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Tell Me Why This Couldn’t Work

I found lots of interesting book offerings in the Routledge Asian Studies catalog I got in the mail today. Government and Politics in Taiwan is out in paperback, I’d love to learn a bit more about that. Oh, $43 seems a little much for a paperback. Legacies of the Asia-Pacific War looks interesting. Hmm, $125 seems a little unreasonable for a 240 pager, even if it is hardback and all. Ooh, Debating Culture in Interwar China, ah but, this 176 page book is $130. The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945-49 seems right down my alley, but $160 for that 224 page book is out of my range and is probably not where your average library would want to invest. But don’t worry, you can buy a Kindle version of the book for only $127 at Amazon! Hey, a four volume set on Imperial Japan and the World 1931-1945 looks fantastic, and looks to include a collection of influential historical essays on the topic. Oh, these four books will set you back $1295.

It is true Routledge is worse than many publishers, but this is beyond ridiculous. I’m fortunate enough to have access to Harvard libraries until I graduate (fingers crossed) next year, but the chances are very good that whatever libraries I can find nearby throughout the rest of my career are the kind who cringe at these prices. I don’t really blame the publishers, though. They are just trying to make a buck in a tough industry with books that have very low chances of selling more than a few copies here and there.

However, I do blame academia for making book publishing such a central part of career advancement. I really wish they would support a wider range of formats and a completely digital open access but peer reviewed world of scholarly interaction, given the increased potential it offers that informed readers outside our small academic world to participate more actively in the process.

Perhaps my expectations are too high, but even if monograph-length publications of the traditional variety are here to stay, can someone tell me why we can’t do something like this:

1. Scholar gets an annual personal publication fund from department, its size based on multiple variables, including perhaps, evaluation of past publications, a department’s commitment to support research in a tough field that is poorly funded by grants and professional associations.

2. Scholar writes a manuscript (a book, an article, but also other multi-media or film projects etc. ought to be included).

3. Scholar submits manuscript to a professional association along with small administration fee for free distribution of work to readers (or viewers, etc.).

4. Professional association finds some qualified unpaid anonymous readers for the work to evaluate its quality and distributes copies to them (the way publishers do now).

5. Readers return an evaluation that concludes refuse, revise, or publish with some indication of what relative importance the work has in terms of its contribution to the field from their perspective.

6. If it passes peer review, the professional association gives the scholar back the evaluation reports, an official endorsement (which can be used to promote the work, once “published”), and if funding is available, makes an offer of some amount of money towards publication of the work, in relation to the relative importance of the work attributed to it by its readers, its own further evaluation, and its budget for the year.

7. If the work passes peer review and the money offered by the professional association is sufficient for publication, proceed to step (9). Otherwise,

8. If the offered money is insufficient for publication costs or the professional association refuses to endorse it, and the scholar does not wish to make up the difference from her/his personal publication fund, they then repeat steps (3) to (6) seeking help from other professional associations whose evaluation of quality will add to the prestige and funding of the work, or other funding sources (departmental, university, other institutions) until they get enough money in offers or they revise or abandon the research project.

Once the scholar has decided that they have enough support from professional associations, grants, further departmental support, or contribution from their annual personal publication fund they proceed with publication and spend their funds in the following manner:

9. (Optional) Pay lump sum to a publisher-consultant who handles the administrative tasks and payment in below steps (10) to (13) if the scholar doesn’t want to deal with it personally or through someone at their own institution hired specifically for this task. There is to be no transferral of copyright away from the scholar either way and this publisher-consultant does not have any role in determining whether or not something gets published. In this model the publisher is an administrator who has contacts for managing the below steps.

10. Pay for X hours of labor to hire an editor-consultant to help improve the language and writing of the manuscript beyond the quality of its academic content.

11. Pay for Y hours of labor to hire a designer-consultant to create the print and digital presentation for the work (for desktop/mobile web browsers and e-reader applications).

12. Pay $Z for the fees to have the metadata for the work permanently indexed and its files hosted in multiple online depositories, including important information on its peer-reviewed endorsements and positive/negative evaluation reports.

13. (If you really want to make a paper version) submit the print formatted version of the work to all the major online print-on-demand services where anyone can order a cheap paper copy, including both libraries and average readers.

Here are the some of the strengths of a system like this:

-It leaves the copyright in the hands of the author, who will hopefully release the text with a Creative Commons license for maximum distribution and use.

