Thursday, December 18, 2008

Save Us, Government! Set The Journals Free!

Ezra Klein, the rare and wonderful non-academic who reads academic papers, asks:
why is so much content locked up in pricey journals? Much of this research is being conducted on the public dime, but is utterly inaccessible to the public. The journals might have made sense when you needed some sort of archiving and distribution model to store, categorize, and spread research, but with the advent of the internet, their existence serves to foil those efficient dissemination of relevant research. Do they simply survive because the prestige they confer as gatekeepers plays an important role in rankings and advancement? Or is there some crucial purpose I'm missing entirely?
Here's my understanding of the story: All these journals were originally things more or less like magazines. In fact, they still are. The library at your university (because of course you're an academic at a university, or you wouldn't be interested in this stuff) pays a subscription fee and gets mailed a booky-looking object four times a year with the latest research. Journals are pricey and have copyrighting because that's the business model that works for low-circulation high-interest publications being sold to rich institutional libraries.

But now, there's the internet! Instead of the expensive printing, binding, and mailing of booky-looking objects, you can transmit information for free through the magic tubes. Since the editors and reviewers are professors who do this without getting paid by the journal (they regard this as part of the job the university pays them for) the entire process could be done for free. There's sometimes a grad student making a little money as an editorial assistant, but that's about it. We academics would be happy enough to just put our content on the web for free. In fact, a cool new journal in my discipline, Philosophers' Imprint, does that.

But Philosophers' Imprint is a very new journal. The existing journals aren't doing this. The trouble is that a lot of these journals are now owned by big publishing companies that don't make any profit by giving away their stuff for free. So they're clinging to the magazine business model.

I'd love it if the government could buy the journals out of the publishers' hands and open them to the public. I hear that some of that has happened in the sciences. The money taxpayers pay out in doing that would soon be recouped, at least in part, by public university academic libraries not having to pay subscription fees. Bonus: Ezra and other ordinary folk get to read my stuff without paying.

But I'm going to keep sending most of my papers to old-line journals that Ezra can't read and hoping they get accepted. After I got a paper accepted in Philosophical Review two months ago (it's perhaps the top journal in the discipline), one of my colleagues told me that at some places, people can get tenure just for that! I'd love to have more people read my stuff, but if I just put it on the web for free hardly anybody would even know it was there, or that it was worth reading. Get it into Philosophical Review, and I'm assured that my colleagues will see it, my adversaries will respond to it, and people hiring or promoting me will be impressed. But Ezra won't be able to read it. Save us, Government! Set the journals free!
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