Publish It Yourself: The End of Alienated Labor in the Academic Publishing Industry


Münchhausen entdeckt die Bibliothek von Alexandria, William Strang, 1895

by Jonathan Basile

When medievalists Eileen Joy and Nicola Masciandaro grew exasperated with the academic publishing industry, they started their own alternative, punctum books. Where traditional journals and presses were dominated by orthodox styles and subject matter, punctum would be open to what they saw as the most exciting innovations in their field. Instead of the exorbitant subscription and retail prices that restricted most academic work to the richest research libraries, punctum’s publications would be freely available online. This open access publishing model, made possible with the advent of the internet, has created new avenues for scholars to take control of the means of production of their own research. It comes at a time when the very future of humanities research has been jeopardized by the profiteering of a handful of the largest publishers. In addition, more scholars than ever before are barred from the university by tuition costs and contingent employment at a time when accessing research or publishing one’s own is expensive enough to require institutional support. Scholar-led publishing initiatives like punctum or the Open Library of Humanities, though they remain on the margins of academic publishing at present, will continue to grow as humanities scholars, long influenced by the critical tools of Marxism, restructure academic publishing to end their own exploitation.

Libraries, universities, and the governments funding them have turned to open access publishing as well in recent years to maximize the public benefit of the research they support. Peter Suber wrote an article about OA for Berfrois in August of 2012, at the time when the UK and several other European countries mandated open access publishing for publicly funded research. While such mandates have been successful in addressing issues of accessibility, they have not eased the financial burden on funding institutions, however, as for-profit publishers have co-opted the open access revolution by charging excessive publication fees that are typically paid by the institution funding the research. The most common source of funding for open access publishing is a fee of several thousand dollars charged to authors once their work has been accepted for publication. As the cost of scientific, technical, and medical publishing has grown, whether in the form of subscription fees or article processing charges, the humanities have once again become the victim of neoliberal economics. The depletion of research libraries’ budgets by science journal mega-publishers could well threaten the future viability of many humanities fields, unless we embrace the industry’s imaginative transformation by scholar-run presses such as punctum books and other open access, anti-corporate publishers.[1]

The clearest example of a robber baron of academic publishing is the largest of the scientific journal aggregators, Elsevier. They own some 2,500 journals,[2] and the annual cost of subscription that they and a handful of other companies charge absorbs a growing share of most universities’ library budgets. At UC Santa Barbara, for example, the portion of their library’s collections budget dedicated to monograph acquisition has dwindled from 22% in 2005 to 12% in 2015, while the proportion for serials and California Digital Library resources (journals and some e-book collections subsidized by the UC system) has grown accordingly.[3] Elsevier makes subscriptions to individual journals prohibitively expensive to steer customers toward “discounted” bundles that include many journals of less relevance to a particular institution. The negotiated prices of these bundles are often protected by non-disclosure agreements, though some universities have been reported to pay more than $2 million a year to Elsevier alone.[4] Their profit margin over the last decade has typically remained above 35%,[5] a feat accomplished by exploiting the labor of the same universities whose research is being sold back to them. They can count on academic labor to be performed in exchange for prestige, with research, writing, editing, and peer review all being donated by scholars hoping to advance professionally or contribute to their field. Even Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, has proposed a boycott of Elsevier, calling their prices unaffordable and their business model exploitative.[6]

Elsevier’s corporate practices demonstrate the fundamental conflict between the pursuit of knowledge and the profit motive. They lobbied for the Research Works Act, a bill that would have prevented federally funded research from mandating open access publishing. They withdrew support only after 12,000 academics signed on to “The Cost of Knowledge,” a boycott of publishing in, refereeing, or editing any Elsevier-owned journal. They also advocated for SOPA and PIPA,[7] which was unsurprising to authors who had been doggedly pursued with takedown notices for disseminating their own Elsevier-published work. They gave their imprimatur to six fake peer-reviewed journals, which promulgated information favorable to pharmaceutical companies who paid Elsevier for the publications.[8] And they’ve been caught placing articles behind paywalls for which they had collected article processing charges (APCs) from the authors for the sake, of course, of publishing open access.[9]

