Author-owned scholarly journal cooperatives: a win-win situation?

Abstract: Rewarding authors and referees with ownership stakes in the journal could provide attractive incentives for individuals and rein in abusive publisher practices.

Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for publications that might want to publish my writing. One criterion I look for is: Do they pay? I’ve been surprised by how many publications are sustained without paying their contributors — and not just academic journals.

Non-academic publications have a fierce competition for the best authors, and those who offer no payment may suffer challenges in obtaining their preferred supply of contributions, in terms of both quantity and quality. (I know they lost me!) Scholarly journals, of course, have a ready supply of free labor in otherwise-employed academics who are nonetheless required to publish, in a culture where payment is not expected.

In theory, the authors could publish anywhere — potentially earning author fees — but the academy rewards the prestige of a publication within a specific and relatively fixed hierarchy. Scholars want a promotion, that fat grant, and their peers’ attention, so they publish without honorarium — even though the journal turns a healthy profit from the publication. In some journals, the author even pays the publisher, on top of the free labor. Academics also serve as reviewers for no remuneration.

The free labor aspect of academic journal publishing is frequently noted in a variety of contexts, such as:

  • “If academics write and review for free, why are some subscription journals so expensive? I don’t understand where the money goes.” (To which I say: profit! — for commercial journals, at least.)
  • “Since academics write and review for free, journal subscriptions should be more affordable. We deserve a better quid pro quo.”
  • “Because academics write and review for free in the journal system, that makes it easier to convert the system to open access — authors will be less concerned with loss of royalties from the change in business model.”
  • “The problems in the peer-review system — the delays, the sometimes arbitrary decisions — stem from the fact that reviewers are busy people and don’t have much incentive to do a good job.”

I’m sure it would be interesting to learn about the development of the system where authors and referees are not paid, but it’s not necessarily relevant. That facet of academic publishing is rightly treated as a historical artifact — it may or may not be beneficial. It should be judged on its merits rather than taken for granted. But despite the upheaval in so many other aspects of scientific publishing, revisiting the topic of free labor doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s discussion agenda.

There’s a strong incentive for publishers to keep it that way. After all, why pay for what you can get for free? Particularly for non-profit and open access publishers, the feat of paying authors anything would be daunting on a tight budget. Moreover, any change risks blowback for rocking the boat — or the risk of offending your authors for paying too little.

For the most part, there seems to be an abundant supply of authors, effectively driving the price down. In fact, there’s such a supply that there is routinely a several-month delay from submission to publication, even in journals with frequent editions. In addition, authors often complain about the delay from submission through peer review. If anything, it’s prompt referees that are in demand.

Thus it is that, while publishers are mum on the subject of paying authors, there’s some discussion about better incentives for referees. For instance, a recent PLoS Biology letter proposing that late reviewers be punished by having their future submissions as authors held in limbo before consideration. On the side of rewards, BioMed Central offers timely reviewers a discount on publication charges for their future submissions as authors. There’s clearly a move for experimentation in this area.

What if journals — in lieu or in addition to other payments or incentives — offered authors and reviewers a stake in ownership? There are a number of forms this could take:

  • A workers’ cooperative, where a given number of articles authored or refereed qualifies the individual for membership
  • A consumers’ cooperative, run by subscribers/members, where authors or referees are rewarded with a free membership
  • A corporation where authors or referees are rewarded with equity shares of stock

The latter scenario, while not meeting the cooperative principle of “one member, one vote”, could still result in a coop-like situation, in that the journals could be controlled by the people whose labor is central to their production. Because of the dual nature of academics in the publishing system — as both producers and consumers — these ownership models could help (self-)regulate publishers on pricing and other business practices (which, as I have previously written, is notoriously difficult under the subscription model).

At the same time, as suggested by my lead-in, these ownership shares could prove helpful incentives to attract and retain authors and referees, and to encourage prompt reviewing. And unlike honoraria, these ownership stakes don’t require payment up front — the author only earns a dividend if the journal makes money.

In addition to the financial incentive of dividends, the publishing function of the organization could be combined with other activities, such as those typical of scholarly or professional societies or advocacy organizations. Membership might entitle the individual to discounts at conferences or access to members-only discussion forums, and membership itself could be a “badge of pride” affiliation for listing on one’s CV or bumper sticker.

I’ll close with some links to related reading, but first mention another (seemingly) unique aspect of my proposal. While there’s been a fair amount of previous discussion of cooperative academic publishing, most of it seems to posit the institution (university, scholarly society, etc.) rather than the individual as the actor-unit. Although we use the same word, the implementation and implications would be quite different due to the difference in the scale. Nevertheless, I’ll link them here.

Related reading

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