The recent acquisition by Elsevier of SSRN (the online social science research repository) has thrown light upon significant areas of the scholarly communication network often cast in shadow. A public, or at least elite Western, conversation about academic publishing, open access (OA), and the democratization of knowledge, dominated largely by the concerns of article-driven STEM disciplines (their practitioners, publishers, and funders), with occasional angry interruptions from the humanities (concentrated, particularly, around The Fate of the Monograph), has often ignored the social sciences and their distinctive set of communications needs. To set this up another way, a reductionist argument in which written content is framed all too often (and especially by impatient technology seers) around the twin pillars of “providing information” or “telling stories” often misses, to my mind, the space in which the social sciences distinctively operate, the space of and for ideas. And, going forward, it is sustainable, preservable, open, and trusted formats for the dissemination of ideas that the social sciences are going to need, in an intellectual context where (to posit a third convenient binary) “data” and “text” are combined, rather than seen as potential opposites, one scientific, one humanist.
Now there has clearly, in total contradiction to the above, been a good deal of open access activity and evangelizing within, or perhaps more accurately at the margins of, specific social sciences (notably on the critical wings of archaeology and anthropology), and the foundation of specific individual projects, including some important SAGE big-tent initiatives. On the monographic side, the open access library project Knowledge Unlatched betrays the intellectual enthusiasms of its founder Frances Pinter with a strong social scientific orientation, and the Cambridge (UK) economist Rupert Gatti’s Open Book initiative has also flown a distinctive flag, whilst California, UCL, and other university presses have launched new OA ventures encompassing the social sciences. But there have also been major social scientific disciplines (notably mainstream economics, with its strong preprint and indeed SSRN culture) where, with the best will in the world, the old order reigneth and the effective traction of OA has been nugatory thus far: even within political science the occasional vibrant OA incursion (for example in field of international relations) has failed to disrupt an established hierarchy of both specific journals and specific publishers.
I have written elsewhere (see the Scholarly Kitchen) about the permanence of the traditional publishing nexus, and of publishing imprints, within the arts and social sciences, and touched on (very relevant to current discussions of SSRN) “the Elsevier paradox” within scholarly communication: the self-evident truth that if Elsevier really is “the worst publisher in the world,” as some of the more excitable academic commentary around the SSRN acquisition has claimed, then those university librarians who consistently purchase more of its content and services than those of any other provider, welcome its various technical advances, and (vitally) whose patrons use that content and utilize those services pro rata more than that of any other provider, are clearly delusional. Why, if it’s self-evidently so awful, does the current set of scholarly communication instruments and networks persist so resolutely?Which they probably are not, or at least not all of them. None of which is to legitimate the levels of sustained 25–30 percent profitability that Elsevier enjoys (which clearly suggest a less than perfect market, and in which context it’s worth emphasizing once again that all major journals, including those owned by major social scientific learned societies and published by nonprofit university presses, large or small, enjoy not dissimilar profit margins), but it is to suggest that the arguments around scholarly communication, and particularly scholarly communication within the social sciences, are rather more complex than the simple “evil closed publisher/good open researcher” narrative that dominates so much of the current conversation on the blogosphere might suppose. Or, to put the question another way, why, if it’s self-evidently so awful, does the current set of scholarly communication instruments and networks persist so resolutely?
The obvious, quiet answer, that “perhaps it isn’t so awful after all,” may not get people onto, or indeed, off the barricades, but given that we are now at least two decades into the digital transition, and that open access models (like PLOS in the biomedical sciences) have been available for replication for many years, stasis seems to require explanation just as much as its opposite, and several of the social sciences have been resolutely static. The sense of an open access movement stuck, conveyed in a much-cited extended interview with veteran OA observer (and supporter) Richard Poynder, and the self-evident truth that the obstacles to widespread academic uptake of open access (be they institutional, cultural, financial, or simple apathy) are proving much harder to overcome than many had once assumed, gives much of the discussion of scholarly communication in the summer of 2016 its rather peculiar flavor. This peculiarity is exacerbated by the very significant disruption engendered by the Kazakhstan-based repository SciHub, something that, whatever it is, is not an open access publishing proposition (and whose contents incidentally include significant quantities of “nonprofit” or “charitable” material obtained from university presses), and about which both open access advocates and, particularly perhaps, senior university librarians have agonized at length.
On this key question of cultural change, it is a moot point whether (as in the United Kingdom) government or funder mandates in support of open access have actually had precisely the reverse “hearts and minds” effect such mandates were seeking: certainly, the equation of OA and “compliance” and, increasingly, “bureaucracy” has not been helpful to the “open” cause. In the much more fragmented funding and governance regime within which the large majority of American readers of this blog will work, such national or indeed pan-national OA mandates or protocols (as with the recent EU pronouncement of a 2020 target for complete OA delivery of all European scientific research) will doubtless seem very distant and unlikely things, whether desired or otherwise: their impact upon (say) social scientists working in the UK is nonetheless considerable, with immediate institutional financial implications.
In thinking further about scholarly communication in the social sciences, one of the most interesting observations emerging from a powerful series of extended blog posts by professor Cameron Neylon (formerly of the key open access proposition PLOS and now at Curtin University in Australia) on the political economy of scholarly publishing is the (to my mind) persuasive assertion that there is no true market in the club goods that are scholarly content, and can never be, but that there is (potentially) a massive one in scholarly services. This argument is all the more powerful given the widespread recognition (symbolized by the Elsevier purchase of SSRN, following its acquisition of Mendeley two years previously) that the importance of transactional revenues (paid-for content) to major publishers is in (relative) decline, and the importance of other revenue streams (notably around data and research services) is rising rapidly. Many American learned societies active in the social sciences have enjoyed close relationships over the years with John Wiley and its Blackwell antecedents, and Wiley is a powerful example of a publishing house for whom the provision of learning and research support, very broadly defined, is superseding the sale of primary content as the core company strategy for growth.
