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Most academic research is funded publicly. As such, we owe it to the tax-payer to justify the way we do science as the most cost-effective way we can practically operate. While this of course may not always be realistic in an imperfect world, at the very least we should always strive to not have any glaring, systemic inefficiencies at work and seek to eliminate any such instances, should we encounter them.
Already before this post, I've argued that there is no justification for keeping corporate publishers involved in scholarly communication and I won't repeat the arguments here. However, there have been a few posts and comments recently, which have prompted me to ask others if they could justify the role of corporate publishing in scholarly communication. I think the first was Cameron Neylon's blog post on how little publishers understand us scientists and how little we understand them:
given the general lack of respect for the work that publishers do, is to start down the process of claiming that they could do it better. [...] a lot of it is pure arrogance. Researchers neither understand, nor appreciate for the most part, the work of copyediting and curation, layout and presentation. While there are tools today that can do many of these things more cheaply there are very few researchers who could use them effectively.I'm not claiming that we should do the publishing, but that our libraries should do it. After all, haven't they archived and made our work accessible for centuries? Isn't this what libraries were for, until they outsourced some of their tasks to people who knew how to operate printing presses? Maybe I just don't know what publishers do when I claim that anything corporate publishers do, our university libraries could do better, provided they get to keep the roughly 10 billion annually that they currently spend on subscriptions to (largely) corporate publishers?
Next up was a post on Google Plus, where I asked the same thing and the person who posted it couldn't give me an answer either. Another one was a comment on this post on an Elsevier blog:
What I find hard to divine is if the author of a research paper gives it to you for free, someone else makes the edits for free, and the research was paid for by the public, what is it that you do? Or maybe what is it that you do what others can’t do?I also wonder, what is it that corporate publishers do that justifies taking more than 30% of the (largely) tax-funds that make up their revenue and hand it directly to their shareholders?
Maybe more precisely: what are the tasks that are so important that you couldn't have a commercial service provide them to libraries who store and make accessible the works of their faculty to the public at large at a fraction of the current cost to the tax-payer? What are the reasons we cannot have commercial businesses competing for (library-)contracts to perform:
- (transparent, accredited, etc.) peer-review organization
- (insert the mystical tasks that justify the involvement of corporate publishers in scholarly communication)
UPDATE: Others are also asking the same question.
UPDATE2: I guess I have to repeat some of my arguments in the light of some apparent confusion I was and am arguing that libraries are perfectly able to do everything the corporate publishers of today are doing. They could do it better and more cheaply. However, even if there are some processes individual libraries wouldn't want or couldn't do, there is no reason why they shouldn't outsource this task to the most cost-effective bidder. The result is that the most important component of our work - the content - stays in our hands, while the packaging could, potentially, be outsourced to a thriving, competitive marketplace.
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