Critical academic publishing

Academic publishing has been around for a long time. Academic journals date back as far as 1665 and in 2009 the estimated number of journal articles passed the 50 million mark. Today, there are millions of academic journals and monographs in existence, but this doesn’t mean that all academic publishing is the same, or that the academic publishing world is problem-free.

It’s common knowledge that academic publishing, specifically scientific journal publishing, achieves exceptionally high profit margins while public funding for the academy is being cut. It’s not uncommon for larger academic publishers to consistently achieve over 35% profit margins. Meanwhile, universities around the world must operate with reduced budgets and are expected to lower fees for students, resulting in roughly £2 billion less to invest each year, in the UK alone.

This impacts everyone involved in the production of academic knowledge.

The business of academic publishing

With some scientific publishers reporting profit margins higher than large conglomerates, like Apple or Amazon, many academic stakeholders are now questioning their business models.

The academic publishing industry is broad and there are as many models as there are publishers. There are some common threads with regards to the business of publishing that are currently being openly debated.

The scientific publishing model

Many of the larger, scientific publishers don’t have the same overheads as other, more traditional academic publishers. Much of the debate around the value of academic publishing, or more accurately, the perceived lack of value, focusses on the models of the larger, commercial scientific publishers.

These models are based around scientists and academics who produce, review and develop research and work without royalties or other payments. They do this because they must contribute to the existing knowledge pool to further their careers. They typically receive funding from their institutions, private companies or the government. So, often scientific publishers receive this work for little investment.

Publishers then sell these texts back to the university or institutions to be read by academics, scientists and other researchers.

Humanities and social sciences

While the above is largely true for scientific publishers, it’s less the case for humanities and social science publishing. Social sciences, of course, also typically face tougher competition in securing research funding.

In 2017, the Economic and Social Research Council received around 1,500 applications for funding and only approved 26%. Changes to grant thresholds coupled with changing publishing business models could result in smaller grants (£10-350k) for social science researchers, causing further funding issues.

Furthermore, social science researchers rely on publishing monographs, a publishing format far less common for STEM researchers, which creates additional financial considerations. Monographs and books, generally, are much more expensive to produce and distribute than journal articles. As a result, monograph publishing has higher overheads.

Working together to find a solution

Most HSS publishers are aware of these issues and the academic publishing world is quickly adapting. We are in a crucial moment with regards to securing the future of socially and politically meaningful research and learning.

Academic publishers are looking for solutions by shifting emphasis to digital, offering a variety of publishing models including Open Access, and working towards potential future requirements such as those outlined by Plan S. However, multi-national and commercial scientific publishers still continue to dominate conversations about academic publishing, which detracts attention from the value created by smaller, independent or critical academic publishers.

Zed Book’s role

We strongly believe critical academic publishers can help change the current context. As a highly reputable, social science publisher, we’re committed to making a difference. We offer a variety of publishing models to support critical social science researchers and make critical social science research more widely available.

The politics of academic publishing

The academic publishing industry is currently undergoing some serious changes, arguably unlike anything seen since the invention of the printing press. The online world makes it much easier to circulate digital collections and ebooks across the globe, spreading knowledge at a faster speed and lower cost. As with any significant technological changes there are social and political implications. Academic publishers must choose whether to consider or ignore them.

Knowledge vs status

A key consideration in understanding the politics of the academic publishing landscape is the connection between publication and career status. Many institutions and universities value academics and researchers based on their previous publications.

  • Time

    It is understandable then that many researchers and academics are quite hesitant to publish their latest research until it’s perfectly polished or findings are 100% confirmed. These delays can produce quite significant negative results, like during the Zika crisis when sponsors had to convince publishers to omit scientists from any fall-out of publishing their research early.

  • Quantity

    With thousands of academic journals and monographs on the market, it’s easy for researchers and academics to presume that elite journals publishing huge amounts of research are simply better than smaller, independent or critical academic presses. But, elite journals have actually had to retract and withdraw many of their works, in fact research shows that the number of retracted journals has increased 10 times over the last decade.  These figures often outnumber the works withdrawn at smaller, independent or critical academic presses.

    Research published in more prestigious journals is also not more statistically robust than those published at smaller, independent or critical academic publishers.

  • Diversity

    Not all voices have access to the same academic platforms.  Where and how academic texts are published directly affects diversity and inclusion within the academy. By not actively engaging with this consideration, publishers risk perpetuating social and political issues within academia and the academy.

Here at Zed Books, we invest heavily in the development, production, marketing and distribution of our content. We use a peer review system that’s supported and integrated by our team of specialist acquisition editors, development editors and paid peer reviewers. Our publishing processes allow us to integrate diversity and inclusion drivers into our high standards.

Knowledge vs profit

While some academic publishers continue to report immense profit margins, many universities, institutions and movements are attempting to stop this practice.

It’s public knowledge that until recently California’s state university system has paid $11m (£8.3m) per year to make certain scientific journals, owned by Elsevier, available to its students, researchers and academics. But, UC representatives announced in February 2019 that it’ll be boycotting the scientific publishing giant, after Elsevier refused to offer a package deal with a clear break down of subscription fees, or to allow articles written by UC authors to be made immediately free to readers across the globe. Funding bodies, like those behind Plan S, in Europe are also pushing for more articles to be available on Open Access. Over 50% of UK scientific articles are now available on OA.

