I was flattered to be invited last Thursday to be a panelist at the sixth Scholarly Information Symposium organized by Drexel University Libraries. Under the title of "For What It's Worth," the seminar started with the assumption that since scholarly information is not free to produce, it is incumbent on all of those involved in the information supply chain to understand the costs involved . . . especially if they are looking for ways to reduce them.
It was an interesting morning, filled with sensible discussion. However, it struck me again how very bad publishers are at articulating what they actually do to add value to unfiltered information. Librarians are at least trying to understand this, perhaps because they themselves are stuck in the same situation of having to justify their existence in a Google-ized world. However, the younger faculty on the panel, a computer scientist and a physicist, were noticeably puzzled.
In such situations, I find it useful to fall back on the clear articulation of the role of the scholarly journal publicized in Michael Mabe's writings (in refereed form in ASLIB Proceedings, and in various open access locations via Google search). He suggests that the scholarly journal performs four functions for academic authors: registration, certification, dissemination, and archiving.
After "time-stamping" their research, and thus registering an author's claim to having had an idea or achieved an insight first, the journal proceeds to certify the discovery as a valid one.
Certification has been too long equated with "peer review." While there are real administrative costs involved in peer review, especially for journals with high rejection rates, the fact that journal peer reviewers are generally not paid by the publishers makes too much harping on the costs of the review process ring slightly hollow. It has taken publishers a while to shift the focus, when discussing certification, from "peer review" to "copyediting" and the range of different steps encapsulated in post-acceptance quality control. A recent article by Bob Campbell and Edward Wates of Blackwell Wiley (PDF of an article originally published in Learned Publishing) presented a fairly persuasive case for the importance of copyediting, yet suffered from the homogeneity of its approach. In disciplines with well-standardized terminologies, plenty of institutional funding, and graduate students intensively trained in the norms of scholarly communication (e.g., physics, computer science), the work of the copyeditor is a great deal more mechanical than in many areas of the social sciences and more quantitative humanities (e.g., archaeology). Having to establish the norms of the discipline as one edits is like building the airplane as one flies it, and yet this is the role that the editors in many learned societies are playing. And that degree of time and care has costs attached.
Dissemination involves far more than waiting for readers to discover an online resource. "Build it and they will come" is the mantra of too many of the new Open Access journals being published by university libraries, a belief referred to as the "broadcast fallacy" by Rod Cookson of Taylor & Francis. In his 2009 article in Learned Publishing, Cookson eloquently explains the various aspects of investment that are necessary to properly convey new scholarship to the audience who matters . . . not, in most cases, the "wider public" but that relatively narrow community of fellow specialists to whom your research really matters, and whose approbation matters to you. Such investments range from the simple printed direct mail flyer to the social, Web 2.0, tools that (when they work) create communities of practice.
While archiving journal content in a print world was primarily the responsibility of the library system, the cost of electronic archiving is increasingly resting on a publisher's shoulders. This is not just because of a feeling of responsibility to the community, although of course some altruistic tendencies can be credited, but also because it is increasingly clear that digital content can be repurposed in a number of ways, some not yet invented. It makes sense to look after and control what is now so clearly a "digital asset."
R, C, D, A is not comprehensive. There are plenty of other activities that publishers engage in that cost money, but it is an easy-to-remember mnemonic for the next time that you are asked "and what exactly do publishers do?"