academic publishing: are journals part of the problem?

The disconnect between how the publishing industry perceives itself, and how journal articles are regarded by users, is highly problematic. Much has already been written about how the library’s role as mediator between academics and publishers in the purchasing chain shields the end users from the true costs of journals. However I think there is another aspect to this which makes me question whether the format of the journal itself is also a hindrance to achieving more favourable market conditions.

Most analyses of the academic publishing market see it as dysfunctional and lacking in competition (e.g. Shieber 2009). The publisher perspective is that ‘Competition within science and medical publishing is generally on a title-by-title and product-by-product basis. Competing journals, books and databases are typically published by learned societies and other professional publishers’ (Reed Elsevier Annual Report 2013, p.16). This is partially true in terms of the purchasing of journals by libraries; they do choose to buy one over another, so in that sense individual journal titles are competing for their money.

This logic starts to unravel in three ways. The first is that the majority of academic libraries’ journal budget is tied up in big deals, so in reality individual journal titles are often not the unit of purchase. The second is that since libraries’ purchasing choices are directed by demand from their academic community the actual choices are very limited. This is why publishers can get away with value-based rather than cost-based pricing; they can keep increasing prices as much as they like so long as libraries feel like they have no choice but to buy particular journals.

The third is that for the end users it is the article which is the unit of consumption, and articles stand outside of the competitive process described above. They are not interchangeable and if a researcher requires a particular article then there is no substitute for it.

Perhaps the fact that the financial and transactional nature of scholarly publishing takes place at the journal and collection level, while the actual use of scholarly work takes place at the article level, is one of the reasons why the market has been allowed to develop in such a dysfunctional way.

Article-level metrics are increasingly being used to measure the impact of scholarly work, and there a growing number of open access articles are funded by paying an article processing charge. Combined with the trend towards megajournals such as PLOS and Open Library of Humanities, this may be increasing awareness of the article as an entity which can stand alone from its parent journal, and contributing to a questioning of whether the journal is a relevant unit of transmission for scholarly ideas.

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