An American Editor

May 13, 2013

The Crystal Ball Says . . .

The May 4, 2013 edition of The Economist reported that the British Research Councils will begin requiring taxpayer-funded research to be published in journals that make the research available free within one year of publication, if not sooner (“Academic Publishing: Free-for-all”). This mirrors the White House’s executive order to the same effect and a bill in Congress that would set the time limit at six months. Not to be left behind, the European Union is moving in the same direction

The crystal ball sees these as a positive trend for taxpayers, but a worrisome trend for authors and editors, especially when you realize where this leads: to the extension of self-publishing to research papers.

It doesn’t take much effort to recognize that a journal cannot survive if it is paying all the costs of production and marketing but cannot charge for the content. Publishers, being businesses, would have to shift the economic burdens, and the only place to which they can be shifted is onto author shoulders.

It is true that, now, many researchers hire editors at their own expense to help them prepare research articles for submission to journals. The authors see this as an investment because they are trying to be published in journals whose reputations will boost the authors’ reputation — the honor and prestige of being published in a journal known to reject 90% or more of submissions is calculable in the academic world. Getting published by Nature or Science is an academic plum; the same cannot be said for articles published in PLoS, which accepts 80% or more of the articles submitted to it.

The future seems to be that authors will not only have to bear the burden of the editorial costs, but also the production costs, which will be wrapped into a publication fee: “Want to have your article published in our journal? You need to pay us $x.” In other words, the vanity press model of publishing is the likely model that publishers of journals will adopt. As long as you are willing to pay to be published, you will be published.

Setting aside the ramifications such a system has for the reputation of the open-access journal and, thus, the reputation of the author published in the open-access journal, and setting aside the potential benefits to society of researchers having full access to these research articles, we need to consider the impact it will have on us in the performance of the work we do as editors and authors.

The boom in self-publishing of ebooks has not transferred its momentum to either editors or to authors. Although some editors have seen an uptick in work received from authors, most editors have not; many editors have seen, instead, a decline. More importantly, perhaps, is that editorial standards have declined as authors increasingly decide they can self-edit or that having their nephew’s kindergarten teacher (or the nephew himself!) do the editing for free or minimal cost is sufficient. Of course, it does not help that readers are buying error-riddled ebooks and often are unaware of the errors. (It is hard to convince someone who believes gr8 is an acceptable spelling of great that gr8 is erroneous.)

This momentum toward self- and nonprofessional editing also puts downward pressure on professional editors fees. We are in the race to the bottom!

A bright spot in editing has been academic editing. It hasn’t been financially bright but work-wise it has been shining when compared to the offshoring of “standard” editorial work. But that is because there have been several parties who were interested in achieving excellence, an excellence that is not represented by either most self-editing efforts or editing by nonprofessionals.

Yet I foresee a coming change as a result of the open access requirements. Researchers who are already hard pressed to financially support their research and who now pay for a preliminary submission edit, knowing that if accepted the journal will provide additional editing, will be rethinking whether to self-edit or have a nonprofessional do the editing, and whether to put pressure on professional editors to reduce fees, all because these authors will have to pay publication fees to the journals in addition to those fees they have already been paying.

According to The Economist article, the journal Nature claims it costs $40,000 per published paper to cover all of the production and review costs. I have no reason to doubt the number, but it makes me wonder who will bear — and pay — such cost in the open-access model of publishing? How many authors would willingly pay even 25% of that cost? How many authors could afford to absorb such costs?

If the journal is not absorbing the cost, then the ripple has to move downstream. It has to keep moving until it is finally stopped at the place where the cost is absorbed or until it no longer has momentum because either the costs to be absorbed have greatly diminished or no longer have someone to absorb them. How much of that ripple will editors have to absorb by way of lower prices?

(Something to note: “Lower prices” doesn’t necessarily mean reducing, for example, an hourly rate from $45 to $35. It can also mean leaving the rate as is but increasing the scope and amount of services provided. The effect is the same in both instances: it is a lowering of price.)

I also wonder when we will see this open-access publishing model extend to all of academic publishing, not just to journals. I expect that publishers, once they wrap themselves in open-access publishing and see that charging a fee to be published can be profitable, will apply this model to academic books. University presses are already financially in trouble; the open-access model of having the author pay the costs could reduce their financial stress. However, it would also mean less opportunity (or less money) for professional editors as authors strive to reduce their cost burden.

I think the future for authors is one of more costs and less prestige. More costs because the financial burdens will shift from journals and university presses to the authors. Less prestige because the quality of presentation of the research will decline and because a pay-to-publish scheme will reduce the selectivity of the journals and publishers — as long as you can pay, you will be published.

I think the future for professional editors is one of lower prices and less work. Lower prices because authors will pressure for lower fees, or a broadened scope of work, or both, and editors will not be able to resist that pressure because it will come from all directions. Less work because as the costs to publish rise, authors will try to self-edit or find colleagues or students or friends or relatives or other nonprofessionals to do the editing as a way to reduce their financial burden, with the result that there will be less work for professional editors.

My crystal ball says authors and editors need to begin thinking about how they will adapt to what the future portends.

3 Comments »

  1. My guess is they’re going to need more journals, and that the government that mandates publication really ought to help subsidize it. I don’t suppose they will though..

    I do think it’s about time to stop snarking about somebody’s schoolteacher. Certainly scientific reports, medical texts and the like where it is vital to get everything exact will continue to need, and with luck get, the best editing available. But in the case of less serious items like fiction, where if a character lights a candle and sets it in a scone people may giggle, but the story will not be badly harmed, and where making a living is precarious enough, we are going to see more authors cutting corners on editing, not because they are stupid. Not because they are ignorant. Not because they are cheap. Because that one little added fee raises outgo just enough to kick them over the edge from profession (paid more than you spend) to hobby.

    Like

    Comment by anansii — May 13, 2013 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  2. As much as I love this blog for its information and insight, I do find its truths wickedly depressing sometimes and need to stop reading it first thing in the morning!

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — May 13, 2013 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  3. *Sigh.* Seconded, Carolyn. Not what this newbie wanted to hear this morning!

    Like

    Comment by Science Refinery — May 13, 2013 @ 10:41 am | Reply


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