Scholarly publishing: why not co-operatives?

Balloon Street, Manchester. Image (c) the Co-operative Group, published under the Creative Commons (Attribution 2.0) licence.

I’m a member of The Co-operative Group. The group, which is the UK’s largest mutual business, is owned  by its customers – over 6 million of them.*

The Co-op runs grocery stores, pharmacies, and travel agents and provides a range of services, including childcare, funeral services, and legal services.

Each year I receive a dividend payment representing my share of the profits, calculated in proportion to the amount that I have spent as a Co-op customer.

In a recent article about the survival (indeed, growth) of the Co-op in the recession, The Economist magazine makes an interesting point about the appeal of the Co-op’s funeral care business. Generally, consumers have limited knowledge about funeral costs. When bereaved, they don’t want the stress of having to research such costs. Equally, they don’t want to be ripped off.

The Co-op provides consumers in this position with a solution: the risk of being ripped off is mitigated by the fact that the Co-op’s owners, as themselves customers, have little incentive to (as it were) rip themselves off. The group’s mutual ownership thus provides reassurance to customers.

Recently there has been much discussion about scholarly publishers’ prices and costs. There is a widespread perception that some publishers are ripping off for their customers.

As I’ve argued in posts here about open access (OA), I think much of this discussion is poorly informed and poorly reasoned. Nonetheless, such perceptions persist and that in itself constitutes a problem.

OA publishing doesn’t constitute a total solution for scholarly publishing. I won’t repeat in detail the arguments from my previous posts (1 Sep, 3 Sep, 7 Sep, 13 Oct, 3 Nov, 26 Nov 2010): suffice it to say that the OA model presents a problem to authors who lack funds; moreover it’s difficult to see how OA in fact saves costs, at least without producing an industry that is under-capitalised or under-marketed.

The situation is crying out for co-operative publishers as a component of the industry mix.

Imagine a situation in which a co-operative publishing house sets out to service a particular discipline (say, for the sake of an example, qualitative studies in health care).

Nobody need join the co-op – anybody is free to buy the publications whether or not they become members – but anyone who does buy them may join. Scholars and libraries active in the field would have a vested interest in doing so, namely that at the end of each year they will receive a share of any profit.

Liverpool Co-op (Pilch Lane Branch), 1955. Image (c) Gordon Cragg, published under Creative Commons licence.

If the publishing house charges high prices, this may produce high profits: but in the event that it does, libraries and readers need not fear that their budgets are being denuded for no good reason: such profit will be returned to them.

Co-operatives supply such goods and services as groceries, childcare, funerals, travel, banking, insurance, and legal services. What about journals, books and grey literature too?


* Further information about the co-operative movement in the UK is available from the Co-operatives UK website. The site includes pages on what a co-operative is and how to start a co-operative. The International Co-operative Alliance also has a website.


7 Responses to “Scholarly publishing: why not co-operatives?”

  1. To the effect you describe academic institutions could equally well buy shares of scientific and scholarly publishers.

    • Thank you for your post. Indeed, that is an option. I never understand why people who argue that companies are making ‘rip off’ profits don’t seem to think of buying shares in them! It should be noted, however, that not all publishing companies have shares available on the open market. Also, enthusiasts for the co-operative ideal would argue that this is not just a matter of ownership, but also of factors such as control.

  2. You might find the following paper on publishing cooperatives for scholarly societies of interest:

    • Thank you, Raym. That is a useful link. As with my reply to the previous comment, I’d like to emphasise that there are different forms of co-operatives under discussion here. For example:
      1. customer-owned co-operatives, where customers receive a dividend proportionate to their custom;
      2. employee-owned co-operatives;
      3. co-operatives between publishers enabling them to pool resources and achieve economies of scale.
      I think perhaps I haven’t made explicit enough that, following my analogy with the Co-operative Group in the UK, my post focused on type (1) above, i.e. customer-owned co-operatives. To clarify, in such a co-operative,any customer is entitled to join, without requiring prior membership of a society.

  3. University presses have really struggled vs. the corporate for-profit presses, many have had to close shop altogether. Is this co-op model sufficiently different enough to succeed where the university presses have failed?

  4. Thanks, Matt. My own view on university presses hasn’t changed much since my post here:

    Essentially I think the presses that have got into trouble have been the one with poor quality publishing programmes.

    I don’t pretend that’s a popular view, but it’s where I stand!

  5. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conducting a little research on this. And he actually ordered me breakfast simply because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to talk about this subject here on your website.

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