Disruptions of Transmission: Academic Publishing

Blog of Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers who asks, "Why can't we just tell Elsevier that we no longer wish to publish with them?"

Academic life is characterized by the need to “publish or perish,” but some academics are calling for a boycott of a very prestigious publisher — another example of the disruptions caused by the switch from legacy to digital forms of information transmission.

Disruptions caused by the change from transmission by atoms to transmission by bits have been in the news in multiple industries in the past few months: book publishers upset over Amazon becoming a lending library; Hollywood pressuring the federal government to wage war on pirating;  Congress proposing new copyright laws,  causing a massive counter-attack by internet companies.

Now academics are up in arms over the pricing structure and insistence on exclusivity of a private publisher of scholarly journals who enjoyed a monopoly over the prestigious, peer-reviewed  research articles it used to provide on paper. With increasing pressure from government funders and scientific researchers  to share knowledge more rapidly and efficiently, and with electronic  journals becoming the standard form of publication, academic publishers are scrambling to keep control of  their revenue stream, and scholars are questioning the high price of scholarly journals.

Under the old paper-based system of information transmission, a publisher was clearly needed to pay for the paper and ink and organize and pay for the assembly and distribution of the physical volumes. The transmission chain included a physical library and a structure for purchasing physical volumes, cataloging them, placing them on shelves, lending them out and making sure they were returned.  Most of these tasks can be mechanized or eliminated by digital production. But does this mean that journal publishing is no longer necessary?

As with other mediated activities, the change from legacy to digital formats is an opportunity to ask radical questions, to identify the core human needs being served by a mediated process. In this case the question is, What do publishers do that cannot be eliminated by the change from paper to electronic documents? Where is the value added by publishers when we abstract their activities away from the medium in which they have traditionally practiced it?  We can expect the controversy over price to continue until there is wide agreement that we have a self-evident answer to that question.

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