It’s time for serious change in scholarly publishing. In fact a revolution is already under way, it just hasn’t arrived in political science yet. Here’s why we should bring the budding Academic Spring to the humanities and the social sciences.
First the cause of the rebellion: the public is paying several times for research that is then not made available to the public for free. — First the taxpayer is paying our salary, at least partly; then the taxpayer is footing the bill for some of the grants that allow us to publish; third the taxpayer is indirectly funding our libraries to buy back the stuff that we write; and citizens, if you like, are paying for their children to get into our universities in order to be able to read scholarly literature in that library. It doesn’t make sense. Publicly funded research wants to be free. No wonder the system is beginning to crumble, as aptly covered by the Economist and the Guardian.
What needs to change? — Stop charging the reader for articles, and stop printing them. Doing both at once has the potential to improve scholarly debate, and in unexpected ways.
Before making the case for change, let’s quickly consider what should not change. Some of the core features of the current system are fundamentally sound. Consider three of them.
The peer-review process, even if flawed in several ways, remains a powerful and tested system that ensures quality. What’s often slowing down publication is not the peer-review process, but an outdated publishing model. In the case of one of my articles, the peer-reviewers turned around the text in four days (ok, that’s exceptional) — but then it took the journal another 18 months to get it published.
Articles also should remain static and stable, as if printed on paper, not degenerate into websites or posts. Academic texts, obviously, should continue to be professionally copy-edited; of course they should continue to have a standardized DOI number; and they should still have all the things we appreciate about print, like pagination, embedded graphs and formulas, aesthetic appeal, layout, and proper typesetting. PDFs, today’s de-facto standard, are already providing all this and should continue to do so.
Finally not all magazines will stop printing, nor should they. There’s specialized, work-related reading, and there’s fun and luxury reading. The stuff you read on the sunny terrace with your feet up and a cup of coffee, say The New York Review of Books or the Wilson Quarterly, should remain paper-based. But how many people read Terrorism and Political Violence to a glass of red wine and Bach?
You’ve probably heard the usual arguments: open-access means more readers, more transparency, more criticism by peers, therefore more quality-control, faster feedback, and more global justice because poor countries (and poor universities) can access research more easily, and therefore provide better education. These arguments are pretty powerful already. The Wellcome Trust took action, and the UK government as well. But for authors and students, there are even more arguments.
Academic publishing can take a clue or two from blogs and social media. Post (or tweet) frequently, add a personal touch now and then, and your readership will skyrocket. If you apply this logic to academic publishing, the possibilities are amazing. Bear with me.
First, single journals could publish more. Currently the number of peer-reviewed articles published by academic journals is kept artificially low by the outdated idea of having just three or four or six hardbound paper copies per year. Each print issue can only fit a certain number of texts, so even those published in online-first schemes are ultimately just queuing up for future print issues, thus clogging the system. Abolish the bottleneck of the obsolete print issue that nobody reads in print any more anyway, and more articles can be published faster.
Second, single journals would get more readers. If more content — peer-reviewed, quality-controlled, in proper PDFs — is coming online for free, more people would go look more often. Now, why not think outside the box, and get the scholars to add a personal note on the journal’s website about how they did the research, what the difficulties were, an anecdote from the field, and then post this as a short teaser when the article comes out — even more readers would come and click through to the actual research paper.
Third, single journals could become broader. As a result of more content and more readers, some journals could perhaps overcome their narrow specializations. A given journal has to publish a certain number of articles that apply a given theory or methodology per year, just to keep its reputation among highly specialized academic communities. Space constraints therefore result in more specialization. But if a journal can serve several specialized communities with more content at the same time, the boundaries between sub-debates and sub-fields could become more permeable. That would be a hugely valuable service for the academy, and for the public.
“But publishing still costs money,” you will say. Yes it does. But, first, not as much as the existing publishing empires are charging — no other than the Economist recently called their business model a “licence to print money” (Elsevier’s 2011 profit was £768m). Even Harvard said it could no longer afford the rising prices.
Secondly, there are better business models than the current one which rips off the public several times at once. The Public Library of Science (PLoS), a foundation that publishes a number of leading science journals, is funded mainly through fees by the author. That may sound strange at first glance to some, but if you think about it the model is far superior. Third models exist as well.
And then: why not be really innovative? Journals could still sell printed matter, for instance a print-on-demand version of articles that the reader could individually select and order, say for single articles or combined pieces from different journals. Think a thematic special issue. And why not offer a truly attractive print issue for subscription, say, a journal’s top-dozen most-downloaded, or most-cited, articles per year in one binding? That would be a must-read for students and scholars alike. I would subscribe to a few of such “best-of” issues, and I’m not subscribing to any scholarly print journal now.
So, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis: it’s springtime. Scholarly knowledge wants to be free. The lettered masses are gathering, icepicks in hand, eagerly squinting beyond the paywall, up to the fortified ivory tower, impatiently asking, What are your suggestions for reform?
The options are either serious reform or creeping revolution — it’s only a question of time. Ok, tenured professors will probably not smash your windows with bricks. But remember Stevan Harnad’s “Subversive Proposal“? The Berlin Declaration? Now even Harvard University is asking scholars to consider resigning from editorial boards. Expect more.