Academic Publishing

Academic publishing is an absurd mess

Posted by fiddlemath on August 30, 2011

Academic journals are an absurd mess. Scholars send their papers to top journals in the hope of getting read by the peers; scholars read the top journals to see the best current research in their field. However, scholars submitting their work generally relinquish their copyright to that journal, and the journal subsequently charges prohibitively high prices for anyone seeking to peruse that work.

Suppose that publishing in a certain journal is high-reputation, by some historical accident. Everyone in that field will then try to submit their papers to that journal, and thus that journal gets to pick the best papers, and thus that journal maintains its high reputation. Publishing work elsewhere will then be considered a lesser achievement, because the author would have clearly put it in the high-reputation journal if the author’s work was good enough. Thus, work in other journals is respected less. The reputation of high-status journals is quite stable. Still, plenty of scholars find closed-access journals troubling; there certainly remains some idealism among academics. Why, then, do they trap themselves in a cycle that they help perpetuate?

While the Guardian article above wants governments to intervene, that seems to me like a brittle solution. So long as publication is controlled by for-profit bodies that do not have the interests of their academic fields at heart, publishers will have incentives to work around whatever regulations are put in place – or lobby against them, or lobby loopholes into them.

On the other hand, almost every researcher in computer science flaunts copyright, and posts their papers on their own websites. The practice is so pervasive that when I want to find a specific paper, I usually search for the author’s website first, before I try accessing the journal – even thouggh I have the expensive university access to those journals. (In CS they’re usually conference proceedings instead of journals, but the same point holds.)

In fact, author home pages are a vastly better mechanism for finding research than journals or conference proceedings are, because they can carry far more information. Authors will often have more up-to-date versions of their research than the journal version does. Sometimes they have code or interactive demos. Often they put their later, related work in the same place, which is oftern clearer or more useful.

Other fields could make this shift too, subfield by subfield and journal audience by journal audience. I have this lovely vision of researchers at some conference, either between talks or over evening drinks, having this discussion – and realizing that if they could convince the crowd within 100 feet of themselves, they could shift that entire subfield’s journal-of-choice to a freely-operated, open-access journal. In fact, there already exists free journal-management software for exactly this purpose. This should be easy to do!

Moving individual fields and subfields to totally-free, totally-open journals is now just a matter of memtic engineering. Even if you have absolutely no financial support from a university, you can pay the total operating costs of an online, open-access journal for about one or two percent of the price of one subscription to an expensive academic journal now.

So, academics, consider: what could be the global value of opening the journals of your specialty? If you got the scholars you know to talk to the scholars they know, and so on, could you make this happen?

Everyone else: is anyone good at memetic engineering? This looks to me to now be almost entirely a matter of advertising. Just convince lots of people that open-access academic journals are sane, and that the current status quo is madness, and this problem is mostly solved. Any ideas?