Publish or perish: Academic publishing confronts its digital future

Credit: Linda Zacks

"It is clear that we meet today at a critical and, I think, hopeful moment," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Engr '64, said during a January address at the Sheldon Hall Auditorium, part of the School of Public Health that bears his name. "Just one month ago, at roughly this time on December 14, a deranged young man pulled into the parking lot of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and then shot his way into the building with a high-capacity semiautomatic rifle. The slaughter of six adults and 20 children really broke the country's heart, because for many Americans, this is the straw that has broken the camel's back."

Image credit: Linda Zacks

Bloomberg's remarks inaugurated a meeting of 20 gun policy experts from around the world who had assembled for the two-day Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America. It was a fast-tracked meeting organized by the university and led by Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick, directors of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, that produced a list of evidence-based reforms—concerning background checks, dealer licensing, research funding, and more. The summit stirred an already heated debate and was touted by its organizers as the most extensive meeting of its kind.

Something more quietly impressive came out of it. Two weeks after the summit, Johns Hopkins University Press released Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, edited by Webster and Vernick. The first "instant book" in the Press' history, it was issued as an initial run of 5,000 printed copies and as an e-book. To Dean Smith and Wendy Queen—respectively director and associate director of Project MUSE, the Press' platform for providing digital humanities and social science books and journals to university libraries—the accelerated production of Gun Violence offers a practical example of how academic presses might reinvigorate themselves as they trundle toward the future. In this case, the Press was participating in an extended journalistic enterprise, says Queen. "It's the long, long form of journalism in a short, short time."

She and Smith are in a unique position to comment on the current state of academic publishing. Project MUSE was created in 1995 as a collaboration between academic presses and research libraries, and it is one of the earliest online distribution platforms for academic content. Today, subscribing libraries have access to more than 580 titles from more than 200 worldwide academic publishers. In January 2012, MUSE partnered with the University Press e-book Consortium to launch the University Press Content Consortium, which provides a similar distribution model for e-books. By the end of 2013, 91 presses will be participating with the service.

Historically, academic presses publish books and monographs, which lose money, and journals, which make enough money to support the book/monograph enterprise. But those objects are artifacts of a different era. Smith and Queen helped shape MUSE to be format-neutral: The platform doesn't care whether content comes from a book or journal; it just directs users to the topics they're researching.

"Our mission is connecting users with content, whether it's publisher services, expanding content, new business models to get it out, or tools for our libraries to help them focus on the content," Queen says. "But in the end, all of those things feed right back into the mission. And it's fun now because it used to be one road and now there's a complex highway system."

Fun isn't a word usually associated with academic publishing. Crisis is. Specifically, the crisis arising from the fact that library budgets can't keep pace with the ever-rising costs of journal subscriptions. It has been a topic of scholarly discussion for a couple of decades now; in the past two years, though, the discussion has moved more into the mainstream.

In January 2012, University of Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers wrote a blog post that was discussed in The New York Times, The Independent (London), The Sunday Times, New Scientist, and The Guardian. He called for fellow mathematicians to boycott Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based publishing arm of Reed Elsevier that produces more than 2,000 science, medical, and engineering journals. His reason: Not only do Elsevier's rising costs put a mammoth strain on libraries' budgets, but the company makes an absurd profit on them—a profit that in part relies on the unpaid labor of scholars and researchers in nonprofit universities. Reed Elsevier's 2012 annual report shows Elsevier making more than $1.3 billion in revenue with a profit of more than $482 million. University and research libraries are publishers' primary revenue streams, accounting for about 80 percent of sales. In 2012, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 37.8 percent.

Now, there's nothing wrong with being profitable—it's just that research universities and university presses are overwhelmingly nonprofits whose resources can't keep up with the rising costs. Elsevier is also one of three large publishers, alongside Germany's Springer and the United States' John Wiley & Sons, that, according to an April 2012 Guardian article, "account for about 42 percent of all journal articles published." Gowers' boycott call catalyzed the launch of The Cost of Knowledge (http://, a blog petition to Elsevier that had amassed more than 13,800 signatures by late August.

The most sobering reminder of this crisis came in April 2012 when the faculty advisory council of the Harvard Library issued a memo addressing the "untenable situation" of buying serials. The memo argues that "large journal publishers" have made the costs of providing researchers with the publications they need "fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive." The memo notes that the library's annual journal costs are nearly $3.75 million. Project MUSE's Smith and Queen work with both publishers and libraries, and so they understand the various parties' points of view. Publishers need revenue from journals to support their book and monograph publishing. The rising cost of serials eats into libraries' new book acquisitions, and their operating budgets are year to year flat or constricting. In the middle are the researchers and scholars themselves, whose tenure pursuits are tied to their published output. They create and consume the products publishers distribute and libraries archive.

