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A conference organised by SAGE on Open Access in the humanities and social sciences boldly invited academics to reflect on the opportunities of the new landscape last week.

I say boldly because some of those asked to speak did not hold back in their critique of traditional publishing. Though SAGE was identified as a praiseworthy exception, in generic terms publishers were variously labelled “corporate bullies”, “morally reprehensible” and “exploitative”, accused of underpaying academics for their labour while siphoning money from their institutions simply for returning to them their own academics’ research.

But besides the anger, what was also evident was the energy that new digital and OA publishing opportunities were offering academic communities. No space on the publisher’s schedules for your monograph? Tired of waiting so long for your book to appear that it becomes, as one speaker put it, “a tombstone marking where the controversy was four years ago”? Or simply keen to try out your developing article idea on your peers? Then why not publish your material yourself?

Even those who acknowledged that traditional publishers were still needed talked of “taking back agency” over their work through home-run ventures. Academics spoke enthusiastically about how affordable it was to bring journals in-house, how keen scholars were to take charge, how eager students were to get involved.

Trade houses have been posed questions by the growth of self-publishing, forced to reassert and redefine their own value to their authors, and academic publishers have a similar argument to make. SAGE’s Ziyad Marar—who is also billed for this month’s FutureBook Conference— identifies the “the reputation economy” in academic publishing and the prestige-conferring mechanism, crucial to early academic careers, that traditional publishers can exercise.

Elsewhere, Palgrave Macmillan m.d. Sam Burridge talks of responsive publishing via initiatives like the nimble Palgrave Pivot, and an increasing role for publishers in ensuring the impact of humanities and social science academic research on society is more broadly understood. But what came across loud and clear at the conference was the warning note: academics want a better deal, and publishers must negotiate or face the consequences.