To Publish - or to e-publish?

Once upon of time there was a tribe called the Very Smarts. The Very Smarts lived on a island where they planted, tended and then harvested trees from which they carved beautiful and much-sought after canoes. But while the Very Smarts were wonderful craftspeople, they had neither the interest nor the acumen to distribute or profit from their work. Instead, completed canoes were rowed by the Very Smarts to the Teleporting tribe on the mainland. There the Teleporters would put the final touches on the canoe and, with the Very Smarts help, rate each canoe for quality.

On the teleport home, the Very Smarts took care not to lose the parchment on which evidence of the rating was stamped. A high rating earned the boat builder status and power in the tribe, not to mention the tastiest morsels and best digs, while a low rating meant disgrace and despair. Once the Very Smarts were gone, the Teleporters got busy. The canoes were sold to highest bidder for a handsome profit, and then teleported to their new owners.

And so it went, for as long as anyone could remember, until one day the Very Smarts discovered that they could teleport, too. And though it took awhile, some Very Smarts began wondering why they ought to allow the Teleporters to sell and distribute their highly prized canoes, now that they could do it themselves. But others Very Smarts were less sure. If the Teleporters didn’t rate their work, how would they know how to distribute social and material resources amongst the tribe?

If you’ve been following the feisty debates on-line, in the press and in the scholarly literature about the impact of the internet on publishing, you’ll have no trouble recognising the Teleporters as the publishers of scholarly journals and the dilemma facing the Very Smarts as the same one confronting contemporary academics in an electronic age. To solve it, we need to look past the enthusiastic shouting of those championing an open access future, and rapid-fire press releases from publishing houses eager to assure us they’ve finally cracked a viable business model for the new age, and return to first principles. Ignoring how we’ve always done it and why, we need to ask the question: what is it that academics need from, and are trying to achieve with, scholarly publishing?

The answer is relatively simple. Academics need timely and convenient access to the most up-to-date scholarship in their discipline and their discipline’s archives. They also want their own work published quickly and disseminated widely, and to be credited for their labour in ways that enable them to maintain their job, or even climb the ladder.

The truth, though publishers don’t like to hear it, is that academics and universities hold most of the cards in the scholarly publishing game. This is not just because they do the research, write the papers and do the unpaid work required to provide quality assurance by reviewing the work of their peers. It is also because their primary objective is not to profit from the distribution of their work (like the Very Smarts, most currently earn little to nothing from the hard-copy and electronic distribution of their oeuvres), but to have it read and cited by others.

In the new electronic age it is hard to see why the achievement of these goals requires the input of a professional publisher at all. Sure, publishers currently edit academic papers prior to publication which, in some instances, can be intensive and painstaking work. But while it has not been exploited much to date, the expertise to perform this task too also exists within the academic tribe, as clearly demonstrated by in-house university journals like Monash’s People and Place.

In fact, the only power the electronic shake-out of scholarly communication has left to traditional publishers is that of quality control. In academia, publication in journals like Nature and Mind still open doors for those seeking grants or promotion. This is the Very Smarts problem: without the stamped parchment from the Teleporters, how will they compete for rewards?

But the truth is that new technologies are already showing the way. Instead of relying on the publisher’s reputation as a quality indicator, scholars could rely on electronic citation counts: an indicator which is not currently but can be made blind to whether the site of first publication was an established journal, an institutional repository, or the author’s own website. As well, Google’s PageRank algorithm is just one of a number of automated methods that systematically aggregate the opinions of unknown individuals that shows promise as an indicator of quality.

A return to first principles about what scholarly publication is all about, and what academics need from it, leads to the conclusion that in the new world of electronic communication the Very Smarts don’t need the Teleporters any more. What they need are new ways of harnessing in-house talents to access, disseminate and receive rewards for reporting on quality research results.

In 2012, seven years after this piece was published, Harvard has joined my call for academics to reclaim their scholarship.

Publication history

To publish - or E-publish?   The Age, Education