Sunday, March 15, 2009

Against Academic Journals: Opening Thoughts

Some thoughts.

Budgets suck, especially when they're being cut. We're being socked, which really shouldn't be that big of a surprise, given every state's financial situation -- ours included. But, now having served on a library committee, I think I actually understand budgets a bit better -- or at least how they work regarding academic libraries. To that end, I have a modest (if, perhaps, controversial) proposal. But, before I go there, let me simply say that this has nothing specifically to do with my university but is a bit more "meta" thought regarding academia generally. It also has to do with two things that I'd previously read at InTheMiddle and one thing at QuodShe that have stuck in my craw. So, here it is:

Academics ought move their publishing away from academic journals.

In their place, scholars should work with publishers to introduce new book series exclusively dedicated to themed, peer-reviewed collections of essays.

First, let me say that my reasoning has nothing to do with quality. Most academic journals are excellent and most of the articles in those journals are wonderful examples of how scholarship is produced.

My reasoning is more practical -- fiscal, if you prefer. Ongoing costs are the bane of academic libraries. They eat into the library's core budget, are subject to excessive, inflationary price rises every year, and are often subsumed by big aggregators that require libraries to purchase "packages" of unrelated content in order to get the specific journals they want. Thus, academic journals always seem to be the 1st things on the chopping block when budgets get tight. Things cannot stand as they are for long. Libraries know this. Publishers (probably) know this. Academics should know this. If academic journals are to survive at all (meaning if anyone's going to be able to afford to subscribe to these things for much longer), my guess is that open source, open access is the way to go.

But back to the now. Because of how academic libraries' budgets are structured, there always seems to be $ available for one-time purchases -- in other words, books. In the new model I'm suggesting, you would create a book series that would be dedicated exclusively to collection of essays. One could run this book series much like a journal, complete with editorial board, stable of peer-reviewers, etc. This series would then put out publications on a regular basis and, while the prices of individual volumes might be high (no different, I'd guess, than something already published in the New Middle Ages series), libraries would be able to make a decision on purchasing each volume on a one-off basis because they'd know the (general) content beforehand. You want the volume on the postcolonial Middle Ages and have some $, great. You want the volume on the legend of Charlemagne but don't have the $ that year, perhaps you pick it up the following year. You don't want something else, fine. But you're never tethered to the subscription and can't get anything in that series if there are budget cuts. Pecia could be a rough model here (although I don't know enough about how it operates to endorse that model more fully), or perhaps JMEMS could transition towards this different financial model, given all their themed issues.


UPDATE: Slightly related, via ADM, an interesting post from Ruth Mazo Karras on publishing in academic journals.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think that would only work with print on demand, because the publishers would have to print a certain number, and wouldn't want to have to remainder them ...

But what about simply offering e-versions of journals at lower cost?

Basically, what I see happening is that the burden gets shifted to the individuals. Faculty end up buying even more of the journals they need, because they can't count on the library to have them.

Liam said...

I think in other disciplines, especially in medicine and the hard sciences, have really turned to e-journals, which makes a lot more sense. They're cheaper, more available, you can do text searches on them...

I admit that whenever I put a webpage in a footnote, I still feel like I'm cheating -- like a freshman citing wikipedia.

Matthew Gabriele said...

The irony here, however, is that e-journals are a big part of the problem. If libraries just had to subscribe to print journals, I think things would be fine. An institutional subscription to Speculum, for example, is what, a couple hundred $s? But to get Early Medieval History online, you have to go through a big aggregator (like Elsevier or Science Direct, though they're certainly not the only ones) and those "packages" cost thousands of dollars/ year.

Print-on-demand is generally a good idea though, I think.

