For hundreds of years, publishing has been a noble industry that has brought knowledge to the masses. Within academic disciplines in the humanities, sciences and elsewhere, academic publishers have been the vehicles through which research and scholarship is disseminated, largely through peer-reviewed journals. Some of those publishers are nonprofit societies, whereas others are for-profit companies. In recent years these publishers have come under fire for charging money (creating pay walls) for their content, under the idea that content should be freely available to everyone. It is certainly desirable that everyone should have access to content, but producing and disseminating content while maintaining quality control requires resources, and in the end, someone must pay for those resources. This is why we need academic publishers.
We Need Academic Publishers
There are at least five things that an academic publisher provides that is value added to the academic enterprise.
- Branding. All journals are not created equal. The best journals have reputations for quality and impact, and the publishers of those journals work hard to maintain the brand. The elite journals are sought after by academics whose career success is measured in large part by being able to publish in the best outlets in their fields. For a scientist, publishing in Nature or Science can enhance a career.
- Gatekeeping. Rigorous journals require a system of peer-reviewing from experts, and editors to make decisions about which articles should and should not be published. Publishers provide resources to editors to operate their journals, including submission portals and staff assistance.
- Production. Someone needs to turn an accepted manuscript into a finished product. Articles need to be formatted, illustrations and tables inserted in appropriate places, content copy edited and proofread.
- Dissemination. Journals must be distributed to individuals and libraries, and made available to consumers who wish to consume. Most of this is done electronically, but it requires a hosting platform that organizes content and makes it easily searchable.
- Marketing. In these times of information overload, marketing is a vital part of the publication business. It is important that publishers build the reputation of their journals through effective marketing strategies. Publishers track metrics for their journals, and engage in a number of marketing activities. For example, many journals have editorial board meetings at major conferences, supported by their publishers. Sage publications has funded a research methods lifetime achievement award at the Academy of Management conference to promote its brand as a top business publisher.
How Can Access Be Increased?
Our traditional system of publication and pay walls is not the only impediment to accessing content. Researchers themselves who do not respond to requests for their work share responsibility. If everyone was willing to share work when requested, all of our work would effectively be open access. In the fine print of copyright agreements, content creators retain the right to disseminate their own work under certain restrictions. We can all share our work person to person. Here’s a few ways.
- For each article, read the copyright agreement to see your dissemination rights. Many publishers allow you to freely disseminate your “authors copy”, that is, the submitted manuscript in your original format.
- When your paper goes into early view, many publishers will send you a link that you can send to colleagues and post on social media. This allows you to distribute a limited number of copies for a period of time.
- Create a ResearchGate profile. Your publications will be automatically added to your profile, and people can request copies of your papers. You can also post author copies if your copyright agreement allows. Almost everyone I know in my field is on ResearchGate.
- Pay Open-Access fees when you have funds from a grant or university that allows you to do so. Publishers will allow full open-access for a fee.
The world of academic publishing is evolving, with publishers having adopted a hybrid approach that allows an open-access option for those who need or want their work to be freely available. For those without the resources to pay considerable open-access fees, they retain the traditional model. Publication is a labor-intensive activity that requires considerable resources, which is why we need academic publishers.
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