Sunday, 22 October 2017

Professors, Publishers and Dinosaurs: Jurassic Park Revisited

My six year old grandson Jack is currently into dinosaurs. He seems fascinated by them, can pronounce all their different names and can tell you if they flew, swam, were big or small, what colour they were and what they ate. So last Tuesday it was such a shame he wasn’t with me at the launch of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Manchester Social Science Festival. The launch took place at the Manchester Museum, in a room totally dominated by the skeleton of Stan the T Rex. I was pretty thrilled, Jack would have been in seventh heaven!

The 3 big Universities of Greater Manchester (Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Salford, and the University of Manchester) jointly facilitate the festival, which runs between 4-11 November. If you happen to be in this part of the world and want to see what’s on, you can find out right here. Through the Festival of Social Science the ESRC aims to facilitate opportunities for social science researchers to share their work with non-academic audiences, and usually this is done through very creative events and approaches. The festival is aimed at all, but is particularly aimed at young people in an attempt to raise awareness of the contribution the social sciences can make to the UK society’s wellbeing and economy.

Impressively, a large number of my colleagues were making a contribution to this years festival. I was at the event in the company of the School of Health and Society professoriate. This group make a huge contribution to ensuring that the various curricula in the School remains evidence based and contemporary. They undertake research in a variety of fields, and my own contribution to this research portfolio has been in the areas of mental health, child abuse, and service user involvement.  Much of this research has been undertaken with my long term colleague and friend Sue McAndrew. It was great to learn last Tuesday that Sue had gained her own chair as Professor in Mental Health and Young People at the University – well done Sue!

Sue and I have edited a couple of books in our time and contributed chapters to many others. However, it seems that the desire by professors and other academics to write books is on the wane. The value and viability of the book publishing enterprise has been called into question in recently published research ‘Academic Books and Their Future’. The study was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Library. There are strong career incentives for academics to write and publish books – not least because it’s a critical criteria for those wanting to become a professor. It was reported that with library budgets for buying new books remaining static, and with traditional book retail sales falling over the last decade, these days the business case for the publication of new titles is often now based upon just 200 copies.

Such a low number is not going to inspire many publishers to back a new book! In the new digital age, people are gaining access to much more information and materials on-line, often in some form of open access publication or website. Arguably, journal papers are much easier and quicker to write and get published than books. Although in some subject areas, like the arts and humanities, even this can be difficult. Free and unrestricted accessibility to academic papers is set to continue to develop.  Sci-Hub, set up in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a software developer and neurotechnology researcher from Kazakhstan, aims to spread knowledge by allowing people free access to what would often be 'paid for' content

Apart from open access journals (where the author pays the publisher for their paper to be published in the journal) most academic publishers (of journals and books) will charge individuals or their institutions for access to their content. Such access charges rise every year. Even great universities like Harvard have reportedly cut down on the number of subscriptions they hold each year. Powerful academic publishers such as Elsevier, have taken Sci-Hub to court for copyright infringements. Some brave academics have responded by calling publishers parasites benefiting on the back of their labour. As a consequence of these legal battles, the original site is now suspended. However, it is still possible to gain access to the papers it holds, which in March 2017 numbered some 62 million. It’s worth noting that Sci-Hub receives over 200,000 requests a day for papers. In 2013, Sci-Hub started a partnership with LibGen (Library Genesis) which is a huge online repository of academic books and documents, hosted in Russia. Since that time Sci-Hub has downloaded approximately 60 million different articles from the LibGen database - perhaps a case of From Russia with love

Changing such well established business models will always be challenging – we only have to look at what happened to the music industry with file sharing services such as Napster – a service that arguably permanently changed the music industry. However, such changes also come with a degree of risk. For old and new professors alike, the publishers who publish their research and scholarly thinking, and the likes of Alexandra Elbakyan, there are probably lessons to be learnt from a rereading of the conceptual story dramatized in Jurassic Park.