Eileen Joy said...


first, as to the issue of open-access, open-source journals, there will still be an issue of funding: the burden simply gets shifted from whether or not the library can afford a long-term, sometimes unwieldy subscription package [or "bundle"] to where is the money coming from to support all of the production costs, editorial labors, web design/hosting, etc. that would go into maintaining an open access journal over the long haul. Because if there is no profit, then obviously a corporation won't get involved in this and the university system is stuck once again with the bill, OR, private foundations have to fund it. Thankfully, organizations such as Open Humanities Access exist, but they only fund open-access journals in critical and cultural theory [the journals funded under OHA are superb and their editorial board a who's who list, I might add, but they wouldn't fund a medieval studies journal], but at the same time, where does the money come from? Somewhat amazingly, OHA designates itself as a collective and relies primarily on the *free*/unpaid labors of academics [but I have to assume, academics with some institutional support in the shape of release time, perhaps, grad. assistants, and some technical/web design support/internet housing]--it is, as one of its founders, Sigi Jottkandt, describes it, "a labor of love performed by the editors." Here is how Jottkandt describes the trajectory of one of OA's earliest publications, "Culture Machine":

"Founded by Gary Hall, David Boothroyd and Steve Green, CULTURE MACHINE started up with a departmental grant of 600 pounds. CULTURE MACHINE is hosted on a non-institutional server that is paid for directly by the editors who in this way keep the journal independent. If the editors move jobs, as Gary has just done, the journal automatically comes with them. CULTURE MACHINE is fully OA (i.e. no subscription fees). It also has no author-fees, and no ‘page charges’, thus it gets no monetary income from any source. Its sole financial outgoing, on the other hand, is the internet hosting (+/- 100 pounds per year). How does it manage to be ‘sustainable’? The copy-editing and proof-reading is performed for free by the general editors, or by the special editors of special issues. Following usual academic practices, peer review is also performed for free (a point that seems to need to be emphasized at this moment in time). These practices are typical of humanities publishing, where editing and peer reviewing is considered a
‘service to the profession’. Some journal editors receive reduction in teaching loads from their departments in return for this work, others have a small budget for graduate assistants to help with the clerical work, while still others (like the editors of CULTURE MACHINE) do it without any form of direct compensation at all."

My problem with these comments, which follow after Juttkandt also said something to the effect of, "faculty in the humanities will do all sorts of things for free that scientists would never do for free," is that the model depends [duh!] on too much uncompensated labor--labor, moreover, which sometimes has some small support from university budgets that are increasingly threatened, and therefore, the threat of cancellation of that small support is always a possibility. Now, granted, in the humanities, many many journals have, of course, gotten their start as "labors of love" of one or several professors who somehow convinced their universities to lend them some small support [although in the case of old-fashioned print journals, typesetting, printing and mailing costs could get quite severe, with subscriptions helping the venture to mainly "break even"]. If a journal is super-successful, often a corporate archiving entity, such as Project Muse or JSTOR, steps in to help make content electronically available [but for a hefty fee, of course--although profits do trickle back to the journal], and sometimes a corporate academic publisher, such as a Wiley-Blackwell or a Palgrave or Brepols, etc., steps in to take over production, marketing, distribution, subscription, etc. costs, with editorial labors still remaining, for the most part, under-paid or completely unpaid. Juttkandt--again, one of the founders of OHA--seems unperturbed by this state of affairs, and even goes as far to say this:

"Uncompensated financially for the most part, humanities editors and editorial board members receive their compensation in alternative forms such as promotion, job security, better job offers and more general visibility and credibility -- or ‘impact’ -- within their fields. It is no secret that the humanities have never had a culture of being adequately financially compensated for what we do -- we are used to giving our work away for free, so the humanities are a natural fit with the philosophy and politics of OA."

Larry Swain, I assume, could come into this conversation and tell us a LOT about what it means to a journal [and its editors] when the labors to produce it are unpaid and even unsupported, for the most part, by any institution [such as a university], but the journal he edits, "The Heroic Age," is online and open-access and by editing it for quite a while now as the *Interim* Editor-in-Chief, while *also* working to complete a PhD [since finished: congrats Larry!], Larry has performed, in my mind, *heroic* labors [pun fully intended] on behalf of the field of early medieval studies.