This transition is leaving as potentially rather exposed into the longer term some of the major medium-sized publishing houses with historic strengths in the arts and social sciences across journals and books, including several of the major sources of reputational kudos among the bigger university presses. Monographic sales continue their slow and steady, but never catastrophic, global decline, and (just to remind readers what they know already from personal experience) the monograph remains a format consumed around the world very largely (perhaps 80 percent?) in print, with commensurate cost and complexity implications.
The “decline in the transactional” also puts much closer to the center of the stage some core infrastructural issues, which (as Professor Neylon has also explored in a highly persuasive post about SSRN) are fundamental to the future of scholarly communication. It seems unquestionable that a failure to take such issues seriously has proved a significant obstacle to the successful implementation of open access protocols and initiatives. Historically, research funders on both sides of the Atlantic have not seen infrastructural funding as part of their remit, and indeed it’s worth restating that for many research funders any kind of formal “support for publication” is a relatively new departure: when I sat on the British Arts and Humanities Research Board for about a decade at the turn of the current century, official policy was formally against provision of publication subventions of any kind.There is a core imbalance between the various actors in the scholarly communications network. In recent years very significant sums have been made available by the Mellon Foundation and others to explore issues in scholarly communication, not least around monograph futures, but given the generally low transformative impact many such projects have (sadly) had, it is perhaps time for funders to look a bit harder, under the bonnet of “publishing” per se, and sponsor independent exploration of the unglamorous but vital issues (around technological capacity and sustainability, metadata and supply channels, to name but four) that help direct scholarly content from authors to readers. Such explorations may suggest, going forward, much greater levels of institutional collaboration (not least between libraries) than many actors are used to, or indeed comfortable with, and this in turn highlights what to me remains a vital but under-articulated disequilibrium in the current situation.
There is a core imbalance between the various actors in the scholarly communications network, which may best be explained in terms of a number of concentric (or perhaps surrounding, pythonesque) circles, which have the individual scholar at their center.
From this one individual, sitting in her garret thinking about Durkheim, pencil in hand, research content moves in or out to an institutional lab, center, or department, funded at state or national level and with library or purchasing consortia perhaps in similar alignment, but with only the major scholarly publishers (along with the Big Four of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) operating strategically at a truly global level. It is not coincidental that Oxford University Press was the first truly global (or at least pan-imperial) media organization in the world. For all of the regular protestations about the globalization of research, in institutional (and certainly financial) terms there is actually relatively little that is truly global, in contradistinction to the financial models of the major commercial publishing entities. This is, I think, one amongst many reasons why academic boycotts of publishers (e.g., the recent editorial boycott of a major Elsevier linguistics journal, Lingua, and its independent refoundation elsewhere as Glossa) have ultimately so little traction beyond a particular, highly committed constituency. Such boycotts, whatever their brave intentions, often betray little or zero knowledge of the (highly dispersed) economic model that the commercial behemoths operate: no one country (including the United States) may account for more than perhaps one-third or at most 40 percent of total corporate revenues, and a general revenue ratio of 2/2/1 as between the Americas, Europe, and the rest of the world often predominates. For every highly publicized American or European editorial or authorial boycott or journal takeover, there are probably a dozen new journal launches from the same corporations, many emanating from China or India and edited by scholars who may be entirely unaware of the fierce arguments raging in the West.
As a strongly Americanophile Brit of US ancestry who has worked in the United States a good deal over the past thirty years, I have to confess that there is no more irritating trait in the discussion of these sorts of issues than the presumption that the “general” experience is the elite American, and that (to cite a particular personal peeve) “the law” is American (or indeed Californian) law. This is particularly true of Intellectual Property, where (to take one specific example) I seem to find myself reminding US friends on an almost daily basis that the concept of “fair use” does not exist in any European jurisdiction (including the UK) that I am aware of. Of course, generalizations of any kind about “social science researchers,” let alone “what social science researchers want,” are about as sensible as generalizations about “what librarians want” or, indeed, “what universities want.”
Nonetheless, reflecting on where things are, in the summer of 2016, does give this observer anyway an uneasy sense of a lot of sound and fury, signifying perhaps not very much, other than the continued inability of the scholarly community in (especially) monitored and metricized research cultures to engineer a better ratio between scholarly outputs and scholarly consumption of the same outputs: vitally, we also need to increase the nonscholarly audience for scholarly outputs (which is every bit as important as access to those outputs, emphatically not the same thing, and arguably far more difficult to achieve). For nearly two decades now we have been talking about changing tenure practices, challenging journal hierarchies, charting a new kind of monograph, opening up peer review, and a whole host of other things, all springing from the same core sense of unease that significant parts of the scholarly communication network are no longer fit for purpose in a globalized world of digital scholarly communication. As I hope the above has hinted at, we need to recognize the untruth of very important aspects of the final part of that sentence, but, more positively, to see within the social sciences some of the intellectual tools that should help us construct something better. Something that has the sustainable, preservable, open, and (above all) widespread circulation of trusted (or sometimes mistrusted) ideas at its center.