in the Gutenberg era of print-on-paper.
Under mounting ‘open access’ pressure from S&S authors, institutional libraries, research funders and activists, the publishers made the obvious business decision: ‘You want open access for all users? Let the authors, their institutions or their research funders pay us for publication in advance, and you’ve got it!’
How much did the publishers ask for? The same amount per article that they had been making from subscriptions. No allowance for the sea change in the true costs for providing online access, nor for the fact that the only remaining essential service they were providing – peer-review – was not being provided by them at all, but by the peer community, for free. The same ones who would now be paying the ‘publication fees’.
So the publishers are not to be blamed for trying to hold onto their golden goose: gratis articles from authors; gratis refereeing services from peers; no need for a print edition; so nothing left for the publisher to do but collect the rent.
All other goods and services are now obsolete – or almost obsolete: scaled down to only the tiny, trivial cost per article of managing the peer review, by paying secretaries to run the software for soliciting and monitoring it. And doing it shabbily, virtually the way commercial products are advertised by spamming potential consumers. Except the consumers here are the peers, who volunteer their services gratis (and increasingly shoddily).
Why do they do it at all? The answer will shock you again: superstition; the same superstition that keeps the authors (and their institutions and their funders) complying with their publishers’ outrageous copyright conditions: “If I don’t referee, the journal won’t publish my own papers anymore! If I post my own refereed, revised paper online, free for all, I will be pursued by my publisher for copyright violation, and the journal won’t publish my own papers anymore.” Publish or perish.
And authors’ institutions, too, were thinking and acting along the same superstitious (and lazy and poltroonish) lines. The university libraries, which had been lobbying for lower subscription prices, immediately lost interest once their subscription burden was lifted.
The publishers’ golden goose had been successfully converted to ‘Fool’s-Gold OA’ (open access), meaning continuing to pay the obsolete costs at the same price, but as author-end fees for publication instead of user-end subscription fees for access. (‘Fair-Gold OA’ would have been to charge only the tiny fee for managing the peer review.)
The publishers are to be congratulated for successfully pulling off this scam, with the obsolete 40% mark-up of £2,700 per article in exchange for next to nothing suspended above by a skyhook, gloating, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.
It is not as if the S&S community had no other choice. ‘Green OA’ self-archiving had been offered to them as an alternative, with the University of Southampton providing the free software for creating Green OA institutional repositories as well as the model for institutional and funder mandates that would require all university researchers and all recipients of research funding to self-archive their refereed research therein, immediately upon acceptance for publication (‘or perish’).
That policy would have forced the publishers to downsize to the minimal remaining costs of managing peer review. But superstition (and habit, and digital laziness – of the fingers) prevailed, and the publishers are still laughing all the way to the bank.
Stevan Harnad is emeritus professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, professor of psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada, and editor of Animal Sentience (a Fair-Gold OA online-only journal, published and subsidised by WellBeing International: no publishing fee, no access fee). He is an erstwhile OA archivangelist who has wearied of trying to cajole scientists and scholars to overcome their superstitions and just move their fingers.