Quality in Academic and Educational Publishing: A Terminal Decline?

A quality audit of academic and educational publishing

Many experienced people in the academic and educational publishing sectors claim that there have been progressive erosions of important aspects of quality in the industry. These may affect, among other things, the value of the product, the credibility of publishers and ultimately the future of the industry itself.

Most of these concerns are associated with the effects of rapid change on functions such as editorial, production and design. More general fears include the loss of experienced staff, de-skilling, the perceived dominance of cost and throughput over all else, the effects of large-scale outsourcing, and claims that ‘real’ quality has been replaced by lip service to quality.

The quality issue is particularly acute for academic and educational publishers because their very existence depends on the understanding and careful management of quality. All quality costs time and money, but it is at the heart of what these publishers offer and cannot simply be discarded as a soft cost.

There are pressing realities crowding in on academic and education publishing, including the need for ever tighter cost controls to keep these types of publishing viable, and the dramatic rise of alternative means of dissemination, both formal and informal. Factors such as wholesale outsourcing and the demand for high throughputs and rapid processing all add to the pressure.

The research context

What I am trying to do in this long-term research project is establish the realities of change across these two sectors, looking beyond publisher's official claims but also beyond common perceptions that may or may not be based on hard evidence. So, for example, is quality - whatever this means - in editorial, in design, in production and so on, better or worse than it was fifty years ago, or twenty years ago - or ten or even five?

This first phase of the inquiry is designed to establish a baseline of trends and issues from which I can conduct more targeted research. Precisely what are the quality-related effects of continuous change and new methods of working, for better and for worse? Have quality concerns been safeguarded in the new publishing environment, or are academic and educational publishing cutting quality to the point where they are undermining their own credibility?

Change in these two publishing sectors has of course been enormous, and much of it is driven by economic and technological developments; what's more, it seems certain that change will remain a constant factor and is not merely a painful blip that is now safely behind us. All aspects of publishing continue to be affected, from practice to process, from author relations to editing, and modes of use to the nature of the published materials themselves.

It's worth noting that several factors can distort views about quality, and although any meaningful analysis must acknowledge them it must also be able to see beyond them. Probably the most significant of these factors are personal work issues such as the devaluing of expertise, poor morale or job satisfaction, and ‘golden age’ thinking. Understandably, people under these sorts of pressures and perceptions are inclined to respond defensively to change, and tend to emphasise the worst aspects of it.

How you can help

If you are working in, or for, the publishing industry in either the academic or educational/ELT sectors, I would like to hear what you have to say about quality in your area of expertise. You may be an employee of a large or small company, at any level from new entrant to managing director / CEO; in the private, public or not-for-profit sectors; or you may be a supplier or freelance. You may work anywhere in these sectors, and in books or journals, in print or electronic form.

The initial focus of this research is the UK, but not exclusively so. Publishing is a global - and globalised - activity, and I am interested to hear of experiences from anywhere in the world. Also, use whatever definition and aspects of quality make sense to you in your area of interest.

There is an online space accessible from * here *, or directly via the link at the top right of this page, where you can express your views and experiences of quality, whether good or bad. Please drop by and contribute.

Alternatively, you can contact me directly via the email or postal addresses on this page. If you are worried about the consequences of saying controversial things, please rest assured that anything you relate to me in confidence will remain private, and unless I have your prior permission will not be presented in a way that is directly attributable to you in any research outcomes or publications that I may produce.