Open Access and commercial publishers: Please grow up and play nice

I’ve previously blogged about Thomson Reuters, their Web of Knowledge platform and the use of citation statistics (in that case to try to predict Nobel Prize winners). However their use of statistical analysis has been criticised.

 Sick of Impact Factors | Reciprocal Space.

Academic publishers in general continue to come in for a lot of flak, as the Open Access movement grows:

Academic publishers need better defenders.

There is a lot of polarisation in this debate. Many comments addressed to articles defending the role of the commercial publisher (see reader comments to the original article referred to in Zen Faulkes’ post, and just as venomous critiques of this earlier article) are dismissive of, for example, the role of the publisher in the editorial process. The comment-makers claim their own articles are submitted in a state of perfection, down to the last apostrophe, and that in any event editorial work is done by unpaid volunteer academics. Firstly, I am very familiar with the editorial process and  I have never seen an example of such perfection. In fact a great many submissions by academics for whom English is a first language (leaving aside many for whom it isn’t) are imperfectly written and some are so bad they engender water cooler debates about the role of literacy in the education of scientists.  The task of addressing this is done by paid editors.

On the other hand, commercial publisher pricing is rapacious and is difficult to square with the public funding of much of the original research. And while the online research platforms of Reed Elsevier and the like (not Thomson Reuters, who produce proprietary bibliographics, not scholarly journals) are vastly superior to free platforms and the ad-funded giants such as Google Scholar, there is a question as to whether that superiority is valued enough to justify the prices needed to support the investment in technology – do university libraries pay the subscription fees because they value the platform? Ummm, well probably they pay because they have no other way to get the content because it is proprietary. The functionality is no doubt very useful, but if the same content was available for free through more basic portals, then we would see how much institutions value it.

The bottom line is that commercial publishers trying to justify an endangered business model looks desperate and greedy, whereas outright dismissal of the value of their contribution looks disingenuous, uninformed and naive.  Commercial publishers do indeed add value, and that value is worth paying a non-trivial sum for. But corporate excess in pricing has pushed the debate to extremes, when what is really needed is a new model that marries the value of commercial publishing operations with the needs of the academic community (not to mention the rights of the taxpayer).

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