In the US, we have the phrase ‘waving a flag and kissing a baby’ for somebody who plays to the gallery. And this is exactly what George Monbiot has done in his Guardian rant against academic publishing houses. Running neck-and-neck with the various teaching quality assurances and research assessment exercises we routinely undergo in the UK, publishers must lead the academic hate list. And while I don’t wish to defend – or even explain – the sort of profit margins that Monbiot cites, I do want to defend publishers as an important counterbalance to the inherently conservative character of such time-honoured academic institutions as peer review.
For his own part, Monbiot appears to be a blind believer in the value of peer review. Indeed, his article appears to have been triggered by the costs to his readers who want to check whether the peer-reviewed research he cites in his articles says what he claims it does. This suggests that if Monbiot’s readers trusted him more, he probably wouldn’t have been moved to rail against publishers in the first place. But I digress.
No one doubts that commercial publishers are in the business of making money. But the way they make money is by doing something that academics value but that they would not do for themselves, left to their own devices. What I mean is captured in two words: ‘innovation’ and ‘extension’.
Innovation: Peer review processes are about insuring the quality of knowledge, which is ultimately a backward-looking exercise — i.e. do the results follow from what is presented as evidence and what we already know? In contrast, innovation is about risk-taking, i.e. arguing that if you suspend or replace some of the old assumptions, you get more interesting results. This is classic entrepreneurship (a la Schumpeter) and publishers are always on the lookout for people who can write books and edit journals that will reconfigure the knowledge system in such innovative ways, resulting in new income streams. The success of cultural studies and gender studies in the 1980s was due more to visionary commissioning editors than the then-dominant academic gatekeepers. I speak from experience. Towards the end of that period, I founded a journal, Social Epistemology — still in existence after 25 years — that depended on just such an editor, since I had proposed the new journal while waiting to defend my Ph.D. (i.e. as someone with hardly any academic status).
Extension: Publishers, not academics, drive the textbook market. It seems that if academics had their way, textbooks would be abolished altogether as failing to contribute to how either teaching or research are assessed. Yet, textbooks remain very important symbols of the integration of teaching and research that is supposed to distinguish academic life from other forms of knowledge production. They are the most convincing indicator that academics produce a body of knowledge that a larger public should find out about. While it is fashionable to mock Anthony Giddens for having spent his career as a glorified sociology textbook writer, nevertheless that skill made it easy for him to speak to larger publics, thereby demonstrating the relevance of sociology. Indeed, I wonder had commercial publishing not played such a large role in steering the course of British sociology, would a public figure like Giddens have ever emerged, given the relatively parochial character of the discipline as it is institutionalised in this country.
Once again, I do not mean to justify Elsevier’s profits. But simply letting academics self-organize their knowledge flows is no panacea. Publishers provide an important counterbalance.