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?