community · research planning

No Gold In Them Thar Hills: academic journal publishing

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A long time ago, there was an house I wanted to live in. I didn’t get to live in that house but, years later, I got to go a party there and, as I wandered from room to room, I had a brief glimpse into what my life would have been like if I had lived there. It would not necessarily have been better, but it definitely would have been different.
A couple weeks ago, I experienced the publishing equivalent of that not-better-but-different experience. I was at the copyediting stage with an article that had been accepted for publication at pretty great international journal. Fast forward through three rounds of peer review (real life social scientists making sense of my humanities-based approach) and I was finally at copyediting and signing the publishing agreement.
Along with the proofs came an email:
Dear Lily Cho
Your article listed above is currently in production with [Big Academic Publisher].
We are delighted that you have chosen to publish your paper in [Great International Journal]. This email is to tell you about the publication options available to you.
Standard publication route
Your article will be published in the journal, and made available online permanently for subscribers and licensed institutions throughout the world, including provision of online access through developing world initiatives. You will also receive a link via email that you can send to 50 colleagues who can download the article free of charge. After the embargo period for this journal, you may deposit the Accepted Manuscript into an institutional or subject repository (Green Open Access).
Gold Open Access publication
You have the option to pay a charge to make the final version of your article freely available online at the point of publication, permanently, for anyone to read (Gold Open Access). This requires payment of an Article Publishing Charge (APC). Please note that this option is strictly your choice, and is not required for publication in the journal. It is not available for research articles of less than two printed pages in length.
If you would like to publish your article via the Gold Open Access route please read the notes below:
• You will retain the rights in your article but will be asked to sign an appropriate article publishing agreement to enable us to publish the article.
• Many institutions and funders partner with [Big Five Academic Publisher] to offer authors a discount on the standard APC or enable them to publish open access at no cost to themselves. Please visit our Author Services website to find out if you are eligible.
Choosing the “Gold Open Access” would cost me somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2500. I went through one of those lightening fast thought processes that I go through when I am expecting to do something pretty routine (not my first time signing a publishing agreement, have allotted exactly two minutes for this routine task in the midst of a busy day, and am momentarily startled by a glitch in the two-minute plan (woah! Gold access? Whuuuut?) and then plough through to keep to my two-minute plan (whuuut? pay thousands of dollars so that my colleagues and students have a chance to read this article without having to click through proxy server? No, thanks).
I am not about to start on a rant about “Gold Open Access,” or other ways of further privatizing the (completely vital) circulation and exchange of academic work. Maybe another time. But this moment of deciding not to pay for the privilege of giving my brilliant work away did make me go back to a different moment.
Back when I co-edited an academic journal, we were approached by more than one of the Big Academic Publishers. This particular publisher, the one that just offered me “Gold Access,” came closer than any of others to taking over the journal. At the time, the offer was enticing for someone like me. They offered to deal with all the non-academic stuff (subscription management, marketing, manuscript submission processes). We would keep all the editorial control but they would take all the money and the content. I say the offer was enticing because there were definitely things we could have done better and it was all so much work. Keep in mind that editing the journal was essentially a volunteer position. There was no money at all for doing it. There was no course release (there might have been a little before but there was no release by the time I signed up). This work wasn’t even listed as a “professional contribution” under my university’s promotion and tenure guidelines. It is considered to be “service” (and under my department’s p & t standards, service does not rate the same way as teaching and professional contribution aka research) and I was very happy to serve. (All you journal editors out there, I see you and I admire you and know that you are working your butt off only to have everyone mad at you because their article is stuck in peer review limbo when it is totally not your fault.) Given these conditions, you can see how dreamy it would be for a Big Academic Publisher to swoop in and save me. I could actually edit and they would take care of the all the essential but nit-picky stuff.
But the editorial board, in all its wisdom, voted against the offer from the Big Academic Publisher. They thought about our credibility as a journal, what it would mean to ask our colleagues to peer review when the journal would then turn around and charge huge fees for access to the finished work, and many other things besides.
For me, turning down the offer to let someone else manage the journal was a lot like not getting to live in that house. I remember once reading a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. I don’t remember the book now, but I do remember that sentiment. That belief, no matter how silly, that everything wrong would somehow be fixed if I could just live there. 
