The virtues of charging for publications

I spend a lot of time on this blog extolling the virtues of open access publishing, so I thought I should take a minute to extoll the virtues of for-profit publishing and the role they play in the scholarly endeavor. 

As scholars, we anthropologists subscribe to the idea that knowledge should be free and spread as widely as possible. Of course, there are important qualifications to this: we understand that anonymity and confidentiality are important when we right and do research, and so forth. But overall, the goal is to make our work universally available. The problem with contemporary publishing, we claim, is that too many people put profits ahead of accessibility, costs are high because production methods are outdated and publishers can’t or won’t innovate, and the social system of prestige and career advancement tied to publishing disincentives open access. Publishing, we argue, needs to be done for a wider audience, for the right reasons, and in a way that gets the information out there. The bajillion successful open access projects in anthropology today demonstrate that this can be done.

But it can’t be done all the time. I was absolutely delighted to meet the people behind the University of Papua New Guinea press when I visited Port Moresby over the summer. The press has done absolutely fantastic work bringing back into print important work from the independence era of Papua New Guinea, such as the Pocket Poets series. They are republishing work in the public domain — one small piece I saw was a missionary-produced ethnography. A staff member told me there were four of the original print run left, mostly in libraries. The press is not only making the piece available to modern readers, they’re saving it from extinction. They are publishing new books, aggressively seeking subventions to support new authors and scholarship. Their authors are academics and amateur scholars, priests and activists. I was incredibly impressed by the quality and amount of work they were bringing out.

All of this work is valuable, but none of it is free. The press is very smart about outsourcing publishing to companies in Singapore and India (PNG doesn’t have a publishing industry to print their stuff), balancing their list to include textbooks (which sell) and rarer works (which don’t), making their works available on Amazon. But there’s no way around that fact that, for them, for-profit is the only way to go. They simply don’t have the resources to go open access.

Sometimes people like to pummel a straw man version of open access which holds that any attempt to ever make money is an evil obsession with filthy lucre. Clearly, few actual people take such an uncompromising stance. There are many situations when the right business model is to charge money to keep your head above water.

Now, perhaps I don’t understand the UPNG Press’s business model and history — I was only there for a weekend. But it seems to me that the example of this successful, small, boot-strapped press should make us think: just how much like the UPNG Press are closed-access publishers? If a third-world university with few resources can get things off the ground, then what does it say about first-world publishers who claim there is no cheaper way to get their works available than to charge US$100 for a monograph? If Papua New Guineans can do it well and on the cheap, we ought to be able to do so as well.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “The virtues of charging for publications

  1. Do you have any comparative data on publisher employee salaries in PNG and other places?

    How many editors, etc., at publishing houses in OECD countries would be willing to do what they do for salaries “on the economy” in less affluent places?

    How many of them would be happy to see their jobs off shored?

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