Monday, April 30, 2012

Will Harvard Lead the Open-Source Revolution?

Without sounding too cynical about it, academic publishing is complete horse shit. Everything about the model these publishers use is completely bankrupt in both the literal and metaphorical senses. To begin with, to even be considered for publication in an academic journal, you have to pay them anywhere from $50-100 (again, just to read your shit in the first place). And then, after you jump through a thousand hoops for them, if you're lucky enough to be accepted, you have to sign over all copyright claims to your work. So you're quite literally paying someone to take your work away from you. And this is not even to get into the supposedly "blind" review systems that somehow always end up publishing the same select group of people, whether their work merits it or not.

But the funniest, most depressing part of this whole model, is that after you've paid a journal to steal your work from you, they turn around a charge simply exorbitant rates to libraries (and any individual foolish enough to subscribe themselves, but I'm guessing this never happens) for between 2-4 issues a year. And lest you think an impoverished communist such as myself has a skewed sense of what constitutes exorbitant subscription fees for a journal that comes out between 2 and 4 times a year and charges everyone who ever submits to it, here's an example:

The American Journal of Sociology (one of the big two journals in my field) puts out four issues a year. To submit an article for consideration (of which, only a tiny percentage are ever published after being reviewed *for free* by other desperate academics), it costs $30. If you as an individual want to subscribe to it, it will cost you 66 dollars a year. For four issues. Of one journal. But if a library wants access to it (and this is how almost all academics access journals, because you could never afford access to even a tiny sliver of journals at these prices), it will cost that institution $770/year.

You might be able to surmise already that such costs add up pretty quickly, especially when you consider there are at least 2 dozens journals just within sociology that any decent research library would need to subscribe to. Multiply this by an increasingly large number of fields at any university (and the fact that journals within the physical sciences are often even more expensive), and you can pretty easily see this system is not entirely sound. In fact, last week the Harvard Library's Faculty Advisory Council issued a public statement saying Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, can no longer afford its journal subscriptions.

These folks even went so far as to encourage faculty and students at Harvard to start working with open-source journals, publications that do not operate on such an arcane and asinine funding system, but do not yet have even a sliver of the prestige of the traditional journals. And while this is unlikely to happen over night, when one of the world's premiere university makes a call for more open-source publishing, it certainly points in the right direction.

What really remains to be seen is whether a form of publishing that emphasizes creating and sharing important knowledge will ever be able to supplant the system that emphasizes profit creation and the suppression of all but a few voices. Funny thing is that you think the academic world would strongly prefer one of these models, but entrenched interests, etc, etc.

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