open-access is the future: boycott locked-down academic journals
On one hand, I’m excited to announce that my article “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion, and Social Convergence” has been published in Convergence 14(1) (special issue edited by Henry Jenkins and Mark Deuze). On the other hand, I’m deeply depressed because I know that most of you will never read it. It is not because you aren’t interested (although many of you might not be), but because Sage is one of those archaic academic publishers who had decided to lock down its authors and their content behind heavy iron walls. Even if you read an early draft of my article in essay form, you’ll probably never get to read the cleaned up version. Nor will you get to see the cool articles on alternate reality gaming, crowd-sourcing, convergent mobile media, and video game modding that are also in this issue. That’s super depressing. I agreed to publish my piece at Sage for complicated reasons, but…
I vow that this is the last article that I will publish to which the public cannot get access. I am boycotting locked-down journals and I’d like to ask other academics to do the same.
For those outside of the academy, here’s a simplistic account of academic publishing. Academics publish articles in journals. Journals are valued by academic disciplines based on their perceived quality. To be successful (and achieve tenure), academics must publish in the journals that are valued in their discipline. Journals are published by academic publishers. Academics volunteer their time to peer review articles in these journals. Editors consider the reviews and decide which are to be published, which should be sent back to be revised and resubmitted, and which are to be rejected. For the most part, editors are unpaid volunteers (although some do get a stipend). Depending on the journal, the article is then sent to a professional copyeditor who is paid (but not all journals have copyeditors). Academic publishers then print the journal, sending it to all of its subscribers. Most subscribers are university libraries, but some individuals also subscribe. (To give you a sense of the economics, Convergence costs individuals $112 and institutions $515 for 4 issues a year.) Academic libraries also subscribe to the online version of the journals, but I don’t know how much that costs. Those who don’t have access to an academic library can pay to access these articles (a single article in Convergence can be purchased DRM-ified for one day at $15).
The economy around academic journals is crumbling. Libraries are running out of space to put the physical copies and money to subscribe to journals that are read by few so they make hard choices. Most academics cannot afford to buy the journal articles, either in print or as single copies so they rely on library access. The underground economy of articles is making another dent into the picture as scholars swap articles on the black market. “I’ll give you Jenkins if you give me Ito.” No one else is buying the journals because they are god-awful expensive and no one outside of a niche market knows what’s in them. To cope, most academic publishers are going psycho conservative. Digital copies of the articles have intense DRM protection, often with expiration dates and restrictions on saving/copying/printing. Authors must sign contracts vowing not to put the articles or even drafts online. (Sage embargoes all articles, allowing authors to post pre-prints on their site one year following publication, but not before.) Academic publishers try to restrict you from making copies for colleagues, let alone for classroom use.
I should probably be sympathetic to academic publishers. They are getting their lunch eaten and the lack of consistent revenue from journals makes it much harder for them to risk publishing academic books and they are panicked. Yet, frankly, I’m not humored. Producing a journal article is a lot of labor for scholars too. Editing a journal is a lot of labor for scholars too. In most cases, they do this for free. Academic publishers expect authors to do both for free because that’s how they achieve status. At the same time, they are for-profit entities that profit off of all of the free labor by academics. Some might argue that academics are paid by universities and this external labor is part of their university job. Perhaps, but then why should others be profiting off of it? Why not instead publish with open-access online-only journals produced as labors of love by communities of volunteer scholars (i.e. many open-access journals)? Oh, right. Because those aren’t the “respectable” journals because they don’t have a reputation or a history (of capitalizing off of the labor of academics). The result? Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine. If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them.
I think that this needs to change. The traditional model of journal publishing makes sense in an era where the only mechanism of distribution was paper. Paper publishing and distribution is expensive, and I’m not trying to dismiss this. Yet, in a digital era, the structures of publishing and distribution have changed; the costs have changed too. Open-access, online-only journals have four key costs: bandwidth, copyediting, marketing, and staffing costs. The latter is often irrelevant in fields where editors volunteer. It’s not clear that marketing is necessary or cannot be done for free. There are all sorts of possible funding models for bandwidth. This leaves copyediting.
