Free everything??

by Henry on March 12, 2008

My previous post has attracted some comments about the academic publishing model, why it is that academics submit to commercial journals that make (in many cases very substantial) profits from publishing their pieces and so on. This broad set of issues has been debated here and on other sites over the last few years. I’d like to throw out a more focused question, aimed primarily at the academics among our readers (although other commenters should feel free to chime in, as always). Starting from the assumption that most of you submit most or all of your work to traditional journals: what would it take for you to switch to publishing through other means (specifically, free-access online paper repositories)???

My own switching requirements (which I imagine are shared by some but not all of you) would be twofold. First – that any alternative means of dissemination provide some sort of credentialling that is acceptable for purposes of internal review. While most of us do our research because we are interested in our topics and think that they are independently worthwhile, we also do it because we would like to keep our jobs (some might also or instead want to find better jobs elsewhere). Second – that the alternative mechanism provide some analogue to the kinds of focused criticism that we get (when we are lucky) from anonymous reviewers. This not only allows for gatekeeping and quality control on the aggregate level, but also typically leads to pretty substantial improvements in individual papers when the reviewers are on target. Obviously, some bad goes along with this system (the implicit incentives of journal publication make academics less likely to take risks and write on out-in-left-field topics than they might in an ideal world), but it’s hard to see how getting rid of it altogether would be a good thing.

If there were a system that provided these two desiderata for social scientists, I’d jump ship in a heartbeat – on every other reasonable criterion I can think of (perhaps there are some that I am missing) open systems are likely to beat closed ones. Obviously there are some very important economic issues too – arXiv, which is the closest analogue to such a system that I can think of, costs a fair bit of money to keep going. But it seems to me that the basic question of what we should want (or, more precisely, what we would absolutely need; wants are potentially infinite) in such a system should be asked before we ask how it should be funded. So what are the benefits and problems of such a system from your perspective, and what would it take to get you to jump over?

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Colin Farrelly 03.12.08 at 10:25 pm

Many new science journals (e.g. like PLOS) have an “open-access” policy, and maybe (with time) this trend will catch on with journals in the humanities and social sciences.

Springer, for example, allows authors to pursue an “open choice” option for their journals (see So when I recently had a paper come out in the Journal of Value Inquiry I could have chosen the open access policy. Problem was I didn’t have $3000 in hand to foot the bill myself! For those who can rely on generous institutional support for such fees this system might work well. But for those of us who cannot, our work will not be as accessible. So there are pros and cons of different kinds at play here.



Mikhail 03.12.08 at 10:26 pm

I would add another criterion to the two you propose (credentialling and peer review). Namely – focus. Most academic journals are focused on their own niche which means your work gets straight to the people who might be most interested in it, most likely to provide feedback, or most likely to need its results. With a large-scale system this benefit disappears – no one has time to sift through thousands of new publications in search of what might be relevant. Of course, this has a flip side – general public usually doesn’t read specialized journals, so disseminating in a centralized repository might lead to a wider coverage, but not a more *relevant* one. So, I’m not sure open alternatives are easy to set up and fund – they’d essentially have to mimic existing academic ones, but just be free and accessible. In my opinion it’s better to redirect the funding to existing journals to make them free for distribution electronically…


F 03.12.08 at 10:28 pm

There would have to be one requirement above all others: That people actually read it.

It may not be ideal, but established journals are the quickest way to establish quality, partially because of peer review and partially because of social (and therefore scientific) hierarchy. Perhaps open journals could eventually supplant this, but it would take a long time and a lot of people switching.


Neil 03.12.08 at 10:47 pm

It is interesting to reflect on the limited success of *Philosopher’s Imprint* and the *Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy*, both open access refereed publications. I think the explanation is game theoretical: for a journal to be sufficiently prestigious to attract the best people, they must not only have low acceptance rates, they must actually have a reputation for publishing the best people. This sets off a vicious circle. The best people are unwilling to send their best work to these journals, rather than obvious competitors, until the reputational problem is solved. PI and JESP might yet succeed: they have both responded by publishing very little, so as to avoid filling out the issues with lower quality material. But the experiment is now several years old, and there are reasons for scepticism.


Dylan Thurston 03.12.08 at 10:50 pm

There would have to be one requirement above all others: That people actually read it.

