Alternatives To Mainstream Publishing

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* Article: Alternatives to mainstream publishing within and beyond academia. Ephemera, volume 21, number 4, November 2021. Special issue: Pasts, presents and futures of critical publishing.



From the Introduction:

"Since 2001 the open access model of ephemera has been operating in opposition to corporate academic publishing, and we are not alone in this struggle. While for-profit publishers have been finding new ways to appropriate and capitalise on academic knowledge and the very idea of open access (ephemera collective, this issue), a colourful multiplicity of alternatives has emerged. This contribution aims to make these alternatives visible, showing a whole variety of ways in which they challenge the status quo within and beyond publishing and academia.

Alternatives to mainstream publishing have different organisational forms and formats, but what unites them is being not-for-profit, not guided by quantity, and caring for thorough knowledge creation. These alternatives can be connected to universities or run by independent collectives, based in particular geographical locations or internationally, producing journals, books, blogs, translations or artistic work. Multiple journals already operate within the model of ‘diamond open access’, i.e. immediate open access with no payment for publication by authors or readers (see Fuchs and Sandoval, 2013). A large-scale study of collaborative community-driven publishing has identified up to 29 000 such journals across the world, with about a third of them registered in the Directory of Open Access Journals (Bosman et al., 2021). While 45% of these journals are based in Europe, more than half of them are specifically in Eastern Europe (ibid.). Apart from journals, there are models of open access book publishing (see Deville et al., 2019), like MayFly, a long-term sister publication to ephemera, Minor Compositions and Mattering Press. They make books available to everyone from the start, rather than charging the authors thousands of euros to make it possible, as conventional book publishers do today. Beyond books and journals, there are many new media initiatives transcending the borders of academia and publishing, celebrating different ways and modes of knowledge creation. These initiatives show how open access is not just about making academic knowledge available, but about appreciating different ways of knowing, and the different formats in which they can be communicated.

To highlight the already existing multiplicity of alternatives, we have invited eight collectives engaged in what we thought can be framed as alternatives to mainstream publishing to tell us about the initiatives they are part of. These are ACME, Chto Delat [What is to be Done],, Ecologia Politica Network, Journal of Peer Production, Radical Housing Journal, Undisciplined Environments and Uneven Earth. These are all run as independent collectives and are close in spirit to what we do in ephemera, driven by ethico-political commitments (see ephemera collective, this issue; Loacker, this issue), which was the key reason for reaching out to them. With non-hierarchical organising practices at the core, they embody values of autonomous knowledge creation, critical thinking and radical open access, pushing the boundaries of publishing and academia. While there are various connections in the spirit and politics of these initiatives, there is also a diversity of organising practices and formats they are engaged in, which is something we would like to highlight and learn from.

We asked each collective to answer the following questions, on roughly one page:

  • What is your initiative about?
  • How does it challenge mainstream publishing/academia?
  • How are you organised?
  • What challenges do you face?
  • How to transform publishing/academia/society?

The task of ephemera, in turn, has been to bring them together, interconnecting these multiple voices. In what follows, the collectives introduce what they do, articulating their political commitments and organising principles, whilst not shying away from the challenges and limitations of their work[1]. Together, they illuminate the politics and organisation of alternatives to mainstream publishing, giving a rich picture of what alternatives can look like. They also help us rethink what it means to be open (access), as reflected in the introduction to each of the following sections."


"ACME, the Journal of Peer Production and the Radical Housing Journal publish independent academic journals. Being open access is a key stance for all of them, but their aspirations and practices further extend our understanding of what it means to be open. For example, acknowledging the imperial and colonial roots of the discipline of geography, ACME seeks to publish work written from multiple critical perspectives in or related to geography, and in solidarity with global and local struggles. This includes actively encouraging submissions from beyond the Anglo-Americas, and in different languages, which echoes the effort of the Radical Housing Journal to connect to housing struggles in the Global South and East. The Radical Housing Journal, further, involves activists in the peer review process, drawing on the knowledge from those engaged in the struggles addressed in the journal, and allowing to scrutinise academic knowledge in the very process of its creation. Journal of Peer Production, in turn, engages in open peer review, which makes the process of publication more transparent, publishing the original submission, reviews and subsequent versions. This challenges the fetish of many journals that a high rate of rejections is inherently good, and encourages a more collegial review process, that involves reviewing and editing contributions with care (Butler and Spoelstra, 2014; Josephs, 2016).

Journal of Peer Production

The Journal of Peer Production published its first issue in 2011. It proposed to explore the relationship between peer production and social change. We understand peer production as a mode of commons-based and -oriented production in which participation is voluntary and predicated on the self-selection of tasks. Notable examples are the collaborative development of free and open source software, of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, and of open hardware projects. We have published fifteen themed issues on topics including value and currency, shared machine shops, law, work, feminism, urban planning, and policy, amongst others. These issues included contributions from researchers, activists, and artists.

The journal has also developed alternative practices in academic publishing. Our approach to peer reviewing was informed by Whitworth and Friedman’s (2009) criticism of academic publishing as a form of competitive economics in which ‘scarcity reflects demand, so high journal rejection rates become quality indicators’. This self-reinforcing system where journals that reject more attract more results in a situation where

[A]voiding faults becomes more important than new ideas. Wrongly accepting a paper with a fault gives reputation consequences, while wrongly rejecting a useful paper leaves no evidence. (ibid.)

All the articles in the Journal of Peer Production are in the public domain. For peer reviewed articles, we publish the reviews – which can remain anonymous or not – as well as the original submission of the article. We have created a range of ‘signals’ indicating the article’s quality so that we can publish imperfect articles more quickly, whilst protecting the journal’s reputation. The journal also circumvents prohibitions on sharing copyrighted or embargoed content, such as preprints of chapters from the recently released Handbook of peer production.

We have an editorial team, a scientific board and a wider community. All governance decisions are debated on our publicly accessible and archived mailing list ( Open access independent publishing is not without challenges, however. Lack of resources and infrastructure, as well as burnouts are some of those faced by our journal.

There are of course many ways to achieve social change. From a scientific journal perspective, at the local workplace level, the value of autonomous editorial work should be better recognised by research institutions; open access and open data should become the norm; and dependence on the costly ‘bundles’ of publishing conglomerates which gather access to researcher-produced scientific journals as well as services such as impact metrics (allowing institutions to climb up the rankings) should be likewise challenged.

Societally, the work of the P2PFoundation, P2PLab and Commons Transition show the way. More organisations and initiatives that can facilitate connections between peer production and traditional institutions are necessary. In the context of widespread automation leading to increasing rates of unemployment in many sectors, there is a need to develop the means to gain more space and recognition for volunteer work and the commons sector from states and firms. To this end, in 2021 some of us are planning to launch a new ‘think tank’: the Digital Commons Policy Council."