Where Elsevier has incorporated open access models, they have done so in a way that preserves their exorbitant profit margins. While they claim that the APCs they charge authors are necessary to cover the costs of publishing a journal, the best evidence to the contrary perhaps came from a conflict with the editorial board of the linguistics journal Lingua. Elsevier published Lingua under a “hybrid” open access model, which means that authors are given the option of having their work placed behind a paywall, or paying a fee to have it published OA. Critics of this model describe it as “double-dipping,” because journals continue to withhold information from the public to profit from subscriptions, while also profiting from authors who can afford the APC. Elsevier charged an APC of around $1,800,[10] while a subscription (whose cost is difficult to pin down because of the aforementioned bundling) was around $2,200/year.[11] The thirty-plus-member editorial board found that their journal was inaccessible to their colleagues as a result, and after Elsevier refused to make changes the entire board resigned. They started their own fully-OA journal, which, being clever linguists, they named Glossa. It charges a waivable APC of £300, while receiving additional support from several academic organizations.[12] Chief among the latter was the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), which continues to play a significant role in Glossa’s independence. A not-for-profit platform started by scholars Martin Paul Eve and Caroline Edwards, OLH provides resources to publishers of Open Access journals. Such scholar-run platforms have proven the viability of OA models that do not exploit the academic institutions funding them.

As is too often the case, funding for the humanities has been the collateral damage of this system. University libraries frequently report being unable to buy academic monographs as a result of the incredible sums they spend keeping journal subscriptions up to date. For decades now, the cost of these subscriptions has increased at a rate about four times that of inflation. To cite just one example, UC Santa Barbara, whose library budget hasn’t increased in over a decade, anticipates being unable to buy a single monograph in the 2017-2018 academic year.[13] If it sounds so last millennium to lament a library being unable to buy books, keep in mind that the monograph is still the primary vehicle for communicating research in the humanities, a role played by the journal article in the sciences. The response of university presses has been to sell fewer and fewer copies of their books for more and more money, exacerbating the budgetary pressures of libraries, as well as the lack of accessibility of this work. The average price of an academic monograph is now around $80.[14] They typically sell a number of copies in the low hundreds, a scarcity that demonstrates the potential benefit of open access publishing for the humanities.

Clearly, readers stand to benefit from OA publishing for the academic monograph. Authors too have more to gain than lose, as most earn at best negligible royalties, while the professional advancement they gain from publishing depends on how frequently their work is cited. Numerous studies have affirmed the common sense notion that open access work is cited with a greater frequency than its counterpart. There are, however, challenges unique to the implementation of OA for book publishing. Of course, the expenses associated with publishing a two-hundred page book are greater than those of a journal article, so an author-pay model depends on Book Processing Charges (BPCs) that often range from $5,000 to $20,000. Given the relative paucity of funding for humanities research, it is difficult to believe that many scholars would be able to find the sort of institutional support necessary to make this a sustainable model. Alternate forms of support that have been successful for OA book publishing include institutional subsidies or selling print and/or enhanced digital versions of OA texts. A project called Knowledge Unlatched has achieved success with a collective funding model, which brought together 300 libraries willing to subsidize the production of 28 new OA monographs from established scholarly publishers. The end result was that for $40 per book, significantly less than retail for an average monograph, the libraries made these books available to all internet users, including their own patrons.

Debate persists over whether the costs reported by academic presses, embodied in their lofty BPCs, include unnecessary expenditures or profits. We shouldn’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that the publisher is an unnecessary appendage for online publishing. Typesetting remains a labor-intensive process for a digital as for a print text, so much so that many presses outsource it. Martin Paul Eve, in Open Access and the Humanities, has pointed out the ironic situation that results: many scholars writing on Marxist or postcolonial themes have their books typeset by means of the very labor practices they critique. The publisher also plays an important role in promoting the discoverability of work. Of course, much of that has to do with the monopoly on prestige that the journals and presses with the best reputations have. Developing that type of credibility takes time, which is one impediment to wresting power from the publishers who own those imprints.

