The Scholarship Monopoly

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No I don’t mean the game we all played as kids with railroads and hotels and a questionable gentleman in a top hat.

Scholarship monopoly is a very serious concern for academics of all sorts. Really, any monopoly is a concern in any kind of business or industry. It’s a given that competition helps us grow, inspires us to try harder, and pushes the best ideas and products to the fore. Academia is slightly different, in that competition is more about comparing and checking theories and ideas with peers. Rather than directly competing with each other, academics work off each other to verify data and draw conclusions.

So where does the monopoly come into this?

The publishers of academic content, those responsible in a large part for disseminating academic findings and pairing academics with peer reviewers. But what if those publishing were concentrated into a very few, for profit companies? The potential for a monopoly arises.

This is exactly the current dilemma academic publishing is in. Much like the traditional publishing industry, academic publishing is dominated by a “Big 5” group of publishers, accounting for almost 50% of all academic publishing per year.

To get a more complete understanding of the academic publishing and dissemination lifecycle, let’s first break down the stages of this process:

  1. Research
  2. Publishing
  3. Evaluation

Research is the meat of the content creation process, and rests entirely with the academic—be it a professor, researcher, or student. The individual finds and evaluates data, forms a hypothesis, and gathers their conclusions to form their content.

With content gathered, the publishing process begins. Traditionally, this involves sending the content to a publisher, who has a staff of editors and designers to layout and prepare the content. What begins as data ends up a fully formed paper or even a book. In most instances, the content creator is detached from this step.

Finally, the content in it’s completed form is evaluated by other academics. Once the content is deemed as complete by peer reviewers, it becomes a part of the greater body of academic work. Student’s learn from it, professors teach from it. The content takes a place among all other academic material.

The problem academia faces stems from the handling of this three-stage process. From From the “Knowledge Gap” project:

“At first sight, there is an obvious concern of a conflict of interest. This is especially true when the supplier of academic journals is also in charge of evaluating and validating research quality and impact (eg: pure, plum analytics, Sci Val), identifying academic experts to direct to potential employers (eg: Expert Lookup), managing the research networking platforms through which to collaborate (eg: SSRN, Hivebench, Mendeley), managing the infrastructure through which to find funding (eg: plum X, Mendeley, Sci Val), and controlling the platforms through which to analyze and store your data (Eg: Hivebench, Mendeley).”

The acknowledgement is that companies like Elsevier have begun to rebrand themselves as Analytics tools for the gathering and dissemination of academic knowledge materials, distancing themselves from the strictly publishing oriented role they previously focused upon. Because Elsevier (and the other large academic publishers) owns a disproportionate amount of the existing publications of academic value, they are well positioned to capitalize on this content by offering increased analytical data from this content. But the control over such a portion of the academic content creates a monopoly, limits competition, and provides academics no real choice other than to buy into the monopoly.

Glasstree is but one of many alternatives to the traditional academic publishing and review mechanism. I am not writing this piece today as an advertisement for Glasstree in specific terms, as we often have in the past. What’s more important is to acknowledge the process of academic publishing and the stranglehold large academic publishers, under the guise of “Information Analytics Companies” and residing behind a paywall, have on the availability of knowledge.

There have been and continue to be pockets of opposition to the academic publishing model, but the cost of avoiding the mainstream publishing methods is steep. Academics find themselves without the needed means of reviewing and disseminating their data, trapped outside the broader field of knowledge. Research and data published outside of traditional means have a perceived lack of credibility.

Coupled with the reduced cost of digital printing and the connectivity of modern communications tools, the means and costs of academic publishing should be plummeting, while the openness and access to materials should be broader than ever. This is not the case, and one possible (if not likely) cause is the grip large academic publishers have on the entire process. Anytime so much data is concentrated with so few entities, the risk of monopoly is great. This data is crucial, as it represents the broad knowledge of all of academia.

As one of many alternatives to the currently accepted academic normal, Glasstree wholeheartedly encourages all researchers, students, and educators to carefully consider their options when disseminating their knowledge, and to take any opportunity they can to break from the normal models with self-publishing, independent reviews, and institution based printing.

The independent publishing revolution has slowly asserted itself on the traditional publishing industry; now it is widely considered a formidable adversary of the old publishing model, and the publishers of years’ past are scrambling to take on digital printing tools to remain competitive. Academia can learn from this despite their differing needs. The financializing of academic publishing will not stop now that it has proven to be profitable. As such, academia must adapt if the individuals and institutions hope to maintain the standards for their work and to prevent the overwhelming monopoly traditional academic publishers, under their new moniker “Information Analytics Companies,” are quickly attaining.

 

 

 

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