Disruptive innovation is fun—especially when the industry being disrupted is hopelessly lame. Few industries can match academic publishing on that score: (in)famously slow, pricey and capricious. Scholars, or their university departments, can pay thousands of dollars to submit a paper for review, then wait months, or longer, to find out whether it has been accepted, and then months, or longer, navigating the back and forth of peer review. When a paper finally is published, more often than not, it is sequestered behind a high subscription pay wall, inaccessible to those who might benefit most from the research.
“Publish or perish”—the time-honored credo of academic upward mobility—has been turned out on its head. One could perish, or at least go broke, trying to publish.
Thousands of scientists, including a trio of Fields medal-winning mathematicians, have staged a boycott of Reed Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers, citing intolerable greed and monopolistic practices. When the world’s top math geeks can’t make sense of the numbers, you know something’s really wrong
Free open access journals such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) provide a publishing alternative, but the real game-changer may come from Chicago-based startup Scholastica, which provides a low cost, easy to use, fast and feature-rich publishing platform.
Setting up a journal is free. Scholastica’s revenues come primarily from submissions fees, which cost just $5 for a law review and $10 for an academic paper. Although the law review price is actually higher than average, the research paper fee is orders of magnitude cheaper.
Peer review, the cornerstone of academic publishing, relies on reputational currency. Reviewers are unpaid scholars who take on the onerous task analyzing others’ research both out of professional interest and to increase professional stature.
Scholastic offers an advantage here as well. The web is brilliant for tracking reputational currency. From AirBnB and TripAdvisor to TaskRabbit and Facebook “likes,” we have become a culture that loves to share ratings.
The nuts and bolts of putting together a first rate journal still require considerable effort, but with costly and time-consuming logistical hurdles removed from the equation, the focus can go back to the mission: documenting and sharing knowledge.
Although journal publishers using the platform can charge subscriptions if they choose, the lower cost structure means they still out-compete traditional publishers on price. They can also have an ongoing publishing program, pushing out new articles all the time, rather than waiting for a set pub date.
Together with online educational services such as Coursera, video tutorial pioneer Khan Academy, the Open Science movement, and the emergence of an open source textbook market, Scholastica is part of a tech-enabled trend that challenges the educational status quo. This goes beyond offering an alternative to expensive educations that fewer and fewer can afford. It is about better ways to teach, learn and share research.
Still, the forces of academic inertia are among the strongest in the universe…
…The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life. Even some researchers who support the Elsevier boycott have said they will continue to publish in its journals because they feel that they have to.
Until that structure changes, or until enough researchers and academics decide they don’t care about the system and start to publish their work freely, the current system is unlikely to disappear any time soon. But just like the rest of traditional media industry, it is looking shakier and less stable all the time.
As a platform, Scholastica is neutral: One could create a journal about almost anything. The Journal of Makerspaces, for example. Or The Journal of Urban Farmers, or Tech Incubators, or Pets, or perhaps The Journal of Humanitarian Tech. Transparent reputational currency can be used determine value, making it easier for readers to sniff out bogus, politically slanted or corporate-sponsored research.
Just stay clear of the shady practices of Nicholas Ivanovich Lobachevsky (which, it should be pointed out, would get one booted off the Scholastica site as a TOS violation) and you’ll be fine:
- Team Scholastica bios (University of Chicago grads on a mission…) / website
— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews