Three articles/blogs/news items about academic journal publishing hit my inbox in the 24 hours prior to a guest lecture for Seattle University on the topic of….academic journal publishing. The primary mission of academic journals is – or should be – the dissemination of new knowledge and thus the advancement of a field or discipline. The secondary echo effects of the journal publishing process, as any tenure-track faculty member will tell you, are the employment benefits that can accrue from publishing in peer-reviewed journals: recruitment, promotion, tenure, enhanced reputation, and so on. And there are other less tangible externalities such as the opportunity to engage with new collaborators and more.
The first of the three articles was from the Australian blog Economists Talk Art. In it, the authors posit that knowledge is not a private good (although treated as such by academic publishers who charge exorbitant journal subscription fees to libraries and others), nor is it a public good (although often thought of as such by the scholars who receive no direct compensation for the publication of their work), but rather a club good. Club goods are excludable, but non-rivalrous. Club goods are things like private parks, satellite tv, or, obviously, club membership privileges. This begins to make sense when we consider the “clubby” atmosphere of academic conferences and learned societies; only members of the “Society for the Study of Some Really Specialized Topic” end up reading the “Journal of the Really Specialized Topic,” plus a few others who may have a tangential interest in the “Really Specialized Topic” because it intersects with their own research on “Another Specialized Topic.” I was thinking about this clubbiness of academic societies when an opinion piece suggesting that the peer review process be separated from the publication process and put in the hands of just such learned societies reached my in box from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In this model, authors would submit their work to one or more of the professional societies most appropriate for that work. The societies would oversee the peer review and give accepted works an imprimatur. Authors could then shop their works with imprimaturs to different publishers, which would be in the business of dissemination rather than evaluation.
Like most academics, I belong to several such societies and have even served on the boards of them. Thus I can attest that they do indeed function as clubs, which has both positive and negative consequences. Like many nonprofit organizations, such societies may have governance structures that are resistant to change and innovation. This would not be an environment conducive to the review of the most cutting edge research. It may also come as no surprise that academic politics sometimes get in the way of the advancement of knowledge in such groups. Although many of the same people who serve as reviewers of journal manuscripts also serve on the committees of learned societies, putting the review of the newest, most experimental writing (on any topic) in the hands of a potentially large organization is akin to asking an ocean liner to steer the rapids when a raft would actually be the better choice.
Consider instead that scientific knowledge is neither a private good, nor a public good, nor a club good, but rather a commons, self-governed by those with knowledge of the “Really Specialized Topic.” (We published an article related to this topic in Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, Pave’s free, open-access peer-reviewed journal on a really specialized topic). The knowledge is already governed as a commons through the review process: we who know something about a specialized topic act as the pro bono gatekeepers of the commons, keeping out the work that would pollute the knowledge commons and supporting the development of the ideas (through the reviewers’ comments) that help make the published material in the commons the highest quality for the benefit of all.
This brings me to the third of the three articles: the news that SSRN, the Social Science Research Network, a free repository of pre-publication working papers, had been sold to Elsevier, one of the largest for-profit academic journal publishers. For years, SSRN had treated knowledge as a public good; Elsevier most definitely treats it as a private good and profits from its excludability. This new arrangement will probably not turn out well. I, for one, will no longer post my works-in-progress on SSRN and am confident that I am not alone in making that decision. Why should Elsevier profit from what should be open access to knowledge?
I agree with The Chronicle’s Michael Satlow that we need a new business model for academic publishing. Perhaps we can use the commons of the internet to figure out what that should be. In the meantime, I will continue to publish and co-edit a journal that is free, open access, and rigorously peer-reviewed by commons stakeholders.