Monday, May 14, 2012

Wishing For Open Access Journals

Ezra writes:
I have conflicted feelings about the public money that goes to academic research — including political science — in this country. I admire and rely on the work that comes out of these disciplines. But for all the public money that goes to support them, there’s a decided lack of public-spiritedness in how they act. The research is often locked away in pricey journals. There’s a premium placed on unnecessary convoluted rhetoric that confuses and dissuades interested outsiders. There’s almost no effort put into connecting research with the public debate — and academics who try and engage in it often risk professional and social sanction.

 If it were up to me, any research that took even a dollar of taxpayer funds would have to be in an open-access journal and stored in a publicly searchable repository. While much of this research deserves public support, the prevailing mores in academia don’t. 
I'm very sympathetic to a lot of this.  I agree totally with the bit about unnecessary convoluted rhetoric, and I'd boast on behalf of philosophy that we've been making some headway against that problem.  Metaphysics 200 years ago was a convoluted mess (Kant, especially Hegel) but the superstars of metaphysics in recent times (Saul Kripke, David Lewis) are fairly clear and straightforward writers.

The pricey journal problem is a huge one, and I'd like to lay out the problem that people like myself are caught in.  Because it sort of made sense in the pre-internet days to have for-profit corporations handle the printing and distribution of journals, a lot of the old prestigious journals that have historically published the most influential papers are in private hands.  I send papers there because that's the only way to get ahead in our profession.  And it's going well!  I had a paper come out in the #1 journal back in 2009, and I've got a forthcoming paper in the #2 journal.  (You can see the rankings here.)  When I was chatting with a senior figure at a conference this weekend, and I mentioned these papers, he swiftly said "You're getting tenure."

I do like to submit things to Philosophers' Imprint, the #10 and rising journal (founded in 2001) which is the only open-access journal in the top 20.  But they only publish 15 or so papers a year, as is generally the case with top journals (I haven't gotten anything in there yet).  And I published in JESP rather than the other journals in its class because it was open-access.  But there aren't enough open-access venues for us to publish in, and if you restricted yourself to them, your career wouldn't go anywhere.

There are a few things we could do about this.  I'm hoping that eventually when I and the rest of the internet generation rise to prominence, we can turn some of the journals open-access.  And when there are enough open-access journals, we can refuse to referee papers for the closed-access journals.  We can also set up more things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is the best thing in all of philosophy.  But to get the prestige and power to accomplish these goals, we have to play the game by the current rules and submit to highly prestigious closed-access journals.

The point I'm trying to make is a lot of people are on Ezra's side about how it'd be better to have open-access journals, and it's absolutely the right side.  But it's less an issue of prevailing mores and more an issue of historical path-dependent phenomena locking us into a bad situation we can't get out of.  A lot of us are grumbling about the problem, but we can't actually do anything except play the game by the existing rules and hope to change it in the future.  I'm really not sure what the situation is with the senior people who currently run the journals, but my impression is that it's less an issue of actually liking the current system than of not feeling any motivation to go through the hard work of making changes.  I'm not really sure what can be done about them, especially given the collective action problems faced by large numbers of weak people trying to change how small numbers of powerful people behave.

It'd delight me if the federal government simply stopped enforcing copyright on publicly funded research.  None of us make any serious money off of books, and refereeing is entirely done on a volunteer basis.  I'm pretty sure there's no way to make this happen, though.
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