The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Publishing

The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Publishing By Michael Eisen.

Michael made this presentation to the Commonwealth Club of California on March 12, 2013. This post is from the written text for the presentation and you can catch the audio here.

Michael does a great job tracing the history of academic publishing, the rise of open access and what is holding us back from a more productive publishing environment for everyone.

I disagree with his assessment of classification:

And as for classification, does anyone really think that assigning every paper to one of 10,000 journals, organized in a loose and chaotic hierarchy of topics and importance, is really the best way to help people browse the literature? This is a pure relic of a bygone era – an artifact of the historical accident that Gutenberg invented the printing press before Al Gore invented the Internet.

but will pass over that to address the more serious issue of open access publishing in the humanities.

Michael notes:

But the battle is by no means won. Open access collectively represents only around 10% of biomedical publishing, has less penetration in other sciences, and is almost non-existent in the humanities. And most scientists still send their best papers to “high impact” subscription-based journals.

There are open access journals in the humanities but it is fair to say they are few and far in between. If prestige is one of the drivers in scientific publishing, where large grant programs abound for some times of research, prestige is about the only driver for humanities publishing.

There are grant programs for the humanities but nothing on the scale of funding in the sciences. Salaries in the humanities are for the most part nothing to write home about. Humanities publishing really comes down to prestige.

Prestige from publication may be a dry, hard bone but it is the only bone that most humanities scholars will ever have. Try to take that away and you are likely to get bitten.

For instance, have you ever wondered about the proliferation of new translations of the Bible? Have we discovered new texts? New discoveries about biblical languages? Discovery of major mistakes in a prior edition? What if I said none of the above? To what would you assign the publication of new translations of the Bible?

If you compare the various translations you will find different “editors,” unless you are looking at a common source for bibles. Some sources do that as well. They create different “versions” for different target audiences.

With the exception of new versions like the New Revised Standard Version, which was undertaken to account for new information from the Dead Sea Scrolls, new editions of the Bible are primarily scholarly churn.

The humanities aren’t going to move any closer to open access publishing until their employers (universities) and funders, insist on open access publishing as a condition for tenure and funding.

I will address Michael’s mis-impressions about the value of classification another time. 😉

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