The Academic Publishing Monopoly

Monopolythe exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service

Numerous studies and reports over many years have looked closely at the monopolization and biases rampant in academia. Some are obvious, like gender biases that favor male professors and male research studies. Or the institutional bias that leads a graduate of a given institution to have better luck publishing their research with that institution’s journals. Others, like institutional favoritism, that sidelines less popular or marketable research, are harder to notice.

A recent study found that institutions overwhelming favor research tied to their existing publications. Think on that for a moment. A given academic publisher will favor content created by individuals already affiliated with the institution the publisher is associated with. This is a root cause of the monopolization of knowledge–control over important findings cannot be made public and available in the standard and accepted ways because academic publishers lean toward publishing content they can sell.

While Glasstree, and all independent publishers to varying degrees, aim to alleviate some of this pain, the job is too large for independent publishing to handle alone.

That’s because there is an even more insidious issue with favoritism that extends beyond just publishing: the actual availability and use of academic content. The same study linked above used a citation measurement to test bias. What they found was that bias tended to exist in the citation quantities for content affiliated with the institution versus the unaffiliated content. This runs parallel to a long-held stigma against self-published and independently published content versus traditionally published content.

In the similarity to long-held biases in the commercial publishing industry, we can also see the inherent problem with this comparison: academic publishing should put a greater emphasis on knowledge sharing than profit growth. Traditional publishers of fiction and nonfiction are well within their purview to reject content they feel will not sell to their expectation because selling books is what traditional publishing is all about.

But academia is meant for academics–a purpose somewhat apart from the pursuit of revenue. The long-standing and much-maligned model for academic publishing continues to pose a problem as it naturally must function as a business, but at the same time work in service of a pursuit of knowledge.

In the citation based study, we see that “evidence of a bias within some journals towards publishing papers by faculty from their home institution, at the expense of paper quality, as measured by citations.” This bias in citation use is itself a fraught method to judge by, but without a better metric, there are little other means to measure. So we see that “in-group” authors (authors associated with the publishing institution) received, on average, 9 to 19 more citations from within the given institution than the same content in “out-group” journals and publications.

In simple terms, this means the content receives more attention and use within the publishing institution than outside it. An article by Inside Higher Ed, quotes Thanasis Stengos, University Research Chair in Econometrics at the University of Guelph in Canada, on the subject: “It does not pay to keep helping out weak researchers, as these journals would lose their leading ranking,” he said.

There is some merit in allowing stronger researchers to enjoying a more prominent position, but the critical word in Stengos’s quote is “pay.” What is the “payment” in this scenario? Broader access to knowledge? More content to build future research from? Or simply a stronger bottom line for the publisher?

Studies, like those linked to above, seem to indicate that money is a driving factor in much of the institutional (and gender/racial) bias that exists in academia. Institutional bias was a driving force in the creation of and the idea that all academic research should be, at the very least, available for review and consideration. Less merit should be placed on content that sells; instead, the merit should be based upon the value the content adds to the field of academia. This encompasses “negative” results from research and content that might bring with it less prestigious or showy narratives. These factors in no way impact the value of the content, but due to the dominance of institutional publishing, the bias continues to give more credence to marketable content.

The first step in leveling the playing field for academics and researchers is to acknowledge the phenomenon exists and to openly call out the monopolization of knowledge. The favoritism that sees institutions prioritizing content from their current and past members enables a biased publishing world and facilitates a dangerous monopoly. The only winners in a world of monopolized knowledge are the publishers profiting from the hard work of those academics deemed worthy of promotion and recognition. In there dust are left the numerous lesser pieces of content–content that may have less of a broad impact but that still deserves to be available for fellow academics and students to review (or refute) and use as it applies to their own studies.

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