Archaeology, publishing and profit

There’s been a bit of talk on the Australian Anthropology Society email list (AASNet) about open and commercial publishing, and the future of academic publishing in anthropology in Australia. This was prompted by a post about the obscene profits of commercial publishers, the content of which irked many, and I think the issues raised in both contexts have a lot of relevance to the future of publishing in Australian archaeology. The latter post makes the very strong point that commercial publishers make a lot of money as the data below on Elsevier’s profits suggests:

  • 2002: £429m profit on £1295m revenue – 33.18%
  • 2003: £467m profit on £1381m revenue – 33.82%
  • 2004: £460m profit on £1363m revenue – 33.75%
  • 2005: £449m profit on £1436m revenue – 31.25%
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%

Those of us connected to the research sector know well enough that the ‘system’ rewards those who publish and that publishing means career advancement. Academics don’t typically receive any financial gain from publishing, and few would seek such gains; as Gillian Cowlishaw noted on AASNet (17 Jan 2012), the kudos for publishing doesn’t lie in formal rewards, but in the eyes of  peers. We want to influence opinion on particular issues or questions. It’s not necessarily about money.

Authoritative sources?

Coincidentally, I’ve just been writing up a guide for my students on how to evaluate the quality of sources to help them decide what is and is not an appropriate source to include in formal writing (evidently some students struggle with the idea that a blog post or National Geographic article does not necessarily have the same scholarly status as a peer reviewed book or journal). This has meant pointing out to them what constitutes a good source and just why published, peer reviewed items are preferable. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified it and no doubt readers will point out flaws in my logic: but the only thing that makes a scholarly source more authoritative than, say, a blog post or PDF manuscript posted online is:

  1. the fact that they are peer reviewed by people with appropriate expertise and track record in the field, typically by an editor and two anonymous reviewers,
  2. authors use some system of acknowledging their own sources of ideas and information.

Somehow though, the status of the publisher has come to be interpreted as a third indicator of scholarly merit.  There is a deeply held perception in archaeology at least that manuscripts or books published by high profile publishers are inherently better than those published in localised journals with low readership, or monographs with low print runs. Why? I expect because they have larger print runs, higher rejection rates and on the whole are potentially more influential. Ostensibly, higher rejection rates means that the quality of materials published are on the whole better quality – according to the (potentially personal) criteria of the editor and reviewers. This is often true, but equally we’ve all read fantastic books or papers published by relatively small or obscure publishers. Good work is good work, regardless of where it is published.

Furthermore, not all academic publishers make huge profits, and as Mike Taylor at Sauropod Vertebrae notes, publishers do have a right to make a living and as a few posts on AASNet also note, large scale publishing is expensive. Regardless, the larger publishing houses are evidently profit driven and this must influence (or determine) what is published. So, in a sense, the market economy exerts a considerable influence on what constitutes scholarly material.  It also potentially places brakes on the intellectual output of particular disciplines, and I expect that it is possible to quantify the number of  papers able to be published within a field in any year.  That  makes me feel a tad uneasy.

More OA is good

I won’t go on beating this drum, I’m sure many others within the science blogging and open source publishing scene have made these and many other points previously. To my mind there is clearly a significant opportunity (and need) for an online, peer reviewed and open access journal publishing a broader array of material, particularly original data and monographs (grey literature!), rapid (near to real-time) discussion and debate, items not suited (or acceptable) to print journals (due to length, topic, or that are too ‘data rich’ for example) and incorporating non-printable media. PLoS One is a good model, but its science focus constrains those of use who work across the social sciences and humanities and the scale and volume of papers is much larger than what I’m thinking. Queensland Archaeological Research is another good model – it’s very small scale and the costs of managing this would be negligible. There are plenty of open access journals in archaeology already, just not necessarily in Australia, so it’s not a fundamentally new concept.

We need to open publishing in Australian archaeology to the wider opportunities afforded by the web in order to encourage more rapid dissemination of ideas and information, and to help make the outcomes of archaeological research more widely accessible while maintaining a focus on accuracy and rigour. Organisations such as the Australian Archaeological Association should at least explore the opportunities and implications of such a strategy and consider the public benefit that may stem from some form of online only, open access publishing platform.