the journal is dead. long live the journal!

Warning. Cranky entry ahead.

When my family lived in Belgium, we used to travel to Brussels to see recently released movies. On our first such trip, we were struck by the strange behavior of the ushers, who would not guide you to your seat but instead would stand by the entrance to the theater with slick flyers advertising coming attractions. If you took one, they would hold out their hand for a tip. If you declined giving them the tip and gave them back the flyer, they were quite resentful.

In short, they served no purpose. At some point in the past they probably provided a helpful service, using their flashlights to help you through the dark, letting little old ladies hold onto their arms. Whatever. Those days were long gone. Well-lighted aisles and better designed entrance and exit ramps made them obsolete. But they just couldn’t stop hanging around with their hand out.

Believe it or not, I think of those ushers when I think of the modern academic journal. What do we get for the (often considerable) money that we pay for journals? Ideally, we get well-written articles that have been vetted by experts in the field. And how much do the authors get paid? Nothing. How much do the journal editors get paid? Nothing (right?). How much do the readers who evaluate the articles for the journal get paid? Nothing.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? What exactly are we paying for?

How many journals do you actually read in print anymore? How many are not available online in addition to being available in printed form. Yes, I know that creating PDFs, say, of a set of articles is not free. And I also know that storing such articles on a server or set of servers costs money, too. But surely that cost is negligible and could be borne by universities for significantly less money than they currently pay to subscribe to journals. Can’t we replicate the exact same system we have now – the articles being submitted, being distributed to experts for evaluation, being accepted or rejected by the journal – without the fee system? What’s the difference?

I think we can agree that the current system has problems. For one thing, library budgets are (always already) threatened by the vagaries of funding and journal subscriptions are often the first things cut, meaning that crucial information becomes unavailable to library patrons.

Second, insane new copyright laws are pressuring libraries to put unreasonable restrictions on copying and distributing scholarly material. At UMKC, we can’t put articles on reserve for more than one semester because library policy is that this violates copyright law. Here’s the ultimate frustration for me: authors of these articles do not care one iota if you are making copies of their work so long as it’s clear who the author is. Our reward for our scholarship is usually not financial; it’s professional. We don’t get paid for publishing our work, so we’re not the ones losing any money. But are journals losing money from library reserves? I doubt it. What’s the difference between a student copying an article from the reserves list and copying an article from the journal sitting on the shelf? And if journals are losing money, who cares? What purpose do they serve? The peer-review process does not need a commercial component in order to function properly.

Consider the list of journals available through Johns Hopkins University Press’ Project Muse. I can link you to the home page, and you can take a look at the tables of contents, but you can’t read the articles without a subscription because… Well, why?

What am I missing?

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9 thoughts on “the journal is dead. long live the journal!

  1. Well, I would say that it paid for the overhead of maintaining the server, creating the webpages/database, and so on.
    I would say that, but then the cynical side of me figures that they just give it to a grad student to do at some below poverty wage.
    So, I would say that the cost pays for administrative costs and publishing costs (paper, distribution, etc.), some of which would be negated by going all digital.
    But is this just part of a larger problem in academic publishing in general?

  2. John Unsworth has written about this at length (check the articles and talks on his homepage). One thing I learned from watching him edit PMC is that most of a journal’s costs go into labor–in the case of a PMC a saleried managing editor and several assistants who handle correspondence, copy-editing, source checking, etc.–all things that are essential to a professonal journal, whether in print or online. Likewise, when I was negotiating my book contract, I was told there was no point to have a paperback edition come out immedtiately because the difference in production costs between cloth and paper were negligible–the pricing would have been about the same because the press is trying to recover many kinds of expenses, not just production.
    The most damning way to state the academic journal situation is probably this: universities pay its faculty (in part) to conduct research. Faculty then publish that research in third-party journals (for the sake of peer review of course), from whom the university then has to buy it back–or else just as often can’t afford to.
    Maryland, like a number of institutions, has begun exploring a libary-based electronic repository for faculty research. The problem with such initiatives is that they’re usually framed wholly in economic terms: questions about changing tenure criteria, etc. are left unaddressed.

  3. I don’t think publishing in paper journals is a very good way to spread knowledge. The journals I need for my PhD aren’t stocked by most universities and my flatmate gets most articles off the web.