People actually read journals? News to me… It’s been a long time since I’ve browsed a journal in my field (topology) in mathematics. The general math journals can be good to browse, but by the time a result I care about appears in a journal, I certainly already know about it. I suspect this varies by discipline, but I suspect it’s similar in any field with good electronic distribution of results.


Brian Weatherson 03.12.08 at 10:52 pm

I actually don’t care a lot about the second criteria Henry mentions. I can’t remember one time since I started blogging that I got better feedback from referees than from blog readers.

Having said that, my second criteria would be guaranteed permanence. I worry a lot that online journals won’t survive indefinitely. The best ones (e.g. the ones Neil mentioned) have done a lot to set this worry aside, but I think it’s something that has to be addressed.


Matt 03.12.08 at 10:58 pm

Neil- Both Philosophers Imprint and JESP have published quite a few papers both by people that anyone would consider among the “best” in their fields (Kit Fine, Richard Heck, Peter Godfrey-Smith in PI, Joseph Raz, John Gardner in JESP) and some clear “up-and-commers” (Brian Weatherson, Susanne Siegel, etc. in PI, Ulrike Heur, etc. in JESP) so it seems that getting top people hasn’t been _their_ problem. (I don’t know if some of these are semi-solicited, as is the case with many new journals.) I suspect that some people’s worry is that they don’t know how well _their institution_ will take such publication, as well as a worry as to whether they will last. (The old Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy had some interesting papers but seems to have disappeared completely, as far as I can tell.)


christian h. 03.12.08 at 11:04 pm

There’s quite a good article about the “author-pay” method of journal financing that Colin mentioned in Notices of the AMS, at least as it pertains to mathematics. In short: not a good idea, certainly not outside the large-grant sciences, but questionable even then.

In mathematics, at least, as Dylan wrote, basically all new papers are accessible electronically; the problem of journal costs isn’t so much public access, as it is library budgets. And that problem can be alleviated by pressuring publishers, or switching to societal and university presses.


Neil 03.12.08 at 11:15 pm

Matt, I am speaking for myself. My main reason for not submitting the very few papers I write that I think might be accepted by PI (I have actually published in JESP) is that I think that at my career stage it would be better to have a paper published in one of the traditional top 5 than in PI, and my reason for thinking this is that I believe my peers will think better of the publication. Of course, I could be wrong about this. I am well aware that excellent people have published in PI, but (with some exceptions) I think that they have given it their second best work. Certainly my (entirely anecdotal) sense is that the work is not getting cited as much as you would expect, compared to the traditional top 5, and since philosophy is quick to embrace technology, I suspect that the quality of the work explains this fact.


Randolph Fritz 03.12.08 at 11:46 pm

A serious effort at archiving, I think, is also important–the many copies of paper journals provide a very good archive, and I’d hate to see that protection lost.

But, would running an on-line journal be that expensive, really? It’s enormously cheaper than print publication. Surely the academic research societies could find funds, if they worked at it?


jlr 03.12.08 at 11:49 pm

I’m not really an academic, and I only have a single refereed publication, but I can say that in the field that I work in professionally, computer science, some sort of sea change happened about a decade ago. I’m not sure how it came about, but almost all the major publishers of refereed journals and conference proceedings, except those of the major professional societies (IEEE and ACM), now allow authors to freely distribute preprints with no restrictions, the result being that a very large proportion of all important research in CS from the last decade is available from the authors websites (unless they are lazy or just don’t care), or from CiteSeer which aggregates articles and citations.


Matt 03.12.08 at 11:51 pm

Neil- I didn’t mean to leave you out of the “good” group! I certainly understand your position- it’s one I probably hold, too, though I’m much earlier career than you. I wonder, though, if there isn’t a lot more hesitation about new technology/methods among philosophers than you think- many don’t have papers up on their web pages (or even have them), have no idea what blogs are, etc. It’s surprising but true. Beyond that, I expect the problems faced by both PI and JESP are more due to being new than being electronic, where it seems to take quite a while for any new journal, no matter what it’s form, to become established as “good”. I can’t say I’m sure, though. (It’s also harder to cite both JESP and PI than normal papers, w/ PI being worse, it seems to me, though I don’t know how much of a problem that is.) If both last a few more years at their current pace I’d expect them to be well established. (Actually, both publish a bit slowly, especially given they don’t have a “publication” schedule- that might also be a problem.)