Academic publishers, research university libraries, professional scholarly associations, and academics themselves around the country and globe are trying to figure out ways to deal with this crisis. But that's not simply a matter of figuring out how to alleviate the financial stress of publishing. The problem involves an entire reconsideration of how academia talks to itself. Earlier this year, The Economist dubbed this movement the "Academic Spring," and scholars have voiced their concerns online. During the annual conference of the Association of American University Presses in June, tweets bearing the hashtag #aaup13 discussed ideas, cheered presenters, debated publishing models, and sometimes just asked for common sense. During a "Three Big Ideas in Publishing" plenary, one scholar made the simple plea: "As an author, I want to write good, important books that people read and that influence them. Help me do that."

Actually, as of 2012, the official Modern Language Association style for citing a tweet is:

Bogost, Ian (ibogost). "11. As an author, I want to write good, important books that people read and that influence them. Help me do that. #aaup13 " 21 May 2013, 10:19 a.m. Tweet.

That a major professional organization for language and literature scholars standardized a style for dealing with tweeted information is one of the many ways scholarly communication (the umbrella term for how academia talks to itself) is adjusting to the digital age. It's a change in the very understanding of what makes up the academic work that scholars want to communicate. Can a blog, Tumblr, or YouTube channel be a rigorous form of serious scholarship? Can a tweet be used as argumentative evidence in a scholarly work? Does a Web page qualify as a dissertation?

"The scholarly communication conferences I attend often bring together publishers, librarians, scholars, scholarly societies, and other players in the process of thinking together about the changes we're all collectively experiencing," writes Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication for the MLA, in an email interview. In 2009, Fitzpatrick posted her scholarly manuscript for open peer review online; it was eventually published as the book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, which NYU Press issued in 2011. (Her book is also available online.)

She is one of the more persuasive advocates for understanding digital scholarship, and she acknowledges that while tenure and academic career building are still tethered to being published, institutions are starting to rethink and redefine what form that scholarly work can take. "I've had discussions with several different campuses that are in the process of grappling with means of ensuring that digital work is evaluated fairly, of recognizing that publishing is taking place on many different platforms, but also acknowledging that digital publications are not, in many cases, just print publications that happen to be online, of addressing questions about collaboration and credit, and so forth," she writes. "And yes, many campuses are absolutely thinking about the ways that the dissertation is changing in response to new technologies and new research methodologies. These changes aren't taking place overnight, but they are happening; it's a pretty exciting time."

Ian Bogost, the above tweeter, is one of the researchers taking part in that process. He particularly wants to help academic presses, which have been very good to him over his career. Chair of Media Studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bogost worked with the University Press of Minnesota for Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing, published in 2012, and with the MIT Press for Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games, published in 2007. And during the "Three Big Ideas" plenary session, he offered some sobering words for what academic presses put out: "Scholarly books need to be better written. The writing is terrible."

He wasn't attending the conference, merely following the #aaup13 hashtag conversation, and he added his ideas to the discussion in a series of tweets. His commentary became one of the conference's more talked-about discussions. His tweets received a pretty typical popular social media half-life, being retweeted, Storified, and blogged about. Jennifer Howard, the Chronicle of Higher Education reporter who heroically covers the intersection of scholarly communication and technology, called Bogost's "microrant" the "most provocative set of ideas to emerge from the session."

Each was a tweet-sized morsel of plain language:

"1. Publishers publish. Publicly. If I can do public intellectualism more easily at @TheAtlantic [The Atlantic magazine] or @newinquiry [online literary magazine The New Inquiry], something is wrong. #aaup13"

"3. Invent something new. There's a huge open space between trite trade non-fiction and scholarly esoterica. Fill it. #aaup13"

"9. If there is a 'dying' form it's not [the] book but the journal. What could we do to make technical, inter-field discourse not suck? #aaup13."

What's most disarming about Bogost's tweets is how reasonable they sound: Making anything involving communication "not suck" sounds like a no-brainer. Why can't scholarly communication—how the most highly educated people on the planet talk to each other, the improvement of which is possibly the lone subject on which they all agree—figure this out?

One reason it's so difficult to change the focus of the discussion around scholarly communication from economics to content is the sheer size and scope. Scholarly communication is academia's constantly purring engine. It might not be the first thing that springs to mind when prospective students visit colleges, or when emerging scholars are considering graduate schools and adjunct teaching opportunities, but without a vast communications network, the whole enterprise lurches and grinds its gears. Academia, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "the environment or community concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship." Those pursuits require scholars being able to communicate efficiently.