I’d be sad to see some of the academic publishers go, but if they can’t evolve to figure out new market options, I have no interest in supporting their silencing practices. I think that scholars have a responsibility to make their work available as a public good. I believe that scholars should be valued for publishing influential material that can be consumed by anyone who might find it relevant to their interests. I believe that the product of our labor should be a public good. I do not believe that scholars should be encouraged to follow stupid rules for the sake of maintaining norms. Given that we do the bulk of the labor behind journals, I think that we can do it without academic publishers (provided that we can find hosting and copyediting).
Here’s what I’d like to propose:
- Tenured Faculty and Industry Scholars: Publish only in open-access journals. Unlike younger scholars, you don’t need the status markers because you’re tenured or in industry. Use that privilege to help build new journals that are not strapped to broken business models. Help build the reputations of new endeavors so that they can be viable publishing venues for future scholars. Publish in open-access journals, build a personal webpage and add your article there. You will get much more visibility, especially from younger scholars who turn to Google before they go to the library. I understand that a lot of you prefer to flout the rules of these journals and publish your articles on your website anyhow, even when you’re not allowed. The problem is that you’re not helping change the system for future generations.
- Disciplinary associations: Help open-access journals gain traction. Encourage your members to publish in them. Run competitions for best open-access publications and have senior scholars write committee letters for younger scholars whose articles are stupendous but published in non-traditional venues.
- Tenure committees: Recognize alternate venues and help the universities follow. Younger scholars can’t afford to publish in alternate venues until you begin recognizing the value of these publications. Help that process along and encourage your schools to do the same.
- Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you’re in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it’s the right thing to do. If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar or in a new field, there aren’t “respected” journals in your space and so you’re going to have to defend yourself anyhow. You might as well use this opportunity to make the valued journals the open-access ones.
- More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don’t need it.
- All scholars: Go out of your way to cite articles from open-access journals. One of the best ways for a journal to build its reputation is for its articles to be cited broadly. Read open-access journals and cite them. Oh, and while you’re at it, if you have a choice between citing a living author and a dead one, support the living one. The young scholar at Santa Cruz who’s extending Durkheim’s argument needs the cite more than Durkheim. Don’t forget that citations have politics and you can vote for the future with your choice of citations.
- All scholars: Start reviewing for open-access journals. Help make them respected. Guest edit to increase the quality. Build their reputations through your involvement. Make these your priority so that the closed journals are the ones struggling to get quality reviewers.
- Libraries: Begin subscribing to open-access journals and adding them to your catalogue. Many of you do this, but not all. Open-access journals are free. Adding them to databases does costs money but it helps scholarship and will help you ween off of expensive journals in the long run.
- Universities: Support your faculty in creating open-access journals on your domains. You are respected institutions. The bandwidth cost of hosting a journal would be much less than allowing your undergrads access YouTube. Support your faculty in creating university-branded journals and work with them to run conferences and do other activities to help build the reputation of such nascent publications. If it goes well, your brand will gain status too.
- Academic publishers: Wake up or get out. Silencing the voices of academics is unacceptable. You’re not helping scholarship or scholars. Find a new business model or leave the journal publishing world. You may be making money now, but your profits will not continue to grow using this current approach. Furthermore, I’d bank on academics shunning you within two generations. If you think more than a quarter ahead, you know that it’s the right thing to do for business as well as for the future of knowledge.
- Funding agencies: Require your grantees to publish in open-access journals or make a pre-print version available at a centralized source specific to their field. Many academic journals have exceptions for when funding agencies demand transparency. You can help your grantees and the academic world at large by backing their need to publish in an accessible manner. Furthermore, you could fund the publishing of special issues in return for them being open-access or help offset a publisher’s costs for a journal so that they can try to go open-access. (Tx Alex)
Making systemic change like this is hard and it will require every invested party to stand up for what they know is right and chip away at the old system. I don’t have tenure (and at this rate, no one will ever let me). I am a young punk scholar and I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right. Open-access is right. Heavy metal gates and expensive gatekeepers isn’t. It’s time for change to happen! To all of the academics out there, I beg you to help me make this change reality. Let’s stop being silenced by academic publishers.