Going through production for my article was like living through a weird alternate world where I got to experience, albeit as an author and not an editor, what it would have been like if the journal I had co-edited had gone down that other route, had moved into that other house.
Everything was so smooth. The submission process was so elegant. The turnaround on production was so fast. There was an official Academic Editor overseeing the copyediting AND a copyeditor. All this in addition to the editors of the special issue, and the editors of the journal itself. So much editing was being done so seamlessly. I admired the web interface for uploading copyedits, the way they streamlined copyediting queries, the professionalism of everyone working at this Big Academic Publisher.
It was like I was at that party in that house that I didn’t get to live and I wandered around saying quietly to myself things like, Wow, these floors! This window! This light fixture! I didn’t actually want to live there anymore. I had moved on. But it was just a moment where I could see what that other life might have been.
I thought of all this again when I saw yet another news story about a major university having to cut its subscriptions to journals because the publishers have once again raised the prices. It is no secret that academic publishing has become an oligopoly:
Combined, the top five most prolific publishers account for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013. Disciplines in the social sciences have the highest level of concentration (70% of papers from the top five publishers), while the humanities have remained relatively independent (20% from top five publishers). (Larivière, Haustein, and Mongeon).
In the humanities, we are still choosing, more than most disciplines, to support journals that are outside of the circuit of the big publishers: Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. By support, I mean we are still choosing to read, publish, and teach articles that are published outside of these circuits. It seems to me that now, more than ever, we have to pay attention to these questions of ownership. Next time you submit an article for publication, or assign an article to teach, look at who owns the journal, and think about whether or not you want your work to be aligned with that publisher. I know I will.
And I know that this is easier said than done. This year, I am serving on my university’s Senate Tenure and Promotion Committee. That means I read a LOT of Tenure and Promotion files belonging to colleagues across every discipline at York. I know that there is a fight about metrics going down. It is not just optics. Publishing with a big journal means that your work will be promoted differently. It will likely register differently in terms of citation and general circulation. How widely your article circulates, and how often you are cited, matters more than ever.
But there are options and it is worth exploring them. In my own field, I am really lucky that there are amazing journals edited by amazing people that are not (yet) part of the oligopoly (hello there, ARIEL, Canadian Literature, ESC, Imaginations,  Postcolonial Text, Small Axe, Studies in Canadian Literature, TOPIA, and many, many more). Not all of these are open access. Most are not. Some are owned or managed by reasonably big publishers too but, as far as I can tell, these publishers have arrangements with the journals that are pretty fair and equitable. These arrangements can be actually be a good thing. For example, ESC’s relationship with Johns Hopkins offers a real benefit to all members of the main scholarly association in my field, ACCUTE.  
There are no fast and easy solutions. As someone who has grappled with the budget of getting a journal out, I can tell you that open access is not the silver bullet for fighting “Gold Open Access.” And I actually don’t really believe that academics should be paid for their academic writing. It is a basic and important part of our job. I also don’t believe in paying for peer review. That is also a basic and important part of my job. It is invisible and thankless labour. But, as with so many things, I do it because  that’s what it means to be part of an intellectual community and I am grateful every single day for the great privilege of being in this community.
But, at the very least, I want to remember that my life would definitely not be perfect if I lived in that other house. And I want to stay alert to the politics and possibilities of the vibrant intellectual life outside and beyond the oligopoly.

2 thoughts on “No Gold In Them Thar Hills: academic journal publishing

  1. This is brilliant Lily. Thanks for writing it. Tiny tears of gratitude may have come to my eyes when I read this: “All you journal editors out there, I see you and I admire you and know that you are working your butt off only to have everyone mad at you because their article is stuck in peer review limbo when it is totally not your fault.” Thank you, in return, for all you do and have done.
    Canadian Literature is run out of UBC and we have no plans to change but I can see the appeal of the Big Academic Publisher because of precisely the reasons you outline. It is tiring and expensive work to do all the stuff that goes into creating a journal (including the never ending grant-writing necessary to fund the production of said journal). Thanks for pointing out what might be lost in going this route. Laura Moss


  2. Laura! I thought a lot about you when I wrote this. Thanks so much for all the work you are doing at CanLit. Unless they've done it, nobody knows how much of being an editor of a journal is actually not about editing and how demoralizing that can often be but it really is important to grapple with the increasing enclosure of the intellectual commons.


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