Is academic publishing “just a button”?

  1. 1.  University of Bristol


Clay Shirky's widely quoted observation that publishing is now “just a button” has divided opinion in among academics. The confusion is due to pun on the word “publishing”, which in academic circles entails processes quite separate from making work public. For historical reasons, these processes have become associated with publication, but are really quite separate from it.


Matt Wedel's post The most important essay on scholarly publication this week (Wedel 2014) was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read (Shirky 2012). Here is the key passage that we keep coming back to:


“Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.”

And of course as blogs such as Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!, where the first version of this article was posted) demonstrate, publishing doesn’t even need a WordPress install — you can just use the free online service.

The “Publish” Pun

This passage has made a lot of people very excited; and a lot other people very unhappy and even angry. There are several reasons for the widely differing responses, but I think one of the important ones is a pun on the word “publish”.

When Shirky uses the word, he is talking about making something public, available to the world. Which after all is its actual meaning.

But when academics use the word “publish” they usually mean something quite different — they mean the whole process that a research paper goes through between submission and a PDF appearing in a stable location (and in some cases, copies being printed). That process involves many other aspects besides actual publishing — something that in fact Shirky goes straight on to acknowledge:


“The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.”

And this is dead on target. Many writers need editors[*], to varying degrees. Fact-checking could be equated with peer-review, which we pretty much all agree is still very important. Most academic publishers do a certain amount of design (although I suspect that in the great majority of cases this is 99% automatic, and probably involves human judgement only in respect of where to position the illustrations).

But due to the historical accident that it used to be difficult and costly to make and distribute copies, all those other tasks — relatively inexpensive ones, back in the days when distribution was the expensive thing — have become bundled with the actual publishing. With hilarious consequences, as they say. That's “hilarious” in the sense of “tragic, and breathtakingly frustrating”.

Sacrificing Copyright for Peer-Review

That’s why we’re stuck in an idiot world where, when we need someone to peer-review our manuscript, we usually trade away our copyright in exchange (and not even to the people who provide the expert review). If you stop and think about that for a moment, it makes absolutely no sense. When I recently wrote a book about Doctor Who (Taylor 2013a), I had several people proofread it, but I didn’t hand over copyright to any of them. My ability to distribute copies was not hobbled by having had independent eyes look it over. There is no reason why it should have, and there is no reason why our ability to distribute copies of our academic works should be limited, either.

What we need is the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services we need — peer-review, layout design, reference linking — and have the work published freely.

Well, would you look at that? Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access.

Is publishing just a button? Yes. Making things public is now trivial to do, and in fact much of what so-called publishers like Elsevier and OUP now do is labouring to prevent things from being public (Taylor 2013b). But we do need other things apart from actual publishing — things that publishers have historically provided, for reasons that used to make sense but no longer do.

Exactly what those things are, and how extensive and important they are, is a discussion for another day, but they do exist.



[*] The whole issue of academic publishing is further confused by another pun, this one on the word “editor”. When Shirky refers to editors, he means people who sharpen up an author’s prose — cutting passages, changing word choices, etc. Academic editors very rarely do that, and would be resented if they did. In our world, an “editor” is usually the nominally independent third party who solicits and evaluates peer-reviews, and makes the accept/reject decision. Do we need editors, in this academic sense? I am inclined to think we do.



Shirky, Clay. “How we will read.” Findings, 2012. Archived at\n w-we-will-read-clay-shirky

Taylor, Michael P. 2013a. “The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who”. Amazon and Lulu.

Taylor, Michael P. 2013b. “Publishing is a button: what Clay Shirky didn’t say”. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, June 12, 2013.

Wedel, Mathew J. 2014. “The most important essay on scholarly publication this week”. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, November 21, 2014.\n k/


Showing 2 Reviews

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    Martin Eve
    Quality of writing
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    This piece is, in Taylor's usual humorous and polemic style, a good argument for why we need publishing as a service, rather than as a sales/subscription model. Arguing that Shirky's much-lauded statements on "publishing as a button" are perhaps insufficient for the definition of publishing that we want/need in the academy, Taylor nonetheless points out that signing away copyright as a prerequisite to receiving the value-adding services that academics require is not an ideal solution.

    Interestingly, Taylor is not the first to suggest that "publishing" (in any environment) goes far further than Shirky's reductive definition. Of the works that I am aware of, the best is

    Bhaskar, Michael, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing From the Printing Press to the Digital Network (New York: Anthem Press, 2013), pp.
    In this volume, Bhaskar argues that at least three
    of these value-adding functions are “filtering”, “framing”
    and “amplification”. Bhaskar then goes on to ask whether an article
    can be considered 'published' if only one single copy exists and it is put on a park
    bench? What about the printing of hundreds of copies of an article
    that, then, nobody reads? These are all "made public" but does it mean they are published? Bhaskar argues, in every context, that they are not.

    A second additional source springs to mind should the author wish to enhance the range of secondary reference and more thoroughly counter the dominant discourses of "publishing". In

    Thompson, John B., Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005) it is suggested that some of the labour activities of publishing are selective
    acquisition, financial investment/risk, content development, quality
    control, management/coordination and sales/marketing. I am sure that Taylor has some interesting thoughts on which of these functions remain relevant in the OA world and which could safely be disaggregated. The piece could be improved through reference to such works.

    All-in-all, this short piece makes a sound, incremental theoretical argument in Taylor's continued advocative trajectory for open access publishing. This piece is also less confrontational than many other of Taylor's pieces, which perhaps gives an easier way into the debate for those less well-versed in the economics and mechanisms of academic publishing.

    Conflict of interest declaration: I know Mike Taylor through Twitter (although have never met him in real life) and we share many views on OA publishing. He also sits on one of the committees for my Open Library of Humanities project.

    This review has 1 comments. Click to view.
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      Mike Taylor

      Thanks, Martin. The Bhaskar and Thompson references are both new to me, and I'm sure will provide interesting insights.

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    Marius Buliga
    Originality of work
    Quality of writing
    Confidence in paper

    This is a short and nice opinion piece by Mike Taylor, adding to the SV-POW! record of articles about OA publishing. I appreciate the distinction he makes between publishing in the sense of making a work public and academic publishing, which is a much more ritualized process. I am not convinced though that the said distinction may help explaining why: (a) academic publishers still exist, (b) academic researchers continue to submit articles to them. Here is the place to declare that I have a bias against legacy publishing, which I consider obsolete, therefore I lean naturally towards the author's opinion, which I know and appreciate via the SV-POW! and other blog posts interactions.
    This distinction seems to be more about what is made public by means of legacy or contemporary ways. Another post by Mike Taylor ( ) shows that the research article form is perhaps as obsolete as legacy publishers. This is of course the secret we all know, but we still keep publishing in the old way due to the publish or perish and other social  pressures than due to to the possible inadequacy of the new medium for publication.
    The  most interesting part of the article is, I think, about the trade of copyright for the peer-review. The only service a publisher can offer (or sell) to the author is the peer-review. For the researchers who  throw their work in the OA heresy, the redemption is to have their article peer-reviewed. As the author writes, it does not make sense logically, but socially this is the world we live in, for the moment at least. For the publishers the copyright still seems to protect a lucrative business. Downstream restrictions on the licensed  material (enforced by technological measures) may be even more juicier than the copyright. These are not mentioned in the article, but the last part of Mike Taylor opinion piece may be read in this key as well.


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