Many scholars who have been frustrated by the inaccessibility and creative constraints of traditional academic publishing have started their own alternatives. Punctum books is one such project, which brings a DIY ethos to OA publishing. Started by Eileen Joy and Nicola Masciandaro in 2011, it is now run by Joy along with co-directors Chris Piuma and Vincent van Gerven Oei. They’ve published well over 150 books and journals, most of which can be freely downloaded from their website (every text is available for free six months after its publication). Joy emphasizes an aspect of open access publishing that more traditional academic presses have not embraced: “Open access is not only about who has access to information but who has access to publish—it should open up the means of access to getting your work out there in your own style. Traditional ways of assessing value in scholarship have created the bizarre situation where people think there’s only one kind of monograph you can write.” She describes the space her press occupies as “para-academic,” which includes the people, subject matter, and formal experiments that don’t quite fit within the strictures of academia. For example, punctum has published More&More (A Guide to the Harmonized System), a 500-page “brick of a book” that consists of an annotated list of all the objects in the coding system for international shipping.[15] Many of their authors experiment in the space between criticism and literature, such as Andreas Burckhardt, whose A Sanctuary of Sounds describes itself as “an aural rewriting of William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary,” and “An invitation to rethink appropriation ethically, aesthetically, and epistemologically.”[16] By way of full disclosure, I’m also an example of punctum’s openness to the outsider; they are currently considering a manuscript I wrote, despite my lack of higher degree or institutional affiliation at the time I submitted it.

Van Gerven Oei has experienced firsthand the need for open access publishing. He lives in Albania, which he says has nothing comparable to the libraries of US research universities. Without being published open access, he says, “there’s no way research is going to reach any audience [in Albania]. It’s like that in most of the non-western world, which is a pretty big fucking part of the world.” One of the most convincing cases for the revitalizing and globalizing role OA publishing can play for the humanities comes from his involvement in Nubian studies. He described the field as recently as three years ago being scattered across departments, with little communication between scholars in different nations or academic specialties. Publications consisted of hardcover volumes that weren’t even purchased by others in the field because of the prohibitive cost. As van Gerven Oei put it, “they were never going to be acquired by any university in Egypt or Sudan.” He started his own imprint at punctum, Dotawo, which publishes a journal of Nubian studies as well as related monographs. The effect, from his perspective, has been transformative: “Open access publishing has been the core of the renaissance in Nubian studies in the past two or three years. If it works for Nubian studies, it will work for all the other small humanities.”

Punctum funds itself through a print-subsidy model, selling print on demand versions of their freely available e-texts for $10-$20. At present, their income is enough to cover their expenses, but not to pay a salary for the three co-directors, who donate their labor. This may change soon, as they are currently seeking private funding for a project that would transform punctum, and potentially provide a new model for academic publishing. Joy describes her vision as, “the medieval guild meets the renaissance printshop meets the steampunk laboratory.” It would reverse the trend of outsourcing the labor of academic publishing by creating print workshops on the campuses of UC Santa Barbara and the New School, run for and by students and professors. These universities would partner with the non-profit cultural arts foundation Studium, which will use the initial investment to create a printing press that Joy predicts will be financially self-sustaining within three years. They would continue to create open access and print-on-demand (POD) books, but would do so without the involvement of companies like Amazon, who owns the popular POD platform CreateSpace. The books would be designed and printed as part of curricula in bookmaking, with students earning course credit in exchange for their work.

The institutional subsidy model has long been the basis of academic publishing, though it has eroded as a result of budget pressures. University presses that once received enough funding from their sponsors to publish works on the basis of academic merit, with less concern for profitability, are now unable to do so. Of course, the financial burden has only shifted, as presses often will no longer consider a monograph unless its author is affiliated with a university willing to pay a subvention—basically a book processing charge, though not even, in this case, for open access publishing. Given that more than 50% of university faculty are contingent employees unable to expect this type of support,[17] the publishing climate severely limits who is able to publish. And given that publication of an academic monograph is perhaps the most important factor in evaluating faculty for hiring or tenure, the author-pay model further stratifies the academic myodrome. As it stands, the system of academic monograph publishing serves neither its authors nor its readers, neither the presses complaining of razor-thin margins nor the universities subsidizing the publication of research they nonetheless can’t afford to acquire. Experiments like punctum books hold the potential not only to restore some sanity to this marketplace, but to revitalize the ailing humanities.