F 03.13.08 at 12:30 am


Yes, people read journals. Every time I publish something, I get numerous emails within days of publication. There are a lot of people who don’t read journals, but I’m under the impression it’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they have no time.

I’ll admit that I don’t care especially strongly about open access. For those few people who I would like to read my work who do not have access to journals, there are several ways to get that information (local University library, reprints on my website, etc.)


Sherman Dorn 03.13.08 at 12:39 am

I’ve written about the issues on my own blog, but I think the current model stems from the organization of the work. We can have something else, but we need to address both the economics of editing (I run a zero-cost journal, or rather a “cost out of the editor’s hide” journal) and also the reputational market.


vivian 03.13.08 at 12:44 am

What might get it to take off would be if the top professional societies committed to put their journals on open-access, or even one-year delayed open-access. They’re not operating to make a profit (well, the ones I know about aren’t), they’re there to serve the members. Their journals are prestigious and well-read and well-cited, so their influence could tip the balance for the tenure-aspiring.


vivian 03.13.08 at 12:50 am

(whoops – the danger of reading CT from the top down is, I just saw in the previous post that rather a lot of top professional society journals are free on JSTOR. Thus I revise my comment: Open access is coming, slowly but accelerating. Five years, maybe less, before the publishers react sensibly (flailing could begin anytime).


Jonny 03.13.08 at 12:56 am

I do understand the desire to publish in journals that provide a decent feedback within the field (assuming that said paper is any good!) as well as the occasionally useful peer review. At the same time I do have a rather burgeoning dislike of a habit within academia to close down debate by arguing that there are only certain acceptable places where discussion can happen. I think the difficulty for those outside institutions to access some material is a symptom of this attitude. The same goes for an often instinctive and unwise dismissal of the internet.

Still, as a UK academic in the Humanities / Social Sciences (American Politics / History) the ONLY requirement I would have is that whatever ‘journal’ I would be published in is accepted for the Research Assessment Exercise, or whatever asanine process is brought in next time around. Of course such an attitude from a new (ish) academic such as myself is proof as to why the RAE is such a worthwhile process! Sigh.


SG 03.13.08 at 2:07 am

I think it’s already available in the medical world – BioMed Central is a recent open access publishing model which I have used. I prefer it to the old model, which I think is a rort, so I have used it a bit. It has other benefits too – it seems to be quicker and more efficient to get published, particularly in public health (where some of the traditional journals are quite slow). I don’t know how much people read it, but the area I publish in (illicit drugs) is so closed and self referential that it doesn’t really matter. In fact I would argue that in some fields “focus” (as one commenter above put it) is tending to become a negative aspect of the journal publishing world. Maybe online publishing will enable a bit more mixing up of ideas, as a side benefit.

I’m interested to see if the open access model is going to last though. I wonder if advertising-based funding models are going to be the next bubble, which will burst with terrible consequences for internet-based exchange of ideas.


Hugh 03.13.08 at 2:11 am

As a grad student and former staff researcher, one major criterion has been:

will the senior scientist with whom I am inevitably co-authoring be willing to publish in an alternative medium, or will they think that my even raising the idea is a sign that I lack seriousness?


Emma 03.13.08 at 3:32 am

It’s very easy and cheap to start up and publish a peer-reviewed online journal using, say, Open Journal System, which is what my new venture uses. The hard part is persuading people to review for you (discussed elsewhere on CT) and persuading people to write for you. The new journal I’m editing is designed to provide peer-reviewed publication for material to be published also on a website that is not recognised by the academic productivity measures in Australia, as an inducement for academic historians to write for the project. But I’ve been surprised by how easy it is to manage, and how helpful people have been. We have semi-solicited contributions, as many new journals do, but I can see it taking on a life of its own. Our writers retain their own copyright, merely licensing to us, which is a much bigger thing for them than they seem to realise.
As far as readership goes, one good aspect of an e-journal is that readers, reviewers, contributors and friends can easily be notified of a new issue, and tend to follow up. Our readership is also easily measured by the number of downloads.
I really can’t see why more academics don’t take this into their own hands. If I were in the academic publishing-for-profit business, I’d be scared.


antirealist 03.13.08 at 3:36 am

#16: Those “top professional society journals” on JSTOR are not free, just accessible to non-affiliated individuals for a fee.


