Wed 27 February 2013 at 11.00 am

JISC and the future of scholarly journals

Paul Harwood

Taking Place: Willow Building (room W01), Headington Hill Campus, Oxford Brookes University, OX3 0BT

Missed this event?  Find out what our students thought in the summary blog below...

by Marianne Cassidy

In the most recent Digital Lunchtime Lecture, Paul Harwood of JISC Collections spoke about the scholarly journals marketplace and its current state of rampant upheaval. JISC is a registered charity that works on behalf of higher education in the UK, securing better value and efficiency from publishers of scholarly resources. Their mission is to provide knowledge, guidance and services (particularly with regard to digital technology) to the UK's academic community and help them make investment decisions that will have maximum benefit for students.

As a central negotiation service for the UK's university sector, JISC occupies a unique space in the world of scholarly journals and offers a similarly unique perspective on the future of journals as an industry. Paul gave us a quick and dirty timeline of defining moments in the history of journals starting with: the Philosophic Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665; then moving to Robert Maxwell’s vision for packaging and selling research; through to the present day, where the Open Access question is at the core of the industry’s concerns.

The UK has been an early adopter of Open Access, and currently has “a vulnerable but cutting-edge position” on the issue. In the wake of the Finch Report recommendations, there is now a heated debate between the divided camps of Gold and Green Open Access. Gold works on a model of article processing charges (or APCs), where the author or institution pays for the publication of their work. Essentially, the source of the revenue would be shifted internally, but the institution still pays and the publisher still profits. Green OA – the “purist” model – would publish scholarly articles in institutional repositories that can be freely accessed by anyone, thoroughly undermining the need for the costly middleman of the journals publisher. While there are a number of complementary and hybrid models (such as embargo periods and institutional memberships), the two poles of Gold and Green dominate the debate.

As it stands, big journals publisher have a monopolistic hold on new research. Libraries are in an increasingly difficult situation as education budgets shrink; small-to-medium institutions in particular are starved of access to important research. As Paul pointed out, you cannot simply turn off ScienceDirect because of budget constraints. Researchers simply will not allow a library to cancel a journal. Researchers are also still very much beholden to impact factors that determine the importance of a piece of research. If an article is not published in the right journal, an academic career is at stake. APCs would effectively put a price on impact factors, allowing the richest institutions to publish with the highest profile journals and potentially obscuring valuable contributions to a given field.

For a room of young aspirant publishers, the most important question that Paul Harwood put on the table was this; where will we add value in the future? Gold Open Access and hybrid models will essentially tie-in publisher’s profits, allowing them to charge both libraries and authors for their services. Perhaps this bodes well for our future careers, but for many of us it remains ethically suspect. For a generation raised in the advent of the Internet and copious free information, Green Open Access feels like the logical and comfortable model.

The debate is not going to be settled any time soon and there is little certainty about future models and policies in the world of journals publishing. However, two crucial points for future publishers came to the fore.

Firstly, if the journals industry is to survive, it must change; it must change rapidly and enthusiastically to meet the new demands of both authors and consumers.

Secondly, we cannot afford to keep rehashing the same tired old arguments in defence of the publisher. We cannot add value by clinging to traditional models which increasingly serve no one but the publisher. We must create value anew through innovation and ingenuity and Paul’s lecture made it undeniably clear that is the challenge facing the next generation of academic publishers.

Marianne Cassidy has a BA in Drama Studies and English Literature from Trinity College Dublin. After some time working in theatre in Chicago, she is now studying for an MA in Digital Publishing at the OICPS and interning at Oxfam GB. In her spare time, she can usually be found doing the rounds of Oxford pub quizzes, taking part in feminist events and blogging about gender and pop culture at death of the new gods.