-It imagines a new and powerful role for professional associations, or at least a transformation of traditional journal editorial boards/networks into more broadly defined associations who continue to have, among their primary duties, the evaluation of scholarly work in their field.

-It recognizes that publishing, even digital or print-on-demand works, can be costly process involving many hours of labor beyond that of the author and the anonymous readers.

-It leaves peer review intact, but shifts it from publishers to professional associations which should themselves proliferate in number and each will naturally develop differing perceived standards of quality and funding sources. With the decline of traditional academic publishing, these organizations should receive funding from universities and outside grant institutions or at least provide them with recommendations of where their funding should go.

-It allows for multiple sources of funding both from professional associations that participate in the peer review process but also allows scholars to use their own annual publishing funds, and further grants from university or other institutions.

-Since personal or departmental funds may end up partly or completely funding the publication of works that were poorly evaluated in the peer-review process and couldn’t get financial support from sources based on its quality, it does little to stop bad research from getting published. It does, however, prevent them from creating a burden on the traditional publisher who currently pass that cost onto the consumers of information – since now publishers play no part in the selection process or have any stake in the success of its publication – the publisher, editor, designer, and digital index/content hosts are all paid for their work regardless. Also, since such poor quality publications will not be able to promote themselves by showing that they have the endorsements of, and positive evaluations of reputable professional associations, they will simply get cited less and can get filtered out in various ways during the source search process. However, even bad works or ones on extremely obscure topics can sometimes be useful, if but for a footnote or two that turns us on to a good source.

In this system what is the role for traditional academic publishing companies as they exist now?

None. Universities who support many of them should eventually dissolve them but support them long enough to allow a relatively smooth transition for its employees to find niches in the businesses that should grow from providing services in step (9) to step (12). Book paper printing should be all done through print-on-demand services as the print medium slowly declines. Marketing/promotion of the traditional kind will ideally become a minimal part of the equation as association endorsements and evaluations become the dominant stamp of quality and citation networking power comes to rule the day. Of course, you can add a “marketing” budget for promotion and advertising between steps (11) and (12) above if such funds are available but hopefully this will be seen as a practice resorted to mostly by those who failed to receive strong endorsement from professional associations. No one promotes our journal articles, why should we treat our academic books and other projects differently? If it gets cited, read, and referenced, is that not enough to ensure its spread, especially if the works are openly available and thus offer no barrier to access.

Now, tell me why can’t this work? Why won’t something similar to this emerge from the ridiculous state of academic publishing today when it really wakes up? Let me know what you think.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Jonathan Dresner | 2010.5.1 at 22:12 | Permalink

    It could, but I don’t think the professional associations will do it because their economic relationship with university publishers (who will, indeed, be obliterated by this shift) (Don’t think they have a relationship? Who pays for the advertising in programs and journals?).

    It’s possible, though, that the university presses themselves might do this, or a consortium of them. At this point, even though they often require substantial subventions from authors, they’re looking for any cost-cutting measures they can get away with: eliminating the actual publishing would be a gold mine. They’ve already got the network of volunteer reviewers and the name recognition.

  2. Graham Webster | 2010.5.1 at 22:34 | Permalink

    Great thoughts. Not so much a reason why this wouldn’t work as a question: Why would a model such as this apply only to monograph-length works or collections of chapters?

    A related thought is that many articles or longer works go through many attempts before finding a publisher. This is not necessarily because of the quality of the work on some objective scale, but also is affected by the differing priorities of judging bodies. Thus in this structure, and especially if it were expanded to deal with articles, where journals vary in disciplinary or specialist prominence, there is a need for a reputation system of different “professional organizations,” as you call them.

    The bottom line may be that professional organizations would have to be radically restructured and possibly fragmented as well to make this work.

  3. john theibault | 2010.5.2 at 13:34 | Permalink

    You’ve hit on an enthusiasm of mine, that professional organizations will have to take a more central role in publishing scholarship. Jon Dresner may be right about the structural problems with implementing your entire plan. The AHA certainly made it clear that they remain dependent on the income from the print version of AHR, which is published by U of Chicago Press.

    Relatedly, are you aware of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, which deals with some of these issues, especially the role of university presses?

  4. Owen | 2010.8.4 at 2:46 | Permalink

    This campaign began in the UK last year, but I don’t know whether it has gone anywhere:

    http://www.freeourbooks.org.uk/

    Perhaps reflects a rather different situation here since all universities are public and funded from tax money (or at least in theory).