  4. Jason, the work would being done by a grad student is perhaps the best case scenario. A really cynical take would predict that the work was sent off to the third world for pennies a page.
    Matt, I assume you mean these collections of writing
    http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/publications.html
    http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/otherpubs.html
    I guess the question to which I don’t know the answer is whether or not a university that sponsors a particular journal could afford to just host a peer-reviewed journal (say, _Postmodern Culture_) and make it available online for free. If all journals functioned this way, then universities would not have to pay subscription costs at all. Perhaps then they could afford to host journals. Yes, I realize this is utopian. And the way you describe institutions paying twice for research (pay the faculty who produce it, then pay for the journals that publish it) is spot on.
    Jessica, what kind of information are you looking for?
    Claire, of course, one can always order articles via inter-library loan, but this costs the library a surprising amount of money. A page ( http://www.arl.org/newsltr/195/illdds.html ) on the Association for Research Libraries’ site says “On average, the unit cost to research libraries to borrow an item on interlibrary loan is $18.35, and the cost to lend an item is $9.48.” And this is for material that the patron keeps, not the library. Obviously not cost-effective.

  5. There’s no question but that academic publishing could do with some . . . let’s be polite and say “reform.” But one reason why I don’t think we’d want universities to get into the business of funding/publishing journals is exemplified by the current round of state budget cuts. Journals of postmodern culture and the like would make for an awfully long neck stretched out on that particular chopping block. Publishers are not immune to the pressures of the marketplace either, of course–witness Stanford UP slashing its humanities list–but the future of the scholarly record ought not to be placed in the hands of trustees, legislators, governors, or anyone else who decides annual fiscal policy.

  6. I think what’s really bugging me is that I don’t want this information to be enclosed in this way, especially when so much of it is paid for with public money. I’d like to be able to link directly to articles from my course webpages, or from my blog entries. Wouldn’t that be great? Then, of course, articles could start linking directly to each other, too, and fulfill the long-awaited promise of hypertext.
    Tonight I’ve been sitting in my living room building a bibliography on Olaudah Equiano ( http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/ ) for my C18 course next semester ( http://www.chlt.org/~gwilliams/2004/c18/course-descrip.pdf ) , and I’ve been systematically saving PDFs of as many of the articles as I can find. My hard-drive now has a weekend’s worth of reading on it. Why should what is arguably the best quality information on the internet have these commercially motivated walls around it?

  7. Here’s a relevant site I have not yet fully explored: http://www.createchange.org/home.html
    “Scholarly communication exists for the benefit of the worldís research and teaching community. Authors want to share new findings with all their colleagues, while researchers, students, and other readers want access to all of the relevant literature.
    “However, the traditional system of scholarly communication is not working. Libraries and their institutions worldwide can no longer keep up with the increasing volume and cost of scholarly resources. Authors communicate with only those of their peers lucky enough to be at an institution that can afford to purchase or license access to their work. Readers only have access to a fraction of the relevant literature, potentially missing vital papers in their fields.
    “Involvement by the academic community is critical in ensuring that efforts to reclaim scholarly communication for scholars and researchers succeed. Together we can develop a new system that meets your needs and those of future scholars and students. It’s time to create change!”
    Found via Info-Commons.org:
    http://www.info-commons.org/blog/archives/000334.html

  8. From this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education: “NIH Invites Comment on Proposal Requiring Free Online Access to Research It Supports (sub. req’d.),” by Julie Basinger:

    The National Institutes of Health released a draft proposal late Friday that would require researchers who receive NIH grants to provide the agency with electronic copies of final reports on their study results, which would be posted online in a federal digital archive that is free to all.

    According to the proposal, researchers whose work is supported in whole or in part by NIH funds would need to make the final drafts of their reports available upon acceptance for publication. Within six months of a research study’s publication — or sooner if the publisher agreed — the NIH would post the information on PubMed Central, a digital archive maintained by the National Library of Medicine…

    But scientific publishers have complained about having a publishing model forced upon them. Since the House committee’s recommendation in July, they have lobbied Elias A. Zerhouni, the NIH’s director, arguing that an open-access model would threaten publishers’ ability to decide when and whether to make articles free (The Chronicle, September 1). They have also argued that such a model would cost them subscribers. That would cause professional societies and patient-advocacy groups to lose a major source of funds, the publishers said.

    Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, said on Monday that the NIH proposal is “not acceptable.” Most scientific journals already post articles on the Web, he said, and allow nonsubscribers to read them for a fee that can range from $5 to $30. Even so, he said, reposting the articles on PubMed Central “is an unnecessary expenditure of federal funds for a Web site that is redundant.”

    But supporters of the proposal said the NIH had made a concession to publishers by allowing the six-month delay between a study’s publication and its posting on PubMed Central. “People who need it right away will have to be subscribers” to the scientific journals, said Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College who is directing an open-access drive for a group called Public Knowledge. “It would be more in the public interest to provide immediate open access.”

    Even so, he called the NIH proposal “a very big step forward” in making study results available to a wide array of researchers, physicians, and patients who otherwise might not have access to the information because they cannot afford expensive subscriptions to scientific journals.

    Comments on the NIH proposal may be submitted on an NIH Web site.

    Should the National Endowment for the Humanities also make such a proposal?

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