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Knowledge and books drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, HikingArtist
Knowledge and books drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, HikingArtist
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The ‘Reinventing Scholarly Publishing’ symposium in March 2015 started a year of particularly active discussions in Australia about the future of scholarly publishing. The Canberra event was followed by a Sydney conference ‘Scholarly Communication Beyond Paywalls’ in July and another symposium in August, ‘Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons: The Ethics of Academic Publishing and the Futures of Research’, held at the NSW State Library. And the last one in the series, the 24th ‘National Scholarly Communications Forum’ took place on 7 September at The Australian National University, Canberra.

These meetings of academics, research funders, policymakers, university administrators, publishers, librarians and data experts focused on tensions between the ongoing corporatisation and the commercialisation of knowledge on the one hand, and the democratising effects of technology and the open access movement on the other hand.

It is crucial to see the academic community getting actively involved in the debates surrounding scholarly publishing. As Dr Alex Byrne (State Librarian, NSW) reminded us at the ‘Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons’ symposium, scholarly publishing began as a system to share findings and was run by scholarly communities long before it evolved into a highly commercialised system. Academics remain at the core of publishing, as authors, editors, peer reviewers, readers and book reviewers. Referencing Marxism and pop culture, Dr John Byron argued that to change and to ‘reclaim the knowledge commons’, there is a need for ‘a collective action among the academics to regain control of the means of production’ and to ‘redirect research to ethical publishing venues’.

Of course, there is not one perfect solution that would solve all the ills of scholarly publishing. The complex environment of scholarly publishing is made up of various stakeholders involved as authors, curators, producers, assessors, buyers and readers/users. The publishing ecosystem is further complicated by the inherent differences between the needs of humanities and social sciences researchers versus those working in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Individual publishing houses must cater to the needs of various disciplines characterised by differing research pace, research outcomes and publishing cultures. One size, one publishing model does not fit all. Moreover, scholars at different stages of their careers have different priorities, and so on. For academics, the one unifying element is the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, which has been driving overpublishing, the overreliance on metrics, various forms of unethical author behaviour (text recycling, plagiarism, falsification of research outcomes and so on), exorbitant subscription prices and predatory business models.

Governments, funding bodies, universities and commercial publishers exist in a highly complex, interdependent relationship. This relationship fulfils the current institutional arrangements and pressures, and provides quantifiable and assessable, if highly contested, publishing outcomes. In the process, it also drives a vicious circle of increasing subscription prices and publishing costs. Over the last decade or so, however, numerous alternatives to publishing with the major profit-driven corporations have appeared. There has been lots of experimentation in alternate publishing models, whether via library-based publishing initiatives or independent publishing houses, often started by academics. But the newer publishing avenues need wider support. As long as university administrators and academics themselves continue to insist on publishing exclusively in journals with high impact factors or with prestigious, well-established monograph publishers, the alternative publishing avenues risk being demonised (sometimes unfairly) as the home of the niche, esoteric, controversial and no-other-publisher-wanted publications in unsexy and unprioritised fields. Risky and unpopular ideas are also relegated to niche publishers, and the cycle and the commodification of knowledge continues.

In order to become more attractive to authors, new publishing ventures need to engage constructively with traditional publishing processes in editorial and production, and use established distribution channels so that they can compete effectively with traditional publishers. Commercial publishing houses are highly responsive to the needs of the higher education sector (the uptake of open access model is a good example), and the smaller, not-for-profit publishers could follow their lead and work closer with scholars to find out how they can serve the academic author better. While they lack the distribution scale and prestige of global corporations, they should aim to be high quality, ethical and innovative publishing avenues.

Events like these symposia and conferences create valuable opportunities for the exchange of knowledge and experience among the many participants, new and old, in the publishing ecosystem. There is a need to transform scholarly publishing to make the most of the opportunities provided by emerging technologies and created by newcomers to the sector, and to make it ethically and financially sustainable. These meetings also provide opportunities for academics from various disciplines to talk about the different research and publishing cultures, and learn about various aspects of publishing, including copyright, open access and new publishing models. Outside of special events, staff who can answer these questions are available at almost any university library or university press in Australia, certainly at the University of Sydney, so if you are an academic and need publishing advice, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We are passionate about those issues at Sydney University Press and can assist you to find the right publishing channel, advise you on your publishing contract and author rights, explain the open access models, and talk all things publishing and/or digital.

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