Counting the costs of cost-cutting

“What we do matters. That’s a point I never thought we’d have to make.” Anna Wagstaff opened the Quality in Publishing summit with a snapshot of the current situation in academic publishing: cost-cutting and outsourcing leading to a decline in quality.

The event was organised by the Oxford & District branch of the NUJ as a way of bringing together people who work in academic publishing in order to start a conversation about the problems. Oxford is famous as a centre of publishing excellence, but the expertise of editorial workers could disappear within a generation if there is no investment in training.

Peter Wrobel has been paid by various UK publishers to carry out copyediting training – but in India, not in the UK. He told the meeting: “The companies in India don’t feel like sweatshops... but they do feel like factories.” Most India-based copyediting firms don’t even allow employees to use the internet, which means that minor queries about a journal article take a lot longer to handle and usually involve contacting the author directly.

Although the copyeditors in Indian companies are usually qualified to MA or PhD level, they’re not necessarily interested in copyediting as a career and don’t stick around long enough to learn the skills involved in doing the job really well. Mr Wrobel estimated that turnover in the big copyediting companies is around 90%, although management claim it’s nearer 50%. And perfect English, even if it’s spoken as a first language, doesn’t always make for a good copyeditor of English-language publications. He explained that Indian English is very different from British English, which can cause huge communication problems within a company.

So why do publishers outsource? Mr Wrobel told us that the cost of getting copyediting done offshore is roughly an eighth of the cost of hiring a UK freelancer. For that reason, publishers are prepared to accept a certain decline in quality. However, the trade-off is nowhere near as simple as it looks on the balance sheet.

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, described the “standardisation paradox”: using a one-size-fits-all outsourced copyediting solution means that UK-based employees have to use subtle, non-standard skills to manage the situation. She believes that these tacit skills are under-recognised by publishing management. Her research shows that outsourcing generates extra unpaid work in the UK, and this was confirmed by the experience of many people present.

Professor Huws explained that when an organisation’s structure changes through outsourcing, this often means that tacit knowledge turns into codified knowledge. In other words, training stops being about on-the-job learning and starts being about a specific checklist of items to be learnt. Evaluating performance also becomes codified, with written standards and goals replacing more nuanced appraisals. “It’s management by results, not relationships.”

Outsourced work also happens at a faster pace than in-house work. Productivity targets are set much higher for offshore workers and turnaround times are much shorter. Many publishers use offshore companies “as an emergency service” to meet deadlines that would be considered unreasonable in the UK.

Of course, as Peter Wrobel pointed out, these deadlines are often unreasonable for the outsourced workers too. Indian copyediting firms regularly end up with a backlog of work which they can’t cope with. When this happens, the publisher usually looks for UK-based freelancers to do the work – and offers lower rates than were available before the original outsourcing.

The issue of hidden costs and externalities came up again and again. One audience member reminded us that the basic product of the publishing industry is free to publishers: publicly-funded universities pay for the research and writing that goes into academic journals. If their cost-cutting is driving down standards and pay in the industry, we have to ask whether the current model is the best use of taxpayers’ money.

Steve Ball of the International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes was the final speaker. He said that in order to fight the decline in quality, we need to understand the publisher’s point of view. “To make this process work, you need to talk to publishers and find out what they think they’re doing.” He believes that publishers are conducting a long-term experiment with outsourcing, seeing how this affects the “production triangle” of cost, quality and speed.

An audience member pointed out the problem with such an approach: “It’s a great experiment, but the feedback never comes.” The problem is the distorted market in academic journals. Publishers sell mass subscriptions to academic institutions, so there’s a lack of individual feedback. Professor Huws describes it as “a passive supply with no signals from the market”. (Site licences are sold on the same model.)

This brought us back to the main purpose of the meeting. “As people who care about quality in publishing, how do we make our voices heard when nobody is consulting us?”

Fiona Swarbrick, books organiser for the NUJ, had some suggestions from her own experience. “Get to grips with what’s happening, work with it.” She gave examples of publishers where the union has collected information on quality and presented it to management. Doing the homework and working with management is key.

Steve Ball pointed out that editorial boards can make a difference, because they set the tone, standards and quality for a journal and have the power to take their business elsewhere.

Other suggestions from the audience included:

One audience member suggested pushing for the industry to adopt a “first do no harm” principle when outsourcing work. Indian companies can add value to the published product in many ways, such as structuring content and marketing, but most publishers use them solely for copyediting where they have the potential to do more harm than good. (Many people present complained about having errors inserted into their work through poor editing.)

One of the last people to speak was a professor emeritus with decades of experience in publishing. He reiterated a point that is sometimes forgotten: “The primary function of a university is not to contribute to the economy, or please politicians... it is to create knowledge for its own sake.” We need to shift the focus away from business models and start talking about why journals are produced in the first place. The Quality in Publishing meeting was an attempt to start that conversation. Note: Reporting restrictions applied to the meeting to protect individual identities.