How they've done that has evolved alongside technology. In 1158, Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa issued the Authentica habita, which in part protected freedom of movement for scholars to communicate orally. In 1665, the Royal Society of London introduced Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, commonly hailed as the first science journal and one of the first publications designed to catalyze scholarly communication.

Publications created a system: Researchers and scholars investigate and experiment and then publish their findings in academic journals, monographs, or books. Publishers, which may be university or private presses, then distribute that information to the interested parties, which are predominantly the libraries of research institutions. Libraries preserve and archive that information so that the scholars of today and tomorrow can access it and teach, discuss, build upon, re-evaluate, and dispute it. It's a system rooted in information existing as an object (book, journal, monograph) that communicates information linearly and requires physical archival storage.

That academia isn't so analog-bound is obvious; less so are the layers of complexity involved in the emerging digital system. EBSCO Information Services is one company that provides searchable research databases to college and university libraries, hospitals and medical institutions, and government institutions. It offers more than 375 databases that search more than 355,000 journals. Elsevier publishes more than 2,000 journals, from Brachytherapy to Wound Medicine. Project MUSE supplies its research libraries access to more than 550 journals, from Advertising & Society Review to Visual Arts Research. And the people involved—from journal editors, to reference librarians, abstracters, and indexers, to the researchers creating and consuming the work—form specialized communities.

The communities of Brachytherapy and Visual Arts Research probably don't overlap, save at a university, which brings together scholars and students across disciplines. The explosion of Internet access in the 1990s provided academics with a way of sharing their work outside of the traditional publishing route, and new kinds of journals began to emerge. Think of electronic journals and the open access publishing models those journals helped foster as the do-it-yourself record labels of academia. Motivated scholars and researchers could perform the duties typically performed by publishers—putting out calls for papers, having those papers peer reviewed by qualified scholars, performing the attendant copyediting and page layouts for Web pages, etc.—and publish the work without having to go through the typical production schedule of a publishing house or incurring the print and overhead costs of a physical journal. And it could post these articles online for anybody to read free of charge.

Of course, for a small record label, making a CD independently is only half the battle. There's also distribution—the need to let fans know about it and to make it available for purchase. Meanwhile, a major record company already has contacts with clubs and arenas to put tours together, knows station managers at radio stations to get airplay, has relationships with major retailers, and so on.

That's admittedly an imperfect analogy, but it's indicative of sizes and philosophies of the systems involved. One is very large and relies on a pre-existing infrastructure; the other is emergent and idealistic and doing it only for the music, man. By eliminating some of the costs of traditional journals and involving communities already invested in their subject matter, open access publishing appears to provide a possible way out of the financial burden of the traditional model. That's why a good deal of open access advocacy has come from campuses, including from faculty, students, researchers, and librarians. "I'm really surprised this whole conversation [about academic publishing and open access] didn't start immediately after the Internet became viable and most of the universities had it," says Robin Sinn, the librarian for biology, biophysics, cognitive science, and psychological and brain sciences, of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. "Why don't the editors, who are generally faculty, and the reviewers, who are generally faculty, and the authors, who are almost always faculty or government researchers—why don't they just [publish] on their own and not deal with the publishers?"

However, Sinn explains that such an idea doesn't account for a publishing infrastructure that includes server space, technicians, and indexers and abstracters who perform the data tasks that support findability—the people who pull journal literature together, assign keywords to articles, and control that vocabulary. That's no small undertaking: PubMed, the free database of biomedical sciences maintained by the National Institutes of Health and the United States National Library of Medicine, contains 22 million citations; 591,054 were added in 2012.

If everything is posted somewhere online and freely available, will it be readily found by the researchers looking for it? Maybe. In 2004 Google introduced Google Scholar, designed to be a search engine specific to scholarly material. "Google Scholar is good, but the problem is they won't tell you what they cover, so you don't know what they don't cover," Sinn says. She brings up PyschINFO, a database created and maintained by the American Psychological Association that indexes articles and book chapters in psychology and psychiatry. "If you go to its website and click on a link, it will download an Excel spreadsheet that tells you every journal they index and what years they index and whether they do every article in the journal or only those articles that deal with psychology, so at least you know what you're searching. With Google Scholar, you can't."

"You're going to win or lose [depending on] whether you're discoverable on Google or not," says Project MUSE Director Dean Smith, who says that 70–80 percent of MUSE's traffic is driven by the search engine. "That's critical to your survival, even for a university press. You need to be more concerned about your metadata than anything else right now. It's like that [television] commercial, 'It's 11 o'clock, where are your children?' It's the same thing—it's 2013, where's your metadata? That's really, to me, going to be the game changer."