Douglas Knight 03.13.08 at 5:16 am

Since reputation is a zero-sum game, be explicit about whence a journal steals reputation! Editorial boards do sometimes resign en masse to start new journals. Do such journals have more success with reputation than brand new (open access, etc) journals?


Sortition 03.13.08 at 5:32 am

And while we’re on the topic of toppling existing academic power structures, why not consider doing away with the most sacred one of all?


Josh Jones 03.13.08 at 5:38 am

Hi Henry,

I’ve been following the discussion of Open-Access (OA) Publishing for about the past month or so, ever since Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in favor of an OA mandate.

For any academics (or, anyone who is interested), I recommend joining the “American Scientist Open Access Forum” listserve, located at this site:

Based on my research thus far, there are no insurmountable impediments to open-access publishing—there are plenty of ways to ensure quality control and peer review; there can still be maintained the “hierarchy” of journals within a discipline; there are plenty of ways to meet publishing costs by pushing costs to the front rather than to the end of the process; there are lots of cost-saving mechanisms for schools since they don’t have to pay for access to journals through JSTOR or Blackwell-Synergy; and it ensures access to research for everyone (academics, students, policy people, international students and academics). The real impediments seem to be that academics are very accustomed to paper publishing and, perhaps, some push-back from companies that make money from selling journal access to schools (I have not specifically researched this second issue, though, so it is only speculative).

If you’d like to see an example of what a recommended university OA mandate looks like, see Stevan Harnad’s comments (and recommend changes) at the end of this op-ed from the Harvard Crimson:

As I found through my own research, Stevan has done quite a bit of research and writing on this topic.

Okay, all best!


nigel holmes 03.13.08 at 7:31 am

I’d submit to any journal where the articles had, on average, reasonable quality. I don’t care whether that’s due to peer review or not. I hate the indifference of many open access proponents to “writer pays” models. This is fine if you’re the favoured child of some wealthy institution, worse if you’re outside the university system (or an outsider within it). You see this kind of pressure on young researchers in Germany, where getting a doctorate demands publication, and where publishers can therefore compel dissertation writers to pay to publish their books. Open access for the reader, but not for the writer is a bad development


nigel holmes 03.13.08 at 7:53 am

That last sentence should have been: Open access for the reader is a bad development, when coupled with extra financial hurdles for the writer. (Obviously I wasn’t imagining that writers should have some automatic right to be published in academic journals.)


chris armstrong 03.13.08 at 10:17 am

Like many people I’d like my work to be available to as many other people as possible, but in the UK the Research Assessment Exercise seems to place both formal and informal constraints on where academics publish. Or, in the past you’ve needed four pieces which are (broadly) peer-reviewed and in reputable journals, though anything else you publish is not constrained in this way so in that sense the panel’s judgement of venues has no effect. We’re in the process of moving to a system based, I think, at least partly on citations, and the effects of this are hard to call. It may well mean that authors will be allowed to care about what they would like to care about – how many people read the darned stuff – but there could be other negative consequences.


Chris Williams 03.13.08 at 11:34 am

My attitude towards the pig-in-a-poke that is the next RAE is that I’m going to bung some stuff towards free-to-air journals at the start of the census period – ie now. Of course, they may decide not to count citations.


Daniel S. Goldberg 03.13.08 at 5:01 pm

I’m not sure I understand the connection between closed-access and rigorous peer review. PLoS Medicine demonstrates quite well, IMO, that a journal can be prestigious, publish important articles from top scholars, and subject those articles to extensive review. Why should the humanities and social sciences not aim to emulate the model?

On the broader issue whether academic journals ought to be “for-pay,” I admit that learning about the medieval and Renaissance humanists has inculcuated in me a deep distaste for such closed access journals. The humanists were frustrated with the closed-off nature of Scholastic pedagogy. It’s no accident that the etymology of the word “cloistered” has roots in such pedagogy, as does the idiom “how many angels dance on the head of a pin.”

If academics wish to emulate the humanists in their insistence that erudition be applied to help everyday people cultivate virtue in their daily practices, it’s harder to justify keeping the fruits of that scholarship behind firewalls which virtually no one without institutional affiliation can access. Whatever its justifications — and I freely concede there are some — IMO it does not help redress the claim that academics typically tend to speak to themselves.


c.l. ball 03.13.08 at 5:24 pm

I agree with Henry’s criteria. Historians, I know, already consider book reviews published on H-Net to count for T&P purposes — when the review in not logged in the H-Net Review archive soon enough, they squawk even though it is archived by the commissioning list.