Of course, dwindling public support for universities in general, and the humanities in particular, play a role in the contemporary crisis in academic monograph publishing. But one lesson we should take from an analysis of the conditions of production and consumption of humanities research is the falsehood of the narrative that the humanities have dug their own grave by being out-of-touch with the contemporary world. Clearly, the libraries who have always been the primary audience for this type of book still want to buy them but lack the resources to do so. And students who might find these texts useful at some point in their research have effectively been priced out of buying them themselves. While screeds against the university love to cite specialized humanities sub-disciplines as evidence of insular institutions squandering public resources, I would argue that the wisdom these programs offer comes in part from their marginality. To the extent that the subject of science remains a universalizable set of principles expressible in a formal language, the humanities are the repository of all that could only have been expressed once, at a place and time and in an idiom just as fleeting as our own. It isn’t the only justification for their study, but it is the case that they can teach a respect for what resides at the margins. Only, that is, if they themselves are not allowed to perish.

It isn’t necessary, however, that we seek some essential difference between the sciences and the humanities in order to justify the latter’s existence. If every activity has value only relative to some end outside itself, for example, if education has value only with reference to its economic productivity, then ultimately nothing has value. There must be something valid as an end in itself, toward which all other activity aims, for the good of all activity to be secure. We find ourselves in the curious situation of having elevated to this role of absolute end the only thing that can’t possibly justify itself. Money is pure exchange value. If we try to justify the humanities with reference to common arguments regarding the cultivation of business and workplace skills, or the need for creativity in a “knowledge economy,” we have succumbed to this logic that is in truth a devaluation of everything. Even when we say that the humanities develop empathy and civic responsibility, that they make us better as a person or a people, there is still something external about this valuation. An absolute end would have its value severed from all else, would justify itself by immediate intuition, without even the need for an argument in its favor.

In truth, there may only be contexts, and the place of the humanities may not be a world-unto-itself (where we imagine literature, as a text without external referent, to reside), but the here-below where every reading is inflected by our place and time. Still, we should hold out the hope or possibility that some instant might justify itself like a bolt of lightning splitting our horizon. These moments should be possible from the sciences as well; when we speak of the beauty or wonder of mathematics or natural law, we have in mind something like science as an end-in-itself. We are no less likely to find practical or economic reasons to support the humanities than we are to find autotelic justifications for the sciences, which is one sign that the border between these two fields may ultimately be deconstructible. In both cases, we should open ourselves to the possibility that knowledge, learning, teaching, communicating could be ends in themselves.

The transformation of academic monograph publishing is itself a triumph of the humanities. Scholars working in these fields, with a sensitivity to the conditions of production of academic knowledge, have envisioned radical restructurations of the industry with the goal of leveling its imbalances of power. And, for the neoliberally minded, I’ll point out that these somewhat Marxist recalibrations work: they produce sustainable not-for-profits and businesses that could very well continue to grow in scale. Of course, one shouldn’t say that this sort of economic creativity and consumer collective bargaining belongs exclusively to the humanities, because the humanities have no limits. So long as authors and readers, speakers and listeners, continue to meet within the context of the university and its traditional presses and beyond, the humanities will remain, as they always have been, radically open to the future.

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[1] Most of the information in this essay about open access publishing for the humanities comes from Martin Paul Eve’s Open Access and the Humanities. General information about open access has been gathered primarily from Peter Suber’s Open Access, Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book, and John Willinsky’s The Access Principle.

[2], 14.











[13], 4.

[14]  Hugh Look and Frances Pinter, “Open Access and Humanities and Social Science Monograph Publishing,” New Review of Academic Librarianship, 16 (2010), 90–7 (p. 95 ) Qtd. in Eve, Open Access and the Humanities, 134.