Urgently Wanted… A New Way to Get Ideas out of Universities

Let’s start with a business trivia question.

In 2011 the Imax Group achieved an excellent profit result that delivered an S&P industry leading return on shareholder’s equity of nearly 50% over the financial year. In number two position was business information service McGraw-Hill at 42% ROE. Can you guess what type of business came in third place above Viacom and Dolby Laboratories?

The answer is academic publishing business Elsevier Reed with an ROE of nearly 40%. Fellow academic publishing house John Wiley and Sons also made it into the top 10 media stock list with an ROE of 22%. Anyone who says that you can’t make money out of publishing hasn’t found these fabulous cash generators that make a lot of money out of selling access to academic journals.

I’m not going to argue that it’s wrong to profit from academic research (I do work in a business school after all) but I do want to make a point about how the concentration of journal ownership and the market power that these companies enjoy is restricting the capacity for academics to make valuable contributions to industry and society. Of course universities aren’t the only source of innovation for industry but they do have an important role in exploring frontier ideas that wouldn’t normally be supported by businesses.

Publishing research in peer-reviewed journals is a significant part of most academic’s jobs. Surveys of business also show that journals are also important for getting new ideas into the public domain and are a significant source of innovation. The following example from the Center for Business Resarch at Cambridge University is very typical with informal contacts, student recruitment and publications being the most prevalent sources of innovation, while formal IP such as patents and licenses is relatively unimportant.

Importance of University Innovation Source for Business

Publications are an important part of getting ideas out into the public domain and also shared with other academics. In other words, an effective publication process is essential for univerities to matter to society, business and each other. However, we have reached the point where about half of all academic journals are owned by three publishing companies- Elsevier, Wiley and Springer. What is more, there is a fundamental misalignment between what is good for these businesses and what is good for the university innovation ecosytem.

Basic business strategy theory tells us that it’s only possible to make those spectacular returns on equity when there are high entry barriers to the industry, suppliers have low bargaining power to raise prices and buyers have little choice but to accept the prices that they are asked to pay. In this case, getting a new journal started is extremely hard, academics are mostly sole-operators with limited power over the journals and libraries must pay whatever price is asked to subscribe to the leading journals.

There have been some efforts to create alternative publication channels but some publishers have been working hard to preserve their market power. Elsevier has been particularly active in this respect by supporting the Research Works Act in the US that would have prevented government-funded employees (most academics) from publishing in open access journals. The backlash from the academic community has been impressive with over a thousand signatures to a boycott of Elsevier that cites predatory pricing behaviour and initiatives such as the support for the Research Works Act that is aimed at making sure that established journals, such as those owned by Elsevier, remain the toll-bridge for publication.

As an academic, I think we have to take a fair bit of responsibility for getting into this situation. In many ways we have increased the barriers to entry into the industry by increasing the power of a limited number of established journals. Starting up a new journal has always been hard but journal ranking systems now make it nearly impossible. Journal quality is most commonly assessed with citation metrics. The more that articles in the journal are cited, the more highly that journal is ranked. Promotion and grant success is now more determined by these metrics than what has actually been discovered. Rather than hear a colleague say that “I discovered something new last year” it is now more common to hear “I had three tier-1 publications”. That might sound harmless but it takes several years to build up citation metrics and nobody wants to submit their best work to a journal without citation metrics. The result- no new journals.

So the situation is that the quantity of research in the academic world is increasing but the number of journals isn’t catching up. As a result, many journals are now claiming rejection rates of well over 90%. My guess is that the top 30% of most journal submissions contain valuable information and I would defy a journal with a 99% rejection rate to explian what the quality difference is between articles in the top fifth percentile. In short, valuable ideas are not getting out to where they should be and this is an economic waste. Taking several years to get a paper published is not unusual.

But it gets worse than that. As the difficulty in publishing in highly-ranked journals increases, so does the amount of time and effort taken to succeed. Where does this time come from? Sadly, it probably comes from the top two sources of university contacts that matter for innovation in the form of informal relationships and educating student graduates.

Peer review is important and we should never lose sight of that. However, the journal publication model is broken and plays into the hands of oligoplists. I’m not expecting the number of blog tweets to feature in my performance review any time soon but it’s certainly time for a change.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “Urgently Wanted… A New Way to Get Ideas out of Universities

