Does the Business Model for Academic Publishing Promote Scholarly Progress?

There’s no lack of academics and academe-adjacent people willing to publicly air their gripes about academic, or scholarly, publishing. Criticisms tend to revolve around the academic publishing industry’s business model – we’re using the singular here — which, as Steffen Boehm, a professor in organization and sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School, says “makes no financial sense whatsoever from the public point of view.”

In his telling, the public more often than not pays for original research, then pays for academics to review and edit this research for publication in journals, then either gets charged for research to get published or to be accessed. “Follow the money – that’s what I’m asking you to do.”

Boehm was one of five speakers last week in the latest Questions & Unanswers About Social Innovation seminar series put on by the Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation. According to the institute, the series “does not provide answers but instead identifies conditions, contingencies, conundrums, and paradoxes that merit further research, in hopes that scholars will pursue these refined lines of inquiry.”

And last week the question was if the business model of academic publishing – whether Boehm’s version or another – promotes scholarly progress. You’ll notice that following the money sidesteps questions of scholarly progress (although Boehm, as we’ll see, argues it in fact does address that question) but does impinge directly on the definition of the industry’s business models – to use the plural.

To provide unanswers, the seminar featured two speakers — Lisa Hinchliffe and Jasmin Lange – explaining how industry does promote scholarship; two speakers — Boehm and Bruce Barry – rebutting these explanations; and a fifth speaker from the industry, Ziyad Marar, giving the so-called “in practice” response. The account below offers highlights of each presentation presented in the chronological, point-counterpoint, style of the event itself. (A recording of the seminar appears just below.)

Lisa Hinchliffe

First up was Hinchliffe, a professor/coordinator for information literacy services and instruction in the university library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After joking that she was uncomfortable taking an absolute stance in defense of academic publishing, she cited a definition of it contained in Michael Bhaskar’s 2013 book The Content Machine: Towards A Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network. The role of academic or scholarly publishing is “filtering, framing, and amplification” of the mass of knowledge the academy constantly creates.

From that mountaintop view, she then looked up from the author’s perspective and what “scholarly progress” looks like to an individual or a career. Academic publishing “registers their work” – giving them credit for their ideas and research, adds layers of credibility through review and curation, and then preserves their work. Thusly, a publisher “makes sure that [a scholar’s output] can find an audience and that that audience can then access it.” Even open access articles, she argued, have to find their readers, and creating that connection is a “key component” of what a publisher does.

In that way, the value provided by publishing “outputs,” including citations, and by impact indicators – including career progression thanks to being published or cited – are net positives. In addition, Hinchliffe suggested that the robustness of the academic publishing industry itself, its ability to withstand wholesale piracy and significant gifting without wilting, offered a service that clearly serves progress.

Steffen Boehm

Boehm followed, and promised a lively response. His first statement set the stage for allowing a quest to follow the money to serve as a critique of scholarly progress. “To me,” he explained, “scholarly progress needs to be connected to wider societal progress,” and a model that creates financial obstacles to public access foils societal progress.

Having just come from the COP26 climate conference, he argued that while climate change is the biggest issue today, most climate research – almost always paid for by the public — sits behind paywalls. Among those thus hobbled are academics at relatively underfinanced institutions in the developing world, cash-strapped non-governmental organizations, and the public itself.

Open-access ventures did not escape his critique. Greed, he said, drives the imposition of high article processing charges. “It’s all about money,” he insisted, later citing the APC-free open access journal ephemera: theory & politics in organization he founded two decades ago as evidence. (The contributed academic labor and institutional support that sustains the journal are, presumably, products of the public weal.)

Boehm offered more than criticisms, however – he came prepared with alternatives he feels will do less harm than that done by for-profit publishers. Echoing an article — “The poverty of journal publishing” — in the (traditional) journal Organization he co-authored in 2012, Boehm noted multiple options, including a fair trade model of publishing regulation, university presses (he namechecked the University of Westminster Press for free book downloads), and, finally, embracing autonomous journal publishing by editorial boards and academic associations (such as Latin America’s SciELO).

