Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Cost of Status Enhancement

It's been said that the shift to OA will do little or nothing to help alleviate the economic pressures on universities, and that most of the money for publishing will continue "to be sucked out of universities for the benefit of other businesses".

It is a widespread and common misconception, in Academia as well as in publishing circles, that what is being paid for is ‘publishing’. I don’t think it is. Publishing (as in ‘making public’) is actually exceedingly cheap. It can be done on the web by anyone at insignificant cost. Researchers don't need publishers to convey knowledge to other researchers.

No, what is being paid for is what might be called ‘status enhancement’. The status of individual researchers, of research departments, of universities, even of whole countries. Publishing is used – hijacked? – for that purpose. In order to work as a status enhancement mechanism, publishing has to be formal, with ‘quality’ proxies such as peer-review and citation metrics and Impact Factors, with ‘labels’ (journal titles) that indicate these ‘quality’ markers, with redundancy limitation rules (every article must be unique, ‘self-plagiarism’ is not even allowed), etc. The providers of these services – the ‘hijackers’? – call themselves publishers (whether OA or non-OA), of course, but they are in the employ of those in the ego-system who desire status enhancement.

And they charge what they can get away with. That’s known as 'market mechanism'. They are just catering to what is expected of them. Academia drops the money on the proverbial street and publishers just pick it up. They are not in the business of alleviating the economic pressures on universities and most never pretended that they ever were (although it must be said that OA publishing, at least in principle, introduces competition on price into the system which may indeed help with alleviating some economic pressures; although it is a solution that comes with its own problems, as many a solution does).

Those who have ethical or moral questions – or even just economical questions – about the cost of formal publishing and the profits made, should consider asking those questions as well in relation to the necessity of the desire for status enhancement in Academia. Is the importance of such status enhancement worth the cost?

Jan Velterop

(This post has also appeared as a comment on a post on The Scholarly Kitchen blog)