  1. We would need to explain the concept of a blog tweet at the beginning of the meeting. :)

  2. John,
    One thing you have not discussed in your blog is open-access journals and the role they increasingly play in academia.
    You are right in noting that more researchers are now bragging about their research in terms of publishing in ranked journals rather than the content of their articles. In Australia, people do that by referring to ERA rankings even AFTER the ERA was repealed (and heedless to government’s hollow insistence that ERA does not rank journals).
    A sizable fraction of researchers concerned with quality have attempted the open-access route. This will not break the publisher stronghold any time soon but at least the momentum is there and the people participating in this do genuinely interesting stuff.
    It is also worth noting that activism also falls along disciplinary lines. The Arvix system is way ahead of the curve. This is mostly due to the centralised clearinghouse approach in which physics and cognate disciplines work; something unmatched in traditionally segmented (e.g. philosophy) and balkanised disciplines.
    One final point: measuring value or “impact” using the internet is not much better at divorcing the message from the medium. The correlation between page views and active engagement with the research is only at the grossest level. Journals are meant for a particular readership (fellow academics) which the Internet is not and cannot filter by. Moreover, with the multiplication of ways to access an article (journal’s archive, university’s article repository, researcher’s web site, co-author’s web site …) a total tally is ever so elusive. And, finally, we need to decide what and why we are measuring. How can we correlate page views to downloads to blog entries, tweets and likes to uptake and active engagement with the material in a scholarly publication to actual contribution to the body of knowledge?

  3. In reference to your point, “Starting up a new journal has always been hard but journal ranking systems now make it nearly impossible.”:

    There are new services like Scholastica (http://www.scholasticahq.com) that aim to make it simple to create/manage an academic journal, find peer reviewers, and publish content.

    You can see videos of the benefits of Scholastica here: http://vimeo.com/user6214920/videos

    In regard to the idea that ranking systems prevent new journals from being created, I can only offer that if the community turned their backs on those journals in support of different ones, that would be less of an issue.

    Academics the world over are complaining about the current oligopoly and at Scholastica we’re tirelessly working to provide and alternative. We’d love for you to check out our project and ultimately gain your support.

  4. As a very mature PhD student, my area of interest is innovation (mostly service sector). I have worked in this area for 15 years in various countries. I never read academic writing in the past. I then read about 100 articles. My initial conclusion is that there are too many articles that say far too little. I know a lot of theory in the innovation and creativity area from my own studies, often directly with the academics who conceived the work.
    I was surprised to see the lack of understanding of key issues. Several basic articles on creativity clearly lacked any understanding of the true concept of brain storming. The authors may have read other academic papers but they certainly did not read the original books. I often found the papers on service innovation disappointing. I also present on these concepts. I read many papers and concluded that was not a single original idea or insight here that I could present to a group of executives.

    I get that the main publishers want to have a monopoly. This is one spin off result of the web…..a shift of power in most industries. We must get used to it.
    In the specific area of management research, I find very little effort to get new ideas out other than academic publishing. I was surprised and rather shocked by the lack of interest in getting in front of real business owners and managers. The dean of my school said that my goal is to write academic papers, not management articles for business magazines.

  5. Hi Marco. Thanks for the additional information on open access journals. As you say, there are some encouraging signs here and the fact that the publishers are trying to restrict their influence suggests that there is a promising future here.
    One example of the power of open access is the DRUID innovation conference that puts full papers on the internet. Tim and I have two papers on this website and they are actually quite well cited. In fact one open access paper from 2010 has more citations than a paper that I had published in an “A” journal from the same year (2 year impact factor over 4 if anyone is interested in the metrics). The problem is that the promotion committee will be a lot more interested in the A journal than the open access paper with more citations. A recent study of citation patterns by Joel Baum at Rotman has shown that the high impact factor of many A business journals is attributable to a handful of papers (i.e there is a very long tailed distribution). As a very well published senior colleague said to me the other day “most of these A journals are so thorough and conservative they don’t say anyhing interesting anymore”.

  6. Hi Rob:

    thanks for the note. We certainly need more competition between publishers and probably less reliance on journals as the primary outlet for research findings and ideas. In the academic community we need to take the lead in changing the game. With coordinated action it is possible to get new journals started that attract good papers. In my field of management studies, Joel Baum’s heroic effort with Strategic Organization is a great example of “if you don’t like the game, change it”. The challenge of restrictive performance metrics is a problem. The Australian journal ranking system to evaluate research quality has been a disaster. The final straw was when universities started to close journals down because they weren’t ranked high enough. Even though the system has been scotched, the labels on journals persist.

  7. 1/ The newspaper industry faces difficulty all over the world with no working business model against the free information available on Internet
    2/ Every knowledge worker is sunk under the information flow and look for efficient filters.

    Here , we get a very fascinating case :

    The scientific editors created these filters with the ranking tools (created by the clients themselves, very clever !), used these as marketing method like a brand and ….got the money !
    (Well maybe there is also a kind of price agreement between the big ones, don’t you think so ? And a legal roberry on the content to prevent the scientific to spread the paper on other ways)

    My specialty is to propose stupid ideas:
    1 /get the attention of some pirats to copy articles from the scientific publishers and see what happens
    2/ publish articles on Facebook and use the like button to get the rank

  8. I’m a little late in my reply but I just wanted to add another kudos to platforms like Scholastica for attempting to create a more fertile ground in the world of publishing. I think they (and others) are a part of the rising tide of open-access journals. Indeed, I’ve actually been at work starting my own open-access leadership journal. Thanks.

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