Findability is merely one hurdle open access publishing models have to address. Currently, archiving is primarily approached in two different ways. In one, called the green model, a researcher publishes a paper through a traditional publisher and then also posts the work to a publicly available repository of some kind, a self-archiving process. In the other, called the gold model, a researcher pays—either personally or using funds from the department, the university, the library, or a research grant—an open access journal to publish the article free of charge; the fee ostensibly covers the archival process that ensures the work can be found in the appropriate databases. This pay-to-publish model, however, has created opportunities where researchers can be misled.

In 2008, Jeffrey Beall, the scholarly initiatives librarian at Auraria Library in Denver, started noticing the spam emails he received from open access journals looking for authors who wanted to be published—for a fee. He kept track of the spam submission calls, and in 2009, began writing about these seemingly dodgy journals. One review eventually turned into a blog, where Beall developed criteria for determining whether a journal is reputable. Those criteria include codes of conduct outlined by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, the Committee on Publication Ethics, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, and an analysis of publishers' content, practices, and websites. Beall's criteria and types of questionable practices—from an utter lack of copyediting to requesting the copyright transfer of the work upon submission of the manuscript—now form an epic list at Scholarly Open Access (, where he reviews and reports on these journals. Since 2010, he has assembled a list of questionable, predatory publishers; last updated July 20, 2013, it includes nearly 400 publishers.

"Predatory publishers are poisoning the whole entire [open access] model," he says. "The model itself is being conducted very well by a few publishers. But I've been able to document that one open access publisher, Hindawi, which is based in Cairo, actually has a profit margin higher than Elsevier does."

Worse, Beall recognizes that shady business practices in academic publishing enable bad scholarship. "Peer review is the quality control for science, and these publishers aren't conducting peer reviews," he says. "So pseudoscience and non-science are being published bearing the imprimatur of science. That's the biggest threat, the threat to science itself."

That may be the biggest collateral damage in scholarly communication's inertia to reinvent itself: It has produced a common business opportunity for companies that have no stake in the knowledge system. "The cost of doing really good scholarly publishing is never going to be cheap and it's never going to be free," Beall says. "And the open access people, I think, are misleading people when they say that open access makes everything cheaper. It's doesn't, it's just going to be shifting the costs around."

To Bogost, the open access discussion should be about the content, not the costs. In his tweeted microrant, he argued: "The issue isn't 'openness,' but getting the right work into the right eyeballs." It's another way of acknowledging what Queen says about MUSE's mission to connect users with content. "As my career has progressed, I've become more and more interested in the problem of publishing as one of making things public," Bogost writes in an email. "So whatever I can do to make more things more productively public in the best manner, that's what I want to pursue. That includes writing for more general readership publications, but also starting up new publishing venues that cross over."

In the email, he points to his recent project, Object Lessons (http://objectsobjectsobjects .com), an essay and book series about "the hidden lives of ordinary things." From the homepage, visitors can click through to read the essays, which are cross-posted on The Atlantic's technology channel, or the books (to be published by Bloomsbury)—or pitch an essay. "I think more academic publishers are going to start experimenting in the ways I've been suggesting," Bogost writes. "I know Minnesota, one of my publishers, has been working on some novel ideas, and I know others are too. But there are other houses that are steadfast in their lack of interest in changing anything."

Project MUSE has spent the past two decades building its online community, and it understands that in order for its publishing venture to continue to evolve, it needs a distribution platform and it needs to know how libraries and researchers are using its content. One potential idea Smith mentions is for MUSE to publish individual works of scholarship—not simply works attached to a journal or book. "I do think Project MUSE is uniquely situated to begin to take monographic content of a certain length from emerging scholars and put that online, provided we could get over that tenure issue," he says. "Why wouldn't we try to provide a pathway for scholarship to come here?"

That's a prescient understanding that the publishers need to follow the content—how it's being used and created by the scholars and researchers of tomorrow. "I think the younger generations are curating content any way they want," Smith continues. "These containers that we've created"—meaning book, journal, monograph—"I don't know how long they're going to be here, if you look at the things that can be done and some of the things the younger researchers are doing and are capable of doing."

One of Smith's positions prior to coming to Project MUSE in 2012 was with the American Chemical Society, where he managed global access to its publications. He recalls when rich site summary (RSS) Web feeds first started to appear, chemical researchers immediately started using them to share information—before RSS readers/aggregators were readily available. "Our R&D guy called me up to his office and said, 'Look, they're already doing it; they already figured out how to get the content there without us helping them,'" Smith says. "The content was that important. And that gives you an idea of how you have to have quality content. That's really the first thing, because you're going to be able to make a lot of different decisions down the road if the content is what your community wants."

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.