Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Alternative Media (1)

Peer-reviewed journals are not the only game in town. One of my authors recently received an email from VDM Verlag offering to publish her master's thesis. It sounded a little too easy, so I had a look around and found a few online discussions that confirmed my suspicions (or at least expressed some of them as well). The Leiter Reports thread is representative. VDM appears to be a new kind of vanity press.

Vanity presses actually build on practices already adopted by ordinary publishers. Many small university presses rely on research foundations to support the publication of monographs. Authors typically get funding to publish the results they have arrived at while working on a grant from the same foundation. In principle, these books are subject to the same editorial controls as any other book, but since the publisher's costs are covered there is little risk and, therefore, some measure of "moral hazard".

Many perfectly good (but often somewhat stuffy) dissertations are published by a still more legitimate mechanism used by some of the prestigious publishing houses. On this model, the publisher accepts a manuscript (often a lightly revised dissertation) which is then published as a high-quality hardback and sold at a very high price. The book is normally bought be every major library in the world (normally exhausting much of the first printing). No one expects very many individuals to buy it and it is only if the reviews and general interest subsequently exists that a more affordable paperback is put out. Otherwise, the book remains, largely unread, on the shelves of the world's libraries. Here the publishers and the libraries are serving the important function of documenting what a particular scholar knows at a particular time, preserving that knowledge for future scholars even if the present interest is not sufficient to justify publication as a "business proposition".

It is this good idea—that some books should be published even in the absence of a "market" for them—that has led naturally to the emergence of the vanity press. The business model is easy to understand: instead of being selective about what they publish, these publishers either charge their authors for the cost of printing the books or count on them buying a sufficient number of copies (either to sell or to give away to friends) or both. The only editorial oversight here is the author's, yes, vanity.

This is not to be confused with so-called "author-pays" open access journals, some of which are perfectly respectable operations (though I don't know of any high-ranked journals in the field of management that use this approach). Here the low cost of on-line publication makes it possible to charge only a small fee for the service of processing a text. This fee is usually only paid by the authors whose texts are published. There is the temptation to establish a "pay-for-play" racket, which is essentially a vanity press for journal articles, but with a sufficient amount of submissions there is no reason to go there.

VDM apparently solicits manuscripts that are otherwise unlikely ever to become books. They contact authors who have written master's theses, i.e., often texts that the authors had not yet thought of publishing. Once accepted, a few copies are printed and sent to the author (in some cases also to a few libraries); the rest is sold on a print-on-demand basis. The books are reputed to be very expensive, though they are produced at almost no cost. VDM seems to be counting on selling a few copies of books from a very large catalogue, no doubt because the reader has some pretty direct relation to the author.

I don't recommend publishing in this way. On Friday I'll have a look at some better alternatives to peer-reviewed journals.

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