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!

10 comments:

Chuck said...

Philosophical Review -- some claim to read it for the articles, but I'm a sucker for the centerfolds of the "Utilitarian of the Month."

Dennis said...

How stringent are the rules about putting submitted papers on your website in philosophy? I know that in my beloved old discipline of mathematics, everyone under forty has PDFs of essentially all their work on their personal website...

Neil Sinhababu said...

I've seen some people do that, Dennis. I haven't talked about it with many people so I don't have a good sense for whether the rules are ever enforced. Hmm, maybe I'll set up a papers section on The Ethical Werewolf before too long.

corvus said...

I think it would be fun to read to published philosophical musings of someone I have corresponded with on the internet...

...banat: a form of Central American dance, heavily reliant on the wrists, with some precedence from native French forms.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Cool, I'll put them up soon. My first journal publication was a delightful little thing called 'Possible Girls'. The second - the big one in Phil Review which is coming out next year - is about the role of desire in explaining how we feel as we make decisions. It's not as fun, but I think intelligent laypeople could understand most of it.

For those of you who don't get it, Corvus is making up meanings for the fake words in the capcha checks.

low-tech cyclist said...

I'd say, save yourselves. I'd think that, in this day and age, a dialogue that operates at the speed of quarterly journals (submit article, wait two months before it's accepted, wait another few months before it appears, wait 3-6 months for other luminaries in the field to respond) is one where everyone concerned will get bored and wander away before the clash of ideas ever gets interesting.

If you guys can't move en masse to something better, why should the rest of us bail you out? Besides, few people other than the philosophers will set even a mild priority on rescuing the philosophers from their own problems.

Neil Sinhababu said...

why should the rest of us bail you out?

How about: because you're paying for it anyway?

Milind said...

low-tech: Computer Science has more or less dealt with your critique of journals. They still exist, but almost all research first gets published in peer-reviewed conference proceedings. This is different than conferences in most areas, which are venues for work in progress; only completed work shows up in CS conferences [in most areas]. Journals more or less exist for longer treatments of work already covered in conference proceedings.

Also, pretty much every researcher in CS makes their papers available online for free.

Anonymous said...

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Ackspess: One's reaction when one is confronted with too many small practical obstacles to doing something that had seemed straightforward. Alt.: The undesired abundance of such small practical obstacles itself.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Thanks, nimh! We've gotten lots and lots of traffic from your redditing.