Everyone knows the publishing industry is made up of dinosaurs, but academic publishing is the Brontosaurus. Academic journals are slow, expensive, inaccessible and non-transparent. And there’s absolutely no reason they need to exist anymore.
Most clearly, there’s no technical reason for printed academic journals. And while traditional journals are increasingly realizing this and going online, they are still published by traditional academic presses who need to somehow pay for themselves, so they charge exorbitant prices to individuals and libraries, and keep their journals in closed formats such as DRM-protected PDF files.
This might be justified if publishers were necessary to produce a journal, but they’re not. Editors of academic journals basically work for free and a journal is lucky if they can afford to hire a part-time managing editor. Neither authors or reviewers are paid either. In other words, the content is produced, reviewed, edited and handed over, at very little cost, to publishers (and often the academic associations who sponsor the journal) who turn around and sell the journals back, at very high prices, to the very people producing the content in the first place.
So what’s the alternative? An obvious first step would be to ditch the publishers and go online only. The web is a vastly superior distribution platform for most academic work. You can search a web page, for example. Copy and paste quotations. Easily convert HTML to any other format you prefer for reading—whether that’s reading on your Kindle or printing out a hard copy on dead trees. (And while I’m at it, let’s ditch the PDF in favor of the much more lightweight and flexible HTML. Online-only journals are often still obsessed with looking like print journals, for some reason.)
And, of course, by going online you save the cost involved in printing and distributing paper copies. And with that the need for academic publishers.
There are many journals that are free and online already. This isn’t a new idea: see open access journals. The problem is that the most prestigious journals are not among them. Association sponsored journals are still in print because the associations need them to be in order to fund themselves. And the really big name journals are actually profitable and pay for most of the other journals, which lose money. As long as the most prestigious journals are print journals, free online journals won’t truly take off.
But it’s not so much the “print” part that’s the problem. If any of the big name journals went online-only tomorrow—and they’re looking into it—they would still be distributed through publishers who will want to lock down the distribution channels so they can continue to make money. Publishing online for traditional publishers is actually expensive because they need to recover the revenue they’re accustomed to getting from print editions, so they have to invest in all sorts of ugly, draconian DRM schemes and restrictive licensing practices.
So even if every new journal out there was online only, and a good proportion of the less profitable journals converted to online open access journals, you’d still have an elite core of journals keeping the journal ecosystem expensive and inaccessible. There are too many players—publishers and associations—whose well-being depend on these journals to exist.
In the absence of a print product, why do we need journals at all? There are a bunch of reasons you need entities like journals, with editors and reviewers. But is there any reason—aside from the occasional themed “special issues”—where the output of the peer review and editorial process needs to be monthly or bimonthly collections of articles organized like a book, with volume, issue and page numbers and a table of contents, all squeezed into discrete “issues”?
Here’s an alternative system that I think would work much better:
Imagine an online publishing system—not unlike a blog—where when you’re ready to share your work, you simply publish it to a website. (Ideally this would even be built into the word processor/text editor you write in: imagine a single “publish” button.) Your document shows up on a website, configured specifically for easy reading: a simple layout perfect for reading on a variety of devices or for printing.
Every academic would publish their work to a website just like this: individuals or institutions could host their own instances of the software.
There would be some sort of common identity management (OpenID maybe) built in to the system. If you only want a few people (individuals or institutions) to have access to early drafts, there’s an easy way to specify that.
This system would have a versioning system built-in: each published version would be labeled and scrolling back through previous versions would be easy.
Some sort of commenting/discussion system would be built-in as well. Obviously.
In other words, it would do pretty much what WordPress or Drupal can now do out of the box, only have some specific tweaks and optimizations for academic work. (In fact, such a system could be implemented through a WordPress plugin and/or theme!)
Now imagine the following: you no longer submit manuscripts to journals. At least not like you do now. “Journals” are replaced with a system of organizations of some sort that manage the peer review process and lend their seal of approval to work they find of high quality. You grant them access to your article, and the “journal” coordinates finding expert reviewers for your work and gives you feedback right there on your website: including reviewer comments and including final judgments like “reject”, “revise and resubmit” or, of course, “accepted”. An accepted article would be a seal of approval, vouching for the quality of your work, not a promise to publish in some collection.
Some interesting potential consequences of a system like this:
Instead of keeping all of their work secret to respect the demands of publishers, academics could do all of their writing in public. Individual academics would be self-publishers and would own their own copyright on everything they do. “Journals” would no longer publish anything. (I’ll keep calling them journals though as I haven’t thought of a better name yet.) Journals would only do the one thing they do well: manage the peer review system and put their authority and reputations behind the work that they feel is the best in the field.
Without the constraints of printing paper issues of a limited size, there’d be the risk of certain journals accepting everything. Which is fine: this would diminish the reputation of these journals and the more selective journals who only certify the best articles would improve their reputations over time.
Since you’re no longer really submitting to a specific journal, would it be possible to have multiple journals “accept” the same article? Possibly. And that seems weird but has some cool possibilities as well: a lot of times really important, influential articles show up in smaller journals and are only read within a small subfield, though they may deserve a bigger audience. The ability of the more selective, generalist journals to add their seal of approval to articles that others have already accepted could be a good thing.
Would the peer review process be public as well? For example, would the fact that some journal rejected your article, and the comments from reviewers, be public (if still anonymous) as well? This could go either way, but I think this would be a good thing as well.
What about the fact that you can change stuff so easily online? Would people keep going back and correcting errors after publication? This is why a good versioning system is key: a journal would review and accept a particular revision of an article and that information would be included with their decision. (If you’re worried about the ability of authors to manipulate this, source code management software like git actually uses a SHA1 hash of the contents of the files to name the revision. This acts as an integrity check on the data in any given revision. Something like this could be used to ensure that any given revision of a document always refers to the same document.)
Now maybe, as I discussed in the first half of this post, just moving the traditional journals online would be good enough. But there’s a lot I like about this bolder idea. It could have the best of the web as a publishing platform—flexibility, accessibility and affordability—but maintain the quality control of the traditional journal system. There are probably some obvious shortcomings I haven’t thought of or have underestimated (Without the constraints of actually publishing something, would we just end up with a mess of thousands of journals allowing no one to find anything?), but it’s still a worthwhile thought experiment. Academics have such little control over our publishing system now. It seems to run on pure inertia, and, in my opinion, doesn’t seem to work in favor of the interests of most academics.