Why Hasn’t the Academy Taken Back Control of Publishing Already?

Before we dig into some of the reasons, let’s acknowledge that the “once again” is something of a restoration myth. When, exactly, did the academy “control” publishing? This question will naturally beget the response (bound to show up in the Comments section of this blog) that universities, through their university presses, formerly did much of the work now performed by commercial houses. That is not quite true for a number of reasons. First, commercial firms have always played a role in scholarly communications. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the largest publishers is that over the years they have bought up a great many commercial companies, some of which (e.g., Butterworth’s and Heinemann — Wikipedia: ”William Heinemann founded William Heinemann Ltd in Covent Garden, London, in 1890”) were substantial organizations. (Both Butterworth’s and Heinemann are now part of Elsevier.) Second, scholarly publishing today barely resembles the pre-Maxwell era: it is considerably larger, more sophisticated, and owes its scale and importance to a considerable degree to the relatively recent developments of Sputnik and the Cold War. Finally, the real shift over the past century is not from the academy to the commercial firms but from professional societies to commercial firms. It is the professional societies that are under attack today — from two sides: from the commercial firms that squeeze the societies out of academic library budgets, and from the open access (OA) movement, which denies the professional societies the revenue that formerly sustained them. Thus were the academy to take control of scholarly publishing it would not be so much a restoration as an innovation, but that is hardly a reason not to pursue it.
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