Fool's gold?

A couple of days ago, the Times Higher Ed published a piece about journals ranking their reviewers (in terms of who gets their reviews in on time). This led to a discussion on twitter about how fair it is to judge and rank people who are doing a voluntary task.
The timeliness of reviewers is an important element in publishing, but it is understandably hard for many scholars to prioritize putting time into reviewing if they are facing other time-sensitive demands from their employer (like, you know, TEACHING).

One thread of the discussion moved to “why shouldn’t reviewers be paid?” I had an exchange with another twitter user on this which highlighted the divide between STEM and humanities academics. He was thinking of the publishing “behemoths” like Elsevier and SAGE, who probably could afford to throw some money at reviewers. I was thinking of the small scholarly associations (who publish many humanities journals), and who definitely could not.

This got me thinking again about scholarly publishing and who pays for it. There have been some insightful discussions over at Scholarly Kitchen on Open Access in the last year. Some of their analysis has discussed the cost (or savings) to institutions of Gold open access. For some it would be a saving (they would pay less in submission fees for their academics than they currently pay for subscriptions), while at highly productive institutions it might actually cost more.

My feeling has tended to be that Open Access (and the expectation of it) is going to be increasingly a cudgel used against smaller publishers/academic societies, who will cut off their main income stream if they lose subscriptions and memberships. Large publishers may have the financial cushion to subsidize the transition, but smaller players will not. Meanwhile the author-pays element will increasingly freeze out scholars who are marginally employed, or at institutions who don’t have the cash to pay for their submissions. My sense is that this will hit the humanities much harder for two reasons—first, more of our journals are published by academic societies rather than Elsevier et. al.; second, there are more independent scholars trying to publish in the humanities (it’s easier to do some humanities work as an independent scholar than if your research requires access to lab facilities).

The scholarly associations I am thinking of often have a membership/subscription bundle - all members are subscribers and vice versa. While it may be that they can replace the subscription funding with author payments to the journal, they will lose the membership element. Membership confers much more than just access to a journal. These are often societies going back over a century, with a history of advocating for their members. They organise conferences, give scholarships, create disciplinary networks. Without members, who will feel invested in them? And what will scholars lose when we don’t have these groups to speak for us?