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March 19, 2009

Scholarly publishing: Pitt panelists speak out

Pitt panelists Steven L. Kanter, vice dean in the School of Medicine; Michael J. Madison, associate dean for research in the School of Law; Cynthia Miller, director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, and John D. Norton, director of the Center for Philosophy of Science, added their comments on scholarly publishing issues at the plenary session.

Steven L. Kanter

Kanter, editor-in-chief of the journal Academic Medicine, discussed emerging threats to the integrity of the scholarly journal article.

One fear editors have is the impact of “wiki forces,” which have both constructive and destructive potential, Kanter said. An article posted in a wiki can be edited by other users and over time “gravitates toward accuracy,” Kanter said. “A lot can be gained from that … but editors worry it can destroy the value of an article as a historical record, that it can take too long for an article to emerge as excellent,” Kanter said.

“An editor would worry it might be too difficult to know when an article is to be regarded as an authoritative source of information. There are just too many unknowns in the process,” he said. “Imagine a well-financed effort to aggressively wiki an article in a desired direction.”

A second dangerous force is one of “policy-driven access,” Kanter said. Making an article available to all who need it when they need it is desirable, but different policies by different institutions at different times could result in multiple versions of the same articles available. “As we develop repositories and distribution strategies, it’s also important to develop rational versioning practices,” he said.

Another force that concerns Kanter is the issue of “conjoined information,” additional material that could accompany scholarly work. For instance, in a PDF file format, relevant information such as additional articles or editorials that a reader might be interested in could be added. There also is potential for adding material with no relevance to an article’s scholarly content, he cautioned. “I could put an advertisement for a product, a religious message or political statement or other kinds of information,” Kanter said. “I’m just concerned that if I can think of these things, there are other people out there thinking of them also.”

Michael J. Madison

Madison said there are several solutions for the public goods problem as it relates to scholarly publishing. “Any resource where the ways in which it is shared and distributed makes it difficult to recoup the cost of producing it is characterized as a public good. Therefore there needs to be some kind of structural solution to enable it to be produced,” he said, arguing that the responsibility belongs to both public and private institutions worldwide.

Copyright is the standard way of solving the problem for research and creative content, but intellectual property rights can create more problems than they solve with regard to open access issues.

He said a potential solution is to have the government provide the resources, citing the NIH repository as an example.

Madison agreed that an intermediate institutional commons-style mechanism housed at and promoted by universities and faculty is a key solution that needs to be developed.

“The key with these commons solutions is in the details of how they are managed and governed” with regard to the internal mechanisms of faculty governance, institutional administration and relations with journal publishers and university presses. “The details make a great deal of difference. There’s no one size fits all,” he said.

Citing the Harvard faculty’s decision to create an open access repository, Madison said, “It would be fantastic if faculty here at Pitt got together with the administration to talk about adopting a comparable policy.”

Cynthia Miller

Miller discussed the need for new funding models for university press books as sales dwindle and prices increase. “We really do need to ask: Does publishing 600 copies of a scholarly monograph and selling them at $30-plus as a paperback or $60-plus as a hardcover constitute effective dissemination of scholarship?”

Finding those models isn’t easy, but there are learning opportunities in the current system that might be carried forward into new discussions, Miller said.

At one time university presses were subsidized enough to enable prices to be kept low and libraries had sufficient funding to have standing orders for every university press book published. “It worked well for a long time,” but the system has since broken down under financial pressures. “It creates a real crisis of access.”

One thing that worked in that “golden age,” Miller said, was that the cost of the entire system was more broadly distributed. Library purchases from universities around the country helped reimburse the cost to the handful of universities that supported a university press.

“In moving forward, we may need to think about how we again spread the cost more evenly and equitably among the universities whose faculties and students benefit from the system,” she said. “Just switching to digital isn’t going to solve the problem.

“All the cost of what university presses do — if we want to preserve the peer review, the revising, the editing, the professional copy editing, the proofreading — cost exactly the same whether I take that PDF and send it to a printer or put it on the web site.”

Having a market-driven, financially responsible press prompts better decisions to keep quality high, forcing presses to focus on their readers’ needs and wants, Miller said. However, material that seems risky to a publisher faces a higher burden for publication, she noted. Some fields are being left out and young scholars are finding it difficult to get published.

“We’re going to have to find some way to find these new funding models that allow us to keep our focus on market without allowing some kind of market-driven financial return on investment standards control our ability to publish and the accessibility of the work we do publish.”

Miller added that the Google Book Search settlement (of a class action brought by authors and publishers in response to Google’s creation of a searchable database of published works) “is going to change our world as far as publishers are concerned.”

Noting that some 7 million books have been scanned and made searchable in a database, “It is going to increase access. It is going to increase access on Google’s terms,” she said, noting that Google will be a major player in whatever new system for access to scholarly work develops.

John D. Norton

Norton, administrator of Pitt’s PhilSci Archive, which houses more than 800 papers and has readers in some 65 nations, focused his comments on the impact of open access publishing on the quality of writing. “My prediction is it’s going to get better,” he said.

“First, the quality of writing is not determined by whether you are paying for something or not,” he said. Rather, it’s determined by the diligence of editors and referees who serve as gatekeepers for whether a work is good enough.

In open access models, referees and editors still have the same job, but they are freed of some of the dictates of what fits on a printed page. Print journal editors are obligated to publish a volume of a certain length at a certain time, Norton said.

“If you have an article that is too long … you’ve got to cut stuff out. Even if the article needs to be longer, you don’t have the discretion to do that.”

In addition, regardless of the quality of the work that has been submitted, a certain number of pages must be produced in conjunction with the journal’s publication schedule.

“All of those restrictions evaporate. You can do what you want when you want. You can concentrate only on the editing of the writing.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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