Open Access Academic Publishing

Dan Cohen’s blog has brought to my attention an interesting article by Charles Bazerman, David Blakesley, Mike Palmquist, and David Russell about the positive response to their book, Writing Selves/Writing Societies.

If the data they collected from their experience in electronic, open access academic publishing is generalizable, it presents a strong argument that this is something we should all be looking into. Their book’s been widely cited, and when one compares it’s number of full downloads to the sales of a lot of university presses, they’re doing a good job of disseminating the information. (Especially when you factor in the fact that libraries are likely not part of the equation, as they don’t need to download an electronic version of a book that’s already freely available.)

Academics aren’t exactly using publications to pay for their summer homes in the Hamptons. So one has to ask, other than providing peer review (which both the book in question and the journal the article appears in seem to do without their aid) and giving a patina of academic respectability to tenure review and hiring committees (which really only goes so far unless other things happen that are out of the hands of the publisher, like getting reviewed and being reviewed well), one could well ask what academics are really getting out of the deal. What is the added value of an academic publisher?

Well, for one thing, you’re getting a book. A real, solid book. One that will never have to be reformatted, that archives itself, that can survive a coffee spill or a trip to the beach when you’re at that summer place in the Hamptons. Academia is lousy with bibliophiles, print fetishists, technophobes, and Luddites who still resent or refuse to use their email accounts.

Sure, Sony and Amazon have both premiered their first take on the portable ebook reader, but since you can’t back up those systems and there’s no standards set, who knows if a book you purchase for either of those systems will be accessible ten years from now. As long as you have shelf space, your printed book will be accessible. Servers go down and websites disappear with a lot more regularity than entire libraries disappear. Having a physical book is an insurance policy. And sure, you could download it and print it yourself, but it’s a pain to do all that, ink costs money, and binders take up a lot more shelf space.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for open access publishing, or that we still need the current academic press setup. While print-on-demand services like lulu.com have thus far been relegated in terms of publishing stature to the ghetto of the vanity press, there’s no reason that a peer-reviewed scholarly book couldn’t be published using the same means.

Assuming that the author is willing to not make any money (often the case for scholarly publication anyway) and to sell it “at cost,” (that is, after lulu recoups their operating cost and makes their profit) it’s still competitive with most university presses. I used their pricing calculator, and a 250 page, black and white, 6″x9″ hardcover with jacket should run about twenty bucks per book. That’s less than most of the books for my classes this semester at the campus bookstore. Lulu offers bulk pricing reductions, so if a buying consortium of libraries could be formed, the book could be sold to university and public libraries at an even lower cost.

Heck, if they ended up with a significant enough market share, it might be possible to convince the folks at Lulu that it’d be a worthwhile (and possibly tax-deductible) to set up a nonprofit “academic imprint” of Lulu, thus deferring cost further.

The Espresso Book Machine offers the possibility of a similar idea, with the exciting addition of on site production and pickup.

There’s something to be said for the notion of gatekeepers, but the gatekeepers seem to be more and more of a hindrance. It may be time, as publishing is already an industry in the midst of upset, to think about establishing a new paradigm, finding a new way to integrate this gatekeeper function. Peer review, like academic publishing, comes near enough to a volunteer service that academics perform for the community anyway– there’s just not enough money in academic publishing to make it affordable to put out all the good work that’s being produced. Print runs are small. Editorial supervision is shrinking. Academics talk about their work being for the public good, about enlightenment and progress. Taking the money out of the equation seems in keeping with all this.

There’s more to be gained for authors than just the high-minded ideals I’ve been discussing. It puts the reigns of design in our hands. It gives academics control over how their book looks. There’s some books I love– and I’ll avoid naming names to protect the innocent– that have suffered from being (apparently) completely neglected by the design staff at the university press. And as much as we want people to notice the content of our writing, we have to acknowledge that design matters. Ugly books are actually harder to read. Attractive things work better. Putting the author at the helm, giving him or her the reigns, is the best way to ensure that the formatting of the book will be handled carefully and with love.

By extension, making sure that students in programs that emphasize digital and new media scholarship have the necessary skills to produce well-designed print layouts should be one of the skills we encourage– or even demand– in such programs. There’s more to digital scholarship than databases and Dreamweaver. Let’s not forget that these new technologies have, in addition to new methods of analysis and dissemination of knowledge, have expanded access to “old media” as well.