Meridith Kahn and Scholarly Communication

Today, Publishing Services and Outreach Librarian Meredith Kahn spoke to the class about scholarly communication in the digital age. In the world of academia, scholarly publishing is one of the most sensitive and discussed issues. Despite the fact that three major publishing companies (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley), academics are moving towards open-access publishing in order to release their works.  Is this movement a fad or a possibility for major change?

In order understand the struggles faced by scholarly publishing and the possible solutions to these problems, we turn to commercial publishing and what they have done in order to expand their publishing options. There are five major aspects of commercial publishing: textbooks, trade publishing, indie/small press publishing, and self-publishing. The textbook industry is notorious for selling over-priced books that typically have negligible lifespans. Uttering the word “textbook” today as an academic or student leaves a sour taste on the tongue. The inherent flaw of the textbook market is that students (consumers) don’t get to decide the textbook they buy. This allows the publishing company to sell the textbook at a very high price. The price hike is also compounded by the fact that there are only a few major textbook publishing companies, thus eliminating market competition. The textbook industry needs to institute change in order to make textbooks more useful in the long run and to make them much more affordable to students.

Trade publishing is similar to textbook publishing because five major publishers are attributed to the majority of the trade publishing market. These companies include Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster (Kahn, 2012). A major difference between trade publishing and textbook publishing however is consumer choice; students can’t choose what textbooks they use for a class, but readers can buy whatever book they like in trade publishing. Trade publishing has also formed a semi-symbiotic relationship with indie and self-publishing. Authors from indie publishers or authors who have self-published their works have the opportunity to get picked up by major publishers if they are successful. Examples of these success cases include E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series (Kahn, 2012). The benefit if indie publishers and self-publishing is that it allows authors to fill niche markets that may otherwise go unfilled by major publishers.

Scholarly publishing is starting to move away from major publishers because of similar challenges that textbook and trade publishing faced. It isn’t economically feasible for some academics to publish their work with publishers like Elsevier. One characteristic of scholarly publishers that harms consumers is the “paywall.” Paywalls in scholarly publishing are barriers that prevent a user from accessing content on a database without a paying subscription. The paywall is a controversial topic because it raises ethical and monetary issues. For example, why should information and knowledge be reserved only for those who can afford it? It can also harm the publisher depending on the type of paywall. Hard paywalls, paywalls that don’t allow readers to read content at all without a paying subscription, will have a very low rate of new readers because readers won’t want to waste money on a database they can’t even read. Soft paywalls that allow readers to read a minimal amount of content before making them subscribe is a better solution and will increase the rate of new readers since readers will be able to sample content before subscribing. Soft paywalls seem to favor both sides more since the consumer isn’t completely turned off by the publisher at the start. As a result, soft paywall publishers can still see subscription growth while keeping customers happy.

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