In principle, there is no reason why say, APSR, ISQ, or any number of journals could not publish on the web now with free access. Making sure that the information will remained safely archived — e.g., paper doesn’t get outmoded due to OS or interface changes — is another concern, but JSTOR for one has I think assuaged those concerns.

The main problem is practical, not on the academic side but on the finance side. Journal subscriptions are “club goods” to encourage association memberships, and library subscriptions (those onerous institutional fees) are a major revenue source. It is possible that advertising could make up for some of this, since there would be a broader audience, but not that much I imagine.

One compromise might be to locate the articles for various independent editorial boards at JSTOR, halve the institutional rates or come up with a bulk rate for all JSTORed journals, but only allow .edu IPs to access if they pay the fee, while allowing outside IPs get free access. So, at home, I access via my non .edu IP provider but to get through from my campus, the school must pay a fee.

Still, I don’t know what percentage of the institutional revenue stream goes back to associations now. Also, I don’t know how all journals fund editorial staff. Some editors get no stipend or pay; others get some subvention.


Sortition 03.13.08 at 6:59 pm


(Obviously I wasn’t imagining that writers should have some automatic right to be published in academic journals.)

And why is that so obvious? That seems to be what freedom of speech is about – automatic right to make your ideas heard.


Cian 03.13.08 at 11:31 pm

#11 [in computer science] all the major publishers of refereed journals and conference proceedings, except those of the major professional societies (IEEE and ACM), now allow authors to freely distribute preprints with no restrictions

ACM allows this. Out of curiosity which journals allow this. In my field (HCI) none of them do, though plenty of people ignore this.


Sherman Dorn 03.14.08 at 1:20 am


PLoS has a hefty fee for authors. Do you think we can emulate that in the humanities and social sciences without writers tearing the throats out of editors for that?


Daniel Goldberg 03.14.08 at 2:40 am


Whether I think we “can” and whether we “ought” to are two different questions. I did not assert that open-access journals are without their problems, nor that the author fees charged do not pose a significant difficulty. What I did say, and what I think stands, is that PLoS Medicine almost by itself demonstrates that an open-access “journal can be prestigious, publish important articles from top scholars, and subject those articles to extensive review.”

My central point is that I do not see any necessary link between closed-access and rigorous, scholarly journals. I certainly agree that because of the smaller wealth transfers typically available to academics in the humanities and social sciences, large author fees disproportionately impact this class. But this is also a function of the general devaluing of the humanities for sure and the social sciences to a greater or lesser extent.

As a graduate student in the (medical) humanities, I assure you, there are few who bemoan this undervaluation more than I. But this does not imply that there is any reason we (humanities scholars) should not strive to make academic discourse freely available to non-academics, nor that this goal is one that is inherently inconsistent with rigorous review and quality scholarship.

The model I want to emulate is one in which academics consciously strive to avoid the cloister. I see open-access journals as more consistent with this end.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.14.08 at 9:55 am

One of the problems for social scientists that might prevent them from moving to the Open Access Journals, is that Research Assessment Exercises in some universities/countries take into account whether a journal is indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index (or other parts of the Web of Sciences). My hunch is that this is less a problem for those in the humanities, but probably as much or even more for those in the natural sciences.
So, I’d like to ask a question: what are the conditions to be included in this index, and how much does it cost? And are there any Open Access journals indexed in the Web of Sciences Indices?


Ray Davis 03.17.08 at 2:09 pm

“Having said that, my second criteria would be guaranteed permanence. I worry a lot that online journals won’t survive indefinitely.”

Paper is more dependable than URLs, true, especially if kept inaccessible. (If made accessible, then it becomes more open to vandalism, theft, and bureaucratic fits of space-efficiency.) But an increasing number of schools rely on electronic-only subscriptions which are only good for the length of a contract. Having worked in what was once the second-largest computer company in the world and having seen many customers left in the lurch by corporations over the years, I have little faith in the stability of capitalist institutions. Even government funding is no guarantee — see the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The solution to URL impermanence is fairly simple: Allow mirroring. Even if one Gutenberg link goes down, others will be in place, and I don’t picture initiatives like the Internet Archive going away.

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