Academia in the age of digital reproducibility

Scholarly publishing houses strive to keep up with an increasingly computerized world

When Access Copyright introduced a plan last spring to increase fees imposed on post-secondary institutions by more than 1,300 per cent, universities across Canada revolted. If accepted, the copyright collective’s new tariff would up the amount paid by every university outside of Quebec for reproduction rights to printed materials, like academic journals, from $3.58 per student to $45 – a bid to stay on top of the widespread migration towards digital editions of works.

By September, 101 objections to the Access Copyright’s (AC) plan were formally registered, including one by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Ryerson University, University of Manitoba, and many others prepared to let their licenses with AC lapse in a move that would likely mean shifting course pack materials online and leaving reproduction rights up in the air. In a December broadcast email, the University of British Columbia told students the institution’s annual AC fees would surge from $650,000 to $2 million, creating what they called “unacceptable cost burdens to student and institutional budgets alike.” AC has since bent to pressure and reinstated the previous fee structure while negotiations with the AUCC proceed.

Quebec universities, including McGill, have not been immediately affected by Access Copyright’s tariff increase. They pay fees for licensing and reproduction rights to a separate collective, COPIBEC. But the current agreement is up for renegotiation next year, and it is yet unknown what kind of changes COPIBEC will push for. Steve Drolet, a coordinator at McGill Course Pack Services, believes the collective is monitoring the situation with AC to determine the extent to which they can follow suit with their fees. “They’re a business, they’re not really a public service,” he said in an interview. “They’re fighting for changes to the copyright law, and my perception is that they’re trying to do that to protect their purview over it.”

The uneasy situation with copyright collectives in which Canadian universities have found themselves is a strong indication of the current state of academic publishing. New possibilities and limitations on the use of scholarship are fundamentally restructuring how research is circulated and the ways we think about access.

Academic journals are at the center of the scholarly world. Regular publication is a mandatory part of almost all professorships, and academic careers hinge on the often-political world of peer-review. In an email to The Daily, Andrew Piper – German Studies professor and co-founder of the Interacting With Print research group – provided a look into the history of academic periodicals.

“The origins of the academic journal date back in a general sense to the eighteenth century,” he wrote. “Their proliferation was a bedrock of the Enlightenment ideal of the open access to knowledge.” But as the number of journals in circulation expanded and their contents became more specialized, questions of access turned to the issue of surplus what Piper called “the equal and opposite problem of too much knowledge. How was one to contend with that?”

As the importance of journals within academia rose, publishers have capitalized on the burgeoning market. This has resulted in massive price increases – annual institutional subscriptions to journals published by Springer, a major for-profit academic publishing house, run from several hundred dollars to more than $8,500. In our current model, however, researchers depend on publishers for the organization of peer reviews, copy editing, and the storage and distribution of their work.

Furthermore, escalating prices create problems that run counter to the original intent of periodicals. “The journal, which was once the bastion of access to knowledge, is now inhibiting access because of its high cost,” wrote Piper. “It also means we’re buying fewer books. And this impinges on the type of knowledge that is made – more journals and fewer books usually means more specialization. Specialization in turn often implies non-access.”

Digitalization and sharing across the internet, often hailed as a great democratizer, has forced publishers to change their game. To maintain profit margins, many companies bundle journals together and sell subscriptions to libraries, a high-priced option that Piper says only increases the gap between “academic haves and have-nots.”

In response to the extension of publisher price controls on the web, the open access (OA) model sprung up in the 1990s and has steadily grown since then. Under the OA model, the onus to pay to access scholarship is shifted from the reader to a third party, such as a university, society, or museum. Often, OA journals use the author-pay scheme, in which the researcher or the institution funding them pays for the costs that go into copy editing and hosting their work. The fee ranges from a nominal $100 or $200, up to the £1500 that Cambridge University Press charges its contributors if they want to make their research openly accessible. This cost has hindered the total adoption of OA publishing: a 2010 study by Finnish economists showed that only around 20 per cent of academic articles had OA permissions.

To ensure the preservation and accessibility of their researchers’ work, many universities have created institutional repositories – public, searchable archives of the scholarship produced there. Amy Buckland, the electronic scholarship, publishing, and digitization coordinator of McGill’s institutional repository – eScholarship@McGill – considers this project a vital part of the school’s academic community.

“We want it to be the showcase of the intellectual output of the university,” she said. “So if journals go under, if databases become too prohibitively expensive to subscribe to, the library feels that at the very least we should be able to make McGill’s work available to the public. … Publicly-funded research should be available to the public.”

eScholarship@McGill works by requesting professors’ CVs, then contacting the publishers of their articles to see which they are allowed to put into the repository. Buckland says most publishers will allow for the copying of the postprint – the version of an article that has gone through the peer-review and editing process, but has yet to be copy edited.

But eScholarship@McGill’s archives are not restricted to professors: they also preserve graduate theses and dissertations, going back to at least 1965. “We wanted to give a bigger profile to our graduates” said Buckland. “So now you get good ‘Google juice’ on your name, whereas before you had to go to the ProQuest database, which not all libraries subscribe to, and which the general public can’t access.” Articles in the repository are accessible worldwide and “harvestable,” meaning they can be copied into other databases and further circulated. This helps provide exposure to professors and students alike.

Most people working in academia view open access distribution models as the ideal. “There is really no reason that all academic journals shouldn’t be published under an open access system on the web,” wrote Piper. “If you edit a journal today you have to be an agent in moving away from your corporate sponsor and towards an open, web-based publishing model.”

But the ideal may not always be realistic. Private publishers are not going anywhere, Buckland says, just changing their rules. “They do a lot of the grunt work” in disseminating research, she said. And the cost of review and editing that the open access scheme imposes on universities is a massive burden. “It’s not yet sustainable,” Buckland said. For the present, she envisions a collaboration between libraries and university presses, like the McGill-Queen’s University Press, which would decrease dependence on external publishing houses.

The problem for Piper, however, exceeds questions of digitization, distribution, and access: “How are going to address the crisis of academic publishing, not in terms of there being too few venues to publish research, but in terms of there being too much information for individuals to digest? This is something we have only begun to tackle.”