Mike Taylor is a computer programmer with Index Data and a dinosaur palaeobiologist with the University of Bristol, UK. He blogs about palaeontology and open access at http://svpow.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @SauropodMike.
Everyone involved in academic publishing knows that it’s in a horrible mess. Authors increasingly see publishers as enemies rather than co-workers. And while publishers’ press releases talk about partnership with authors, unguarded comments on blogs tell a different story, revealing that the hostility is mutual. The Cost Of Knowledge boycott is the most obvious illustration of the fractious situation—more than 6000 researchers have declared that they will not write, edit, or review for Elsevier journals. But how did we get into this unhealthy situation? And how can we get out?
The problems all stem from the arrival of the Internet. Or, rather, the Internet has removed problems that used to exist, and this has caused problems for organisations that existed to solve those problems. Which is a problem for them.
Back in the day, it was hard to distribute the results of research. Authors would submit typewritten manuscripts, and publishers took it from there. Editors would fix errors and hone language. Typesetting was an art, especially when it involved equations or graphs. Making multiple copies was costly and time-consuming. And distributing them around the world needed enormous resources. So the researchers of 20 years ago saw publishers as necessary to their work. It’s no wonder that publishers were generally liked and respected.
But just as long-distance telephone networks made telegrams obsolete, so computers mean that most of what publishers do isn’t needed any more. By submitting machine-readable manuscripts and figures, we eliminate nearly all typesetting work. (In maths and physics, authors submit “camera-ready” copy that requires no further typesetting at all.) Printing is no longer needed. Copying is quick, free, and perfect. And worldwide distribution is also free and instantaneous.
You might think that publishers’ response would be to emphasise and increase their editorial role. Instead, surprisingly, they have shed most editorial work. Copyediting is rare, and when it does exist has a reputation for adding more errors than it removes. Most journals have stringent formatting guidelines that authors must follow in submitted manuscripts. (A colleague of mine recently gave up attempts to submit his manuscript to a particular journal after it was three times rejected without review for trivial formatting and punctuation errors, such as using the wrong kind of dash. Seriously.)*