January 21, 2004

I Also Froth

Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector has some great "frothing-at-the-mouth" thoughts on journal publication. There is nothing that stuns me more than the relative immobility or inertia of most academics on this subject. On libraries and digital publication in general, it might be right to blame the tools and be suspicious of the rush to digitize, but on this particular question, it’s absolutely insane to oppose a major transformation of how we produce journals.
Let me go over the relevant facts to doubly emphasize Dorothea’s observations.

1. Academics receive no monetary compensation for writing and publishing journal articles. Their only compensation is in the form of reputation capital, achieved when other academics read, circulate, cite and teach their article.

2. Academics generally receive no compensation for doing the work of peer review for journals (in constrast to peer reviewing books, which gets you a small honorarium in money or a larger one in books from the publisher).

3. The only costs involved in journal publication which require a publisher to handle are the actual printing and the costs of distribution, and possibly the cost to advertise or promote a new journal. There are no payments to authors and no payments to peer reviewers to consider.

4. All significant costs of journal publication can be eliminated by transferring the journal to electornic form. Journals published in electronic form have minimal costs associated with them—the only major cost being the maintenance of servers on which the journal is resident. A electronic journal that was syndicated to many sites would distribute this cost significantly. Possibly maintaining a searchable archive of back issues of the journal would have some extra cost.

5. Academics who give away their intellectual labor for free to publishers of journals are employees of institutions who are then forced to pay considerable sums to reacquire the fruits of their employees’ labor by buying back the journals from publishers. To add extra insult, the labor time necessary to write the journal articles is often supported by an additional outlay in the form of sabbatical and research support.

6. Electronic distribution of journal articles is a far more affordable and equitable way to circulate knowledge globally. The cost of access for an academic institution in the developing world is minimal—a single good Internet connection and some computers could buy access to every academic journal in the world if they were all available online. Subscribing to the same number of print journals costs incalculably more. If print journals are lost, destroyed or stolen, they are gone. If Internet access is lost for a time, the journals would be available again once it was restored.

7. Journal articles are generally short. Reading them on a computer monitor, or printing them out for reading, is at least tolerable.

8. There are now readily usable, easy, technical standards for the distribution of short digital publications that require no or minimal licensing—both html and pdf will do just fine, and articles written in standard word processors can be quickly transferred to either standard.

Stacked up against this, I can see only one argument that meaningfully favors the current universe of print journals, and that’s the relatively tangible permanence and inalterability of print. But if electronic journals maintained by the same volunteer networks of academics, with publishers cut entirely out of the loop, were maintained with steady protocols for backups and regular transfers to new storage media, and if published articles were “locked” from later changes and carefully date-authenticated to prevent Stalinist-type alterations of the intellectual record down the road, this concern is a non-issue.

I can see every reason in the world to oppose any precipitious move towards digitizing everything, and every reason to hold onto print culture overall and books in particular. However, it’s a crime to continue publishing academic journals in print form.

It’s staggeringly stupid in economic terms, and functionally unnecessary. Frankly, every academic institution in the world ought to make it a primary condition that any research done by faculty that is published in journal form must be published electronically, because any other form of publication imposes a double cost on a university or college. It pays coming and going.

If the compensation of publishing in journals or doing peer review is reputation capital, then academics are incredibly ill-served by relying on publishers who restrict the availability and circulation of journal publications. If you publish a journal article, you want it assigned in classes, you want it available for viewing by anyone and everyone at every hour of every day on any computer, you want it to be searchable. You don't want somebody to have to pay directly or indirectly through a library to get your article. The only restraint on circulation you want is that anyone using your work should have to acknowledge it, but there is no difference on this issue between electronic and print publication.

It’s also a socially unjust form of academic publication. My many colleagues who express copious concern about justice for the developing world or questions of global equity in academia ought to line up aggressively behind the digital publication and distribution of journals.

Everything about academic journals is easily migrated into digital form. There is no reason in the world not to do it, and do it right now.