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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I tell people, repeatedly, that publisher brand fuels a strange economic environment for scholarly communications. I also note that symbolic capital (reputation) has a direct conversion to material capital (money). Finally, I point out that the economics of books are harder than journals for new OA publishers for reasons of scale in both material and symbolic economics. I’m often searching for new ways to show this, so here’s a quick, simple and, of course, reductive demonstration that occurred to me today.

Researcher A is at a career stage where a good book publication will lead to his or her promotion, perhaps with a £15,000 per year salary increase. Researcher A is not philosophically opposed to OA (indeed, supports it) but has extremely limited recourse to publication funds.

“Traditional Publisher” is an old-school university press, with no open-access option. They offer a royalty on academic books to authors. There is no author-facing charge. Researcher A has been advised that this publisher is well respected in his or her field (or knows this already). Researcher A feels he or she would have a good shot at getting through the peer review process at this publisher, despite its reputation for high standards. Researcher A feels that the promotion committee will instantly recognise this press’s brand, even if the members don’t understand the nuance of his or her work.

“New OA Publisher” (NOP) is a born-digital initiative that wants to change the world. It has a sound OA ethos and understands the environment. It has some initial capital but it is insubstantial compared to the turnover of Traditional Publisher. NOP has a book processing charge of £5,000. NOP has a rigorous peer review process that it considers as sound as Traditional Publisher. It asks the same individuals to review. NOP is not a respected brand of press (yet), though. Researcher A therefore feels far less confident that the promotion committee – who, after all, have limited time to appraise work – will understand the value of the contribution and approve the promotion.

Traditional Publisher New OA Publisher
Charge to author £0.00 (in fact, they pay you royalties) £5,000
Anticipated raise £15,000 £0.00 or £15,000

Authors don’t think of it in these terms (“life of the mind” and all that) but the consequence of using publisher brand to assess publications can be to make organisations with identical peer review procedures (which are heralded as the all-important standard) give different material and symbolic returns to authors. Not only do new OA publishers have to compete with “free” if they have a book processing charge, they may also have to compete with financial and reputational returns to authors from publishers in a subscription mechanism. And all because their name is not yet a viable shorthand for committees to value as a proxy measure of quality. That’s a very tough market.