Alexander Brown stands up for publishers, justifying their costs and explaining how they help move science forward
“There are scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature”. Photograph: Alamy
It was not long after I arrived at Springer that I found myself – relatively new to academic publishing – immersed in the dialogue on open access (OA) and the role of publishers. The US Research Works Act was still bitterly disputed in the media, and would be another month before it died in Washington.
The more I learned about OA the more I heard accusations of publishers raking in profits while adding little value. But I just kept asking myself, “If all of these people around me are so unnecessary, then what are they doing all day, around the globe?” The answer is: a great deal to help move science forward. But just how and why is often painfully misunderstood.
The ill-conceived notion frequently advanced by commercial publishing’s detractors is that all we do is polish a manuscript, put it online and then sit back and wait for the next sucker to submit an article. This is highly misleading and inaccurate. So what are the roles and costs that justify the fees we charge?
Along with the benefits afforded to us all by the online space, publishers have also been presented with new challenges by this medium. Many assume that publishers’ costs have declined now that we no longer bear the burden of physical printing and distribution. This is true – in part. We no longer create and distribute printed materials to the extent that we have in the past. However, important new functions requiring significant expenditures have emerged to take the place of printing and shipping. And these are in addition to many of the same costs we incurred before the presses cooled.
For starters, the need for strong, skilled editors remains to ensure that research can be universally understood, to recognise emerging fields and create new journals, and to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals. The recruitment and management of editorial review boards, and the coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record, are both needed now more than ever.