Report Open Access

Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research

Fyfe, Aileen; Coate, Kelly; Curry, Stephen; Lawson, Stuart; Moxham, Noah; Røstvik, Camilla Mørk

This briefing paper aims to provide a historical perspective that can inform the debates about what the future of academic publishing should look like. We argue that current policy regarding open access publishing, and many of the other proposals for the reform of academic publishing, have been too focused on the opportunities and financial challenges of the most recent changes in digital communications technologies and have given undue weight to commercial concerns.

We show that the business practices and the cultural significance of academic publishing have been significantly transformed since the late nineteenth century as increasing government funding drove the expansion and professionalization of the research community, a process that accelerated rapidly after the Second World War. We examine how academic publishing practices have responded to the increasing number of researchers and publications worldwide, the changing expectations of academic workloads and outputs in the higher education sector, and the new business models in the publishing industry. A key phenomenon has been the growing importance of published works as career-defining tokens of prestige for academics. Although the new technologies that emerged in the late twentieth century offer great potential for improving the speed and efficiency of scholarly communication, the publishing model has been relatively slow to change.

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