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Risky new model for academic publishing

21 May 2012

As if there wasn’t enough change going on in the publishing world at the moment, the British government has decided to take a hand in academic publishing, having just concluded that a new model would work better. For years publishers have undertaken this kind of scholarly publishing which is financed by book and journal sales, yet now government minister David Willetts is suggesting that open access is the way forward.

This may sound enlightened and for students, academics and other readers it probably is, but for the academics who are publishing their work it could make things very difficult. For them publishing is an essential part of their academic progress, one to the things that gets them job offers and tenure. So it is not a matter of ‘it would be nice to publish’, but key to their career prospects.

So what does this new model propose? The idea is that the author will pay for publication, which in effect means that the cost of publication will be built into grant and funding applications. For academic work which is generously funded, including much scientific research, this may not be too big a problem, but the average humanities academic may find that the chance of anyone except themselves paying for publication is pretty remote.

It is surprising that a minister should be proposing such a major change to this publishing model with only the vaguest idea of how it will be replaced with a new model which works.

As Futurebook pointed out, the debate did show what a large part British academic publishers play in the business worldwide.

As Willetts said: ‘There are about 1.7 million academic articles published around the world, of which about 120,000 come from UK research. Thanks to the quality and success of our publishing industry, meanwhile, 400,000 of the world’s academic papers are published in the UK.’

Perhaps it would make more sense to leave things alone, so that British publishers can compete in the rapidly growing international market.