While any organisation committed to education and learning knows knowledge dissemination should outrank the drive to increase profits, Open Access and similar models are not issue-free. Open Access may increase access and reduce costs for readers, but it also creates other funding challenges for the wider research community and for the publishing industry. There are various controversies around the implementation of Plan S and diversity and inclusion issues do not simply vanish under the model. As such, Open Access cannot be held up as the only solution to these challenges.

Critical academic publishers like Zed Books address some of these problems by creating platforms from which we can build and share knowledge both within and distinct from the Western academy. We’ve made a long-term commitment and found the right people and partners to promote different kinds of knowledge, whilst ensuring the highest standards of social science publishing.

We offer a wide range of publishing models, including Open Access, as well as a variety of discounts for institutions outside the Global North.

Diversity and inclusion within the academy

It’s absolutely crucial for academic publishers to think and act upon who gets published. Representing authors from a wide variety of backgrounds allows us to support and highlight alternative and international opinions and perspectives, something that’s particularly important given the current political climate.

Recent government research in the UK shows that while the overall number of people enrolled in higher education is falling, the number of BAME students is rising. Over the last 15 years, that number has increased from 13.3% to 21.3% accounting for 652,000 students. While this implies progress, white students still far outnumber ethnic minorities with populations totalling 2.4 million.

While some universities are attempting to promote and champion diversity within their faculty, this does not always translate to the best results. For example, non-white professors are often offered adjunct positions rather than the highly desired position of Professor.

Why is diversity important?

Failing to support researchers from a diverse background distinctively shapes how we collectively construct the very idea of ‘knowledge’ and leads to a lack of representation and biased or skewed viewpoints. Without representing a wider range of voices, academic publishing diminishes the validity of research and a text’s potential to have a meaningful and positive impact on society.

SAGER guidelines are an example of relatively new procedures for reporting gender information in study design, data analysis, results and interpretations of findings. Whilst measures such as these are important, the academy and academic publishing must also change in order to support any progress.

The role of critical academic publishers

Academic publishers also have an important role to play in balancing an understanding of the concept of free speech with bringing diverse and critical voices to light. Here at Zed Books, we’re committed to internationalism as well as diversity in the context of a historically grounded, nuanced and internationally focussed understanding of democratic values. 

Every aspect of our publishing is focused on excellence in the support of equality, diversity and social justice. Our processes are designed to guide critical research and include expert legal guides, checks and support, as necessary.

We’re proud to work with academics driven not only by exceptional research and publication standards, but also by the desire to increase diversity within the academy and academic knowledge production. We also partner with many remarkable institutions committed to social and climate justice.

Decolonizing the academy

Recent research into diversity amongst professors and academics argues that faculty members comprise the essential core of a college or university, its “epicenter,” and “epitomize the values of their institutions.”

Inherently white Higher Education institutions are one of the causes of continued limited social mobility and equality for BAME students and academics, within the academy and beyond.

The academy remains the centre of Western knowledge production and a place where diverse voices are less valued. Decolonising the academy, therefore, involves not only increasing on-campus diversity but also helping authors from the Global South, Eastern hemisphere and marginalised groups from across the globe to publish their research. Only through increased internationalism and diversity across all aspects of life can we start to dismantle the invisible architecture of white privilege and the heteropatriarchy.

Critical academic publishers like Zed Books play a crucial role in the movement to decolonize the Western academy. We’ve designed our award-winning publishing processes to incorporate multiple voices and viewpoints. So, we can contribute to the development of knowledge and human excellence while also fighting inequalities and injustices.

We have partnered with world-renowned institutions and societies to develop globally respected academic series and brands. Zed Scholar now provides a first step in supporting librarians to access and disseminate our critical texts, helping them to further expand students’ horizons and help them consider our world from a truly global perspective.

Critical academic publishing

While academic publishing certainly isn’t perfect, alliances and partnerships between organisations committed to excellence, internationalism and diversity in learning and research are a step in the right direction. We’re always looking for partners that share these values.

Publishing and partnering with Zed Books

For over four decades, we’ve worked with world-leading organisations to build recognised and respected academic series and brands. Our content represents diverse viewpoints across a range of academic fields and our award-winning publishing features expert insights and research from across the globe.

We’re proud to work with a range of organisations, including learned societies, institutes and social justice organisations and it is here that our expertise lie. We provide support across every aspect of the publishing process, and create bespoke arrangements with all the organisations we partner with. We are able to support our partners with strategic editorial and creative direction, product development, editorial processes including peer review management and product manufacture. We also offer global physical and digital distribution networks.

In addition to this, we’re not afraid to partner with organisations that have explicit social and political missions. We believe better access to education and knowledge is a key driver for social change.

Zed Books content for your institution

We’re proud to be the go-to publisher for academics conducting internationally focused, critical social science research. Research that gives voice to minority groups and identities in both the Global North and South.

By purchasing our collections and individual books, you’re not just purchasing up-to-date critical social science research. You’re supporting a wider network committed to making academic knowledge production more diverse, inclusive and internationally focused, as well as broadening the platform for more critical and diverse voices.

As a new generation of students enters the academy, interest in socially and politically meaningful research and content is growing. Generation Z is politically engaged and active, they understand the need for both social and climate justice.

Our digital collections are perfect for librarians, institutions and academics looking for high quality, diverse, internationally focussed, critical content relevant for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Explore our librarian zone to find out more about how we support librarians to provide critical academic research to students, academics and researchers at their institution.

Why is peer review so important?

Learn more about the various types of peer review, why it’s so important, what the social and political considerations of peer review are and how we use it at Zed Books.