Untangling Academic Publishing: Key Recommendations for Universities and Academics

Fragment from the cover design of 'Untangling Academic Publishing' (Fyfe et al 2017)
Fragment from the artwork on the cover design of ‘Untangling Academic Publishing’ (Fyfe et al 2017)

The report ‘Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research’ (Fyfe et al 2017) has been published today.

It’s available for all to download, share and reuse under a CC-BY license from the open access repository Zenodo:

Fyfe, A., et al. (2017), Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.546100

The 26-page report is a very welcome addition to the ever-growing evidence-based literature documenting the need for academics to enhance the fairer dissemination of their research work and to reclaim and redistribute ownership of academic content from for-profit publishers.

A significant contribution of this report is its historical perspective. The report shows how the business and practice of academic publishing has changed since the late 19th century, which serves as the basis to discuss how in spite of new technologies, publishing models and cultures have been relatively slow to change. It is particularly important that the report, having provided a thoroughly documented historical account of the transformations of scholarly publishing, presents clear and decisive recommendations for key stakeholders such as the government, research agencies, university leaders, learned societies and academics.

Personally, I cannot but be pleased that the recommendations the report makes to university leaders and academics are very similar to points I (and of course others) have made previously in different occasions, myself most recently during a presentation and debate on 20 April 2017 at Roma Tre University.

I hope that everyone interested in scholarly publishing reads the complete report, but I would like to copy and paste below a selection of the recommendations that I believe we should all work harder to communicate (and, of course, actively embrace) within our own professional and disciplinary networks:

To University leaders

  • Universities should revise their recognition and reward processes to relieve sta from the pressures associated with journal-based metrics (Signing the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment can serve as a clear signal of intent in this regard, empowering staff to challenge the status quo). These revised processes will give staff increased confidence that their work will be judged on its own merits. In this way universities will enable their academics to take fuller advantage of publisher offerings that combine rigorous peer review with increased speed and value for money
  • University leaders should introduce measures (such as the UK Scholarly Communications Licence) to ensure that the copyright in academic work is retained by its creator, rather than being transferred in toto to third-party organisations. This is an appropriate rebalancing that will allow researchers to assume greater responsibility in the dissemination of the fruits of their work
  • University leaders should recognise that, as employers, they are the funders of a large proportion of research in the arts and humanities; with fewer and fewer publishers remaining in the academic book market, universities should shoulder the responsibility for making academic work in those fields known more widely

(Fyfe et al 2017:19)

To the trustees, directors and o cers of mission-driven or discipline-based learned societies (and other representatives of disciplinary scholarly communities):

  • Learned societies should facilitate discussion and greater awareness among their members about the relationship between academic prestige, the publishing industry, and the circulation of knowledge. To inform such discussions, annual reports should explain the organisation’s rationale for the pricing of its book and journals, and how this is justified by the organisation’s mission
  • Societies that co-publish journals or book series with third-parties should reflect on whether the mission and business strategy of the co-publisher is a good fit for the society’s scholarly mission
  • Disciplinary communities should embrace the opportunities for more rapid and widespread circulation of research offered by pre-print servers (such as arXiv and bioRxiv ), and online mega-journals
  • Learned societies should open discussions with other societies with similar interests, both in the UK and internationally, to consider whether pooling resources could enable the creation of a low-cost, sustainable, online and non-profit-driven model of academic publishing

To academics:

  • Those serving as editors of journals and book series, or on editorial boards, should reflect on the ownership and mission of the publishers they are working for, and consider whether they are helping to get the best value for their discipline by serving in these roles
  • In setting up new journals or book series, academics should seek to work with mission-driven, non- profit-oriented publishers or online platforms
  • Senior research leaders should leverage their accumulated prestige to enable their more junior co- workers to balance rigour, speed and value for money in their publishing choices
  • Academics should not sign copyright transfer forms that would give ownership to a profit-oriented publisher if a licence to publish can be granted instead


(Fyfe et al 2017:20)


The report will be launched this evening at the British Academy in London.



Fyfe, Aileen, Coate, Kelly, Curry, Stephen, Lawson, Stuart, Moxham, Noah, & Røstvik, Camilla Mørk. (2017). Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.546100