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New Models for Scholarly Publishing

We’ve entered the final afternoon of the Digital Humanities Australasia 2012 conference, and the next session I’m attending starts with Danny Kingsley, whose interest is in the changing nature of scholarly communication. Such communication generally follows a cycle from publication to reading to ideas to research to new publications, but there is no generic scholarly researcher: there is also an invisible college of people who share an interest in a topic, but may not be immediately connected to the research.

Scholarly communication ranges from ‘urban’ science models (lots of researchers, fast-moving, high volume and speed of publications, especially through conference papers) to ‘rural’ research activities (slower moving, longer timeframes, slow editing processes, and a greater focus on monographs). Journals sit somewhere in the middle, and haven’t changed all that much since the emergence of journals in the 1600s; the scholarly article remains a fairly stable unit of currency in academia, and is deeply embedded in its rewards systems.

There are a number of traditional ways to assess scholarly value on the basis of publications – such as citation indices and journal impact factors, both of which are highly flawed and generate very different, non-comparable data in different disciplines. More recently, major companies (including Google and Microsoft) have jumped onto this bandwagon – but the data they generate remain highly problematic.

There are some arguments that the scholarly publishing system is a failed market: buyers and sellers of journal contents never actually meet each other, but the transaction is mediated by university libraries; many scholars aren’t even aware of the cost of journal transcriptions, for example. Also, authors aren’t remunerated for their work; they write for the status which they gain from publication.

Journal subscription costs have risen substantially in recent years; as a result, the ratio of books to serials in academic libraries has become highly unbalanced. Such costs, of course, also shut out non-academic readers, even though strong arguments can be made that publicly funded research should also be publicly accessible – and open access initiatives have gathered speed over the past decade.

The ‘gold’ model to open access publishing has authors (or their institutions) pay for publication (or set up independent open access journals), so that the published work can be made available for free – PLoS One is the most successful example of this type; the ‘green’ model continues publication through commercial journals which charge for article access, but allow authors to make pre-prints of their articles available separately through their own Websites or through institutional online repositories.

Another aspect of open access is to make published articles more penetrable, by providing better context and explanations for lay readers; some journals have also started to do this. RNA Biology, for example, requires authors to submit a wiki article at undergraduate reading level alongside the article itself.

Alongside this, new models for measuring access, usage, and impact are also emerging; as are means of sharing and bookmarking articles. But, until the rewards system catches up with these new opportunities, the old models continue to dominate.