What roles still remain for publishers?

Most of what I’ve read and heard about the recent Kaavya Viswanathan case addressed the issue of authorial responsibility regarding plagiarism. However, I think a more interesting inquiry would center on the role of publishers in assuring the quality of books they publish. Those who’ve been reading my posts here already know that I think the traditional paper-centered publishing model is mostly obsolete. For instance, I see a future in which scholarly journals and books are produced by teams of scholars who might perhaps contract out some steps of the production process outside to “publishing services” companies but share none of the decisional power with a publisher. Now, although this is mere speculation about the future, I’m seeing signs that there is a slow movement towards that. JIATS is a case in point. The journal is not published through traditional channels. It exists only in electronic format. It is free of charge. It is driven by scholars and made for scholars.

I have also speculated that there may be forces that will prevent publishers from becoming totally obsolete in academic publishing. They may transform into what I termed “publishing services” above. JIATS seems fairly self-sufficient but I’m thinking that there will be a market for scholarly organizations that want to use the new scholar-powered electronic model but do not have the knowledge or inclination to deal with setting up a server to host the journal. They might also want to have outside editing or clerical services. At any rate, I see a future for publishers, albeit a future in which their role is drastically reduced and in which power has shifted away from them.

The future relevance of publishers will depend largely on how many roles in the publishing process they are able to fulfill. This is where the significance of the Kaavya Viswanathan case lies. One of the roles of publishers, I thought, was to ensure the quality of their product. One aspect of quality, when it comes to publications, is to ensure that the work is not plagiarized. We’re not talking about some piece of rarefied scholarly work here, just a relatively accessible work of fiction. I realize that mistakes happen but publishers are supposed to be THE specialists when it comes to books. Moreover, Viswanathan’s case is not isolated but just one of a series of very public cases of plagiarism or authorial dishonesty uncovered in recent years. These cases casts some serious doubt as to whether publishers can keep for themselves the role of ensuring the quality of what gets published.

Closing note: I realize that in the case of scholarly publications, a lot of the QA cannot be outsourced since it involves specialized knowledge that resides with the scholars themselves. So the Viswanathan case does not specifically impact the domain of scholarly publishing but the larger domain of publishing in general.

Edit: fixed the author’s name… beh…

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