How Open Access and Para-Academic Publishers Are Disrupting Academic Publishing

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Digital disruption has happened in almost every publishing sector except one: academic publishing. The reasons why academic publishers have resisted changes as other sectors have gone digital is complex, and many have tried to change aspects of academic publishing with few results.

For example, In 2011, GigaOm author Mathew Ingram explained that one of the reasons why academic publishing is so resistant to change is because universities “pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them” (“So When Does Academic Publishing Get Disrupted?”). Some of these journal subscriptions cost upwards of $20,000 a year through traditional academic publishers, according to a recent report from the University of Illinois.

Here in 2013, not much has changed in traditional academic publishing, but there are changes happening on the edges of academic publishing. Through the open access movement — the idea that academic articles and books should be freely available online — many of these publishers have started disrupting the norms of academic publishing.

academic_booksSome of these alternative methods for producing scholarly work have adopted the term “para-academic” to distinguish their work as happening outside of the academic publishing system. For example, Continent is an academic journal, published online, that offers their articles for free under a Creative Commons license. Their focus and scope is on the academic journal “as a means for transmitting thought,” not on charging for submissions.

These articles still hold weight as academic publications: Continent uses an Open Peer Commentary process, which works similarly to the traditional peer-review process in established journals. By explaining their open access philosophy and their process of publishing, Continent disrupts the old publishing system while still supporting the work of the academy as a whole. When a single article can cost a library or a researcher around $40, according to George Monbiot of The Guardian, this is a welcomed approach.

Other publishers have adopted an open-access approach with digital services like CreateSpace or Amazon’s Kindle platform to sell versions of published books. One publisher, punctum books, accepts donations for PDF versions of books directly from its website while offering print versions of its work through CreateSpace. (Full disclosure: I am an associate editor for punctum books.) Another publisher, Zero Books, sells its books through Amazon. Because these publishers operate outside of the university press system, they have more flexibility in the publishing process.

Some critics point out that these publications cannot provide the credibility many academics get through traditional academic journals, particularly when it comes to peer review. Yet Continent and other publications use similar peer-review processes, and many journals, like Itineration and Present Tense, are at least refereed.

For publishers, this new approach means that digital disruption within academic publishing is still possible. Last year, postmedieval, a medieval cultural studies journal published by Palgrave Macmillan, used a “crowd review” process for their “Becoming Media” issue. Previous issues of postmedieval were peer reviewed like most academic journals. This publication also releases some articles of the journal through postmedieval forum, an open access collection.

If anything, these para-academic approaches could lead to new fields of scholarly inquiry outside of the traditional university, and they may lead to changes within academic publishing as a whole. For most people who advocate for open access scholarship, this is the ultimate goal: to give high-quality scholarship to those who do not have access already.

Library Book Image via Shutterstock.

Kevin Eagan

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan is a freelance editor, composition instructor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and an associate editor at Punctum Books, an open-access, print-on-demand para-academic publisher. He writes for CriticalMargins.com, a blog that covers digital culture, publishing, and e-media. You can follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

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