Jasmin Lange

Lange, chief publishing officer at Brill, a medium-size humanities publisher founded in 1683 and based in the Netherlands, offered a for-profit rejoinder to Boehm’s remarks. At Brill, she said, “academic progress is at the heart of our mission” but at the same time the company can enjoy “solid margins.” That said, Lange noted that observers often quoted a publisher’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) rather than their lower operating margins, and “I think it’s really important to keep that in mind.”

In addition, many publishers’ solid margins still fall well below the 37 percent that was attributed to Elsevier, an observation that backed up her statement that it’s important that publishing have a diversity of players, styles, and models, and not a monoculture.

The heart of her argument that academic publishers promote scholarly progress centered, however, on trust. Brill’s role, and by extension that of others, “is to advance trusted research worldwide.” Therefore, she suggested, it’s in publishers’ vested interest to keep that trust paramount, and thus to promote good scholarship.

Bruce Barry

Barry, the Brownlee O. Currey, Jr., Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, offered a fairly detailed case to dethrone – but not necessarily decapitate – traditional publishers. In that vein, he carefully drew a distinction between advancing scholarly progress vs. merely sustaining the status quo.

Having just recently finished five-year term as editor-in-chief of the traditional journal Business Ethics Quarterly, Barry explained that “a lot of my thinking on this question derives from that experience.” Publishers do do a lot of things for us and our scholarly communities, he started, citing an article in The Scholarly Kitchen (“Focusing on Value – 102 things Journal Publishers Do”) then adding the caveat that he doesn’t find that publishers do all those things in all instances when they claim they do.

He outlined five areas where publishers, as currently constituted, tend to stifle progress – not always as primary actors, but generally as co-conspirators. Many of the issues arise from his contention that academic publishers increasingly are “staggeringly” large, concentrated, and profitable. While he did not argue that in itself this is morally bad, it generally favors commercial interests and established practices. For example, the current peer review practices with their inborn labor exploitation and old-fashioned methods suggest they are not sustainable. Nor does the larger publication process, with its lag to publication, enforced conformity, and fetishization of prestige indicators like impact factors and reputational measures, inspire confidence.

Lastly, Barry bemoaned the effects that publishing has on learned societies, who have lost control of what were generally profitable publishing venture, and on individual scholars. The “publish or perish” mindset, “epistemological tyranny,” and hyper-specialization of journals – perhaps not the publishers’ fault but happening on their watch – tend not to promote progress.

Ziyad Marar

Marar, president of global publishing at SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space), opened his remarks by distancing SAGE from some of the larger or more predatory publishers; “I never tended to think of publishing as a homogenous block,” he said.

He then offered the origin story of one particular journal that shows how a publisher can directly promote scholarly progress. Noting that he had served as an acquisitions editor far SAGE earlier in his career, Marar explained how while attending a conference session on cross-cultural psychology an argument for a ‘cultural psychology’ really resonated with him. “It occurred to me there was no vehicle for this work,” and after several false starts he found a like-minded academic, Jaan Valsiner, to pilot a putative published vehicle. With Valsiner spearheading the project for SAGE, the traditional journal Culture & Psychology was born 25 years ago. Now a scholar can obtain a master’s or doctorate in cultural psychology, can join networks around the field, can build a career– and “the journal was a disciplining, enabling, and innovative mechanism that enabled that reshaping to happen.”

In addition, because SAGE could subsidize the project on its own, that it took at least seven or eight years before it broke even for one year (en route to being successful today) did not doom the project to an early demise. In that vein, Marar noted that SAGE Open, the first megajournal in the social sciences and humanities and now a decade old, “hasn’t made a penny in any of those years” but is in no danger of closing.

This ability to bankroll innovation with a larger prize in mind, he said, allows SAGE (and presumably like-minded publishers) to take “gambles of one sort or another” on new technology, platforms, and ways to access academic knowledge.

At SAGE, he stated, “We don’t want to ossify and conserve, we want to create new spaces and new kinds of ideas.”

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