Friday, 25 October 2013

Academic publishing reform 3. Institutional evolutions

Institutions such as universities and funding bodies play a major role in research policy, and therefore potentially in scientific publishing. There are many things institutions could do to improve the publishing system, such as:
  • renouncing the use of impact factors and citation counts,
  • evaluating researcher's works on their merits, and not on whether or where they are published,
  • lauching and supporting innovative journals,
  • stopping paying Big Deal subscriptions to publishers, and facilitating the buying, hoarding and sharing of individual articles by researchers,
  • ordering the researchers they employ not to work as referees or editors for the worst publishers.
But institutions seldom if ever do these things, and since I want to discuss only observed behaviour, the discussion will be rather brief. Actually, institutions are sometimes more inclined to embrace pernicious innovations, such as the h-index or the publishers' Big Deals, than genuine progresses, especially when the pernicious innovations favour the bureaucracy's natural tendency to increase its own size and power.

For example, a common misconception is that large institutions are better than small ones at dealing with big publishers. Actually, given the all-or-nothing nature of the proposed Big Deals, the only available negociating tool is the threat to not subscribe at all. The smaller the institution, the more credible the threat. People who are specifically mandated to negociate with a publisher on behalf of a large institution or consortium cannot make such a threat, and must agree to the dictated price. (The publisher may pretend to demand an even more outrageous price at the beginning, and then retreat, in order to hide the fact that negotiations are meaningless.)

A common and significant way institutions try to improve the publishing system is by adopting open access policies. Clear and detailed explanations on the subject of open access to scientific publications are provided in a Unesco document. However, not all open access policies are effective. An effective policy should:
  • ask researchers to deposit their articles in an institutional repository, in order to take control back from the publishers,
  • be mandatory, and count only articles in the repository for managing careers,
  • allow for publishers' embargos, but moot them by providing a "request article" button for semi-automatically distributing embargoed articles,
  • avoid funding Gold open access publishing,
  • provide some advantages, not only obligations, to researchers. These advantages, beyond the increase in readership which automatically comes with open access, can be a facilitation of administrative formalities, by the automatic compilation of publication lists.
Such a policy was adopted by the University of Li├Ęge under Bernard Rentier.