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Sustainable Publishing

This is my new watchword for the open access debate as it concerns academic publishing.

A new spot on “On the Media” addresses the outrageous costs of academic journals, largely in the sciences. The comments by the representative for Elsevier are disturbingly demonic, not to mention insulting to people who have a shred of sentient graymatter inside of their heads. My favorite: with the growth of developing economies there are more scientists in the world today so it costs more to publish their research which is one reason why journals are more expensive. Hah! That’s putting their sales pitch in reverse — their profitability is tied to the growth of scientists and research, not their costs!!

But this is one of those oft-discussed open secrets that everybody knows about and no one seems in a position of power to do anything about (even Harvard). Yes, the costs are ridiculous, but it requires a coordinated effort on the part of academics and universities to found new, non-profit journals and stop subscribing to the old journals. This then is followed by the risk of losing access to all that old research. It is a serious problem with complicated solutions.

My concern is that the debate is very either/or at the moment. Either open access or for-profit publishing. But I think the best solution is to think in terms of sustainability. It actually *is* a lot of work to publish an academic journal — not just the unpaid labor of peer reviewers and academic editors, and of course authors, but the paid labor of copyeditors, typesetters, business managers, and now coders.

As most publishers will tell you, they do a lot of work to ensure journals persist through time. In the old days that meant printing, binding and shipping (and leaving the shelving costs to universities). Not much you could say. Today, it means adhering to a range of electronic standards and constantly migrating material and housing expensive servers, etc. It is not trivial.

But it is also not a multi-billion dollar business. Seminar, the journal I edit, costs libraries $150/year. That produces a slight profit, both for the publisher, the University of Toronto Press, and for the society that is responsible for editing it (The Canadian Association of Univ. Teachers of German). It also helps subsidize Toronto’s book business, which of course is far less profitable, but which is the life-blood of the humanities.

So I think what we need is a consensus on the reasonable price range of journal publishing and then a boycott on all journals that exceed that, whether they are academic publishers, not-for-profit, or, like Elsevier, very for-profit. If you are an academic society or an academic editor, you need to take a hard look at your journal’s business model and actually do something about it. Enough is enough.

But then the final question remains: how are we going to guarantee that all that past knowledge isn’t just cut-off when universities finally do the right thing and cancel subscriptions?

For now, best to take this one step at a time.

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