Update on Feb 8: I’m not the only advocate for open-access, nor do I think that all scholars can boycott this form of publishing, but I do think that everyone can take steps to change the future of scholarship for the benefit of everyone. I strongly believe that those who will benefit the most from open-access publishing will be the academics who pour their heart and soul into their research and writing. My apologies to those who think that I am being condescending towards academics; this is not my intention. I just think that we’ve become too complacent and are perpetuating a system that hurts ourselves while allowing others to profit off of keeping us quiet and invisible.
When it comes to the trafficking of scholarship, much has changed since the journal system was created. There used to be a day when scholars would read everything new that was published in their field, or at least everything published in the top journals. The path to success was to publish in the top journals because it was assumed that everyone in the field would read it. For most fields, this is no longer the case. Young scholars are not indoctrinated into a field by reading every issue of the top journals. They are more likely to search for articles related to their topics of interest than to browse a few top journals. Being present in library catalogues and key databases is critical to visibility. Publishing in the top journals still increases one’s likelihood of visibility and citation, but it’s more about status now.
Technology changes the status quo. Thanks to increased search, scholars have an easier time finding material relevant to their needs, provided that it is catalogued. Through the cataloguing of citations, it’s easier to follow the web of article networks. While we’re not entirely there, the options for visibility have changed. This is especially true for interdisciplinary scholars who don’t have a home set of journals. The flow of their scholarship looks very different than the flow of traditional fields with a hierarchy of publishing venues. While innovations in search change the information landscape, access is the missing component. And frankly, I think we’re moving backwards on this one.
I love academic scholarship; my frustration with academic publishing has to do with equality, access, and the meaning of a public good. One of my critics is correct – this is about transparency and making certain that those who want to engage with scholarship can. I don’t think that academics should necessarily be writing for public audiences, but I do think that their work should be publicly accessible.
One of the reasons that I push for open-access journals instead of just letting people put pre-prints online (the publicly accessibly alternative) is because open-access journals are catalogued and search-friendly. It’s a lot easier to find articles in open-access than it is to find them scattered across the web. I know there databases that allow people to add their pre-prints, but this is not done automatically and that’s why I think that it’s less ideal.
There’s a lot to be said about top journals. They are published regularly. They are more likely to attract top reviewers and top editors who are careful about what goes into the journal. They have a higher rate of submission, allowing them to be picky. They are more likely to be catalogued by libraries. They infer status at every level and they make it a lot easier to assess the claims made by the scholars. I think that all of this is important and I understand why lots of scholars want to stand by this system. But, I strongly believe that we can have top journals without restraining ourselves to locked-down publication models. I don’t think that the two have to go hand-in-hand, but I do acknowledge that moving towards a new system without the support of the traditional academic publishers who profit off of the locked-down model will be extremely bumpy. When I submitted the article that prompted this post, I thought that I could convince Sage that this was the right thing to do. I couldn’t. It would be soooo much easier with the help of publishers and part of me still hopes that they’ll see the light, but I came to the frustrating conclusion that this is unlikely and that the only path is to route around them. I’m reminded of John Gilmore’s quote: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” I see locked-down journals as a form of censorship.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe academic publishers will lead the media industry into a new era. Maybe they’ll realize that their business model is outdated and develop new ones. Maybe they’ll change their publishing and distribution strategy so as to make open-access viable (especially given that the libraries would love to move away from physical journals and pay-per-print is viable for those who want a bound version). This would make me ecstatic and I would happily volunteer to review for any traditional publisher who decides to go open-access. But I can’t stand by and watch another generation of scholarship get locked down. It simply isn’t right.
In light of the increased attention this entry has received and some of the confusion people had with what I said, I modified some of the content of this post. I did not edit out the things that people took offense to so that this would stay on public record.
For those interested in pursuing this topic, please read Peter Suber’s Six things that researchers need to know about open access. This includes a fantastic collection of links on open-access alternatives. For those of you in the natural sciences, be proud: the The Public Library of Science is a great open-access resource filled with great scholarship.