But, can this model [in Juttkandt's terms, "humanities scholars will work for free! yay!"] sufficiently hold over the long term, without stronger institutional and/or corporate support? One quick answer would be to say, "sure it can!" *especially* since the advent of the Internet, because now the historically most pesky and draining budget items--typesetting, printing, mailing--can be eliminated, and all that's left is: what does it cost to have server space, maybe some technical support, and, oh yeah, editorial labors were always free to begin with. On one level, I *do* agree that, thanks to creative commons and free open journals software and the like, it certainly *is* easier to start-up a journal in one's own basement office, as it were [confession: my office is in a basement], and my good friend Nicola Masciandaro, a medievalist at Brooklyn College, CUNY has done just that with "Glossator: Practice and Theory of Commentary":

We will see more journals like this proliferate, I imagine, dependent on creative, self-willed editors and boards of scholar-helpers, although it will still take some time for them to be accorded full academic legitimacy in hiring & tenure decisions and the like [although I really believe, unlike others, that we're starting to close the gap on the differences between how we regard print and electronic journals], but for me, the question still remains regarding what I would call the always-shaky long-term security of such publishing ventures. And Matthew, if you can forgive me, this has been a very long-winded way of getting back around to your initial statements here that we might need to move away from academic journals and supplant them with a greater proliferation of edited essay volumes, published as books. But here's an interesting question, too--if *even* books are soon going to be e-books [downloadable to all sorts of devices, not just our laptops and desktop computers], what then, ultimately, will be the difference between a journal and a book series? One difference, as you well point out, is that something designated as a "book" can be considered as a one-time purchase by a university library, whereas journals put libraries in the more awkward position of having to agree to multi-year subscriptions and the like. Point well taken. Being somewhat of a pluralist, I would like to see all sorts of things happening simultaneously:

1. thanks to electronic publishing and free open-access software, groups of individuals here and there have greater abilities to start new journals in our field that provide wider venues for publishing more and different kinds of scholarship which is readily accessible to the greatest number of persons; the time required to produce such journals "for free" and their long-term security will always remain as a question, as will "legitimacy," which will be partly determined by who publishes there, who is on the editorial board, etc. [although, hopefully, it's ultimately a "quality of contents" issue], but what's important and valuable here is a greater plurality of subjects and methodological approaches to our discipline are afforded a wider purchase and the *ability* to start a journal at all is somewhat democratized [even something like a "guerrilla," renegade medieval studies becomes possible]

2. more book series, especially ones more attuned to shorter works--not just more essay volumes, as Matthew proposes [to which I definitelt agree, and for the reasons he cites], but maybe also smaller and smaller books. Elsewhere I have proposed a scholarly "novella" series that would provide a home for something I know we all have written at least once: it's longer than article but shorter than a book, and it needs a home. These could be produced in print and also online.

3. more creative and flexible arrangements between corporate publishers and the humanities with regard to the cost of both books *and* journal subscriptions, especially in relation to copyright issues. I have been privileged to have had quite a few conversations with corporate publishers over the past 2 years and I know that they are very concerned about open-access and electronic publishing, but they are also highly aware of the fact that academics, especially in the humanities, cannot really sustain all of this completely on their own with *no* financial help whatsoever, so: what sorts of compromises can we make such that academic publishing can still turn a profit while also serving as a longer-term support mechanism for academic publishing, and academics and universities can have greater access to more content for *less* money than we are paying now? One possibility, and I think a lot of corporate publishers are already willing to do this, is that, in the case, say, of a medieval studies journal published by Blackwell, after 5 years, all the copyrights revert to the authors, and the content is available to be *permanently* electronically archived at a host academic institution. Also, in every issue of a journal published, 1 or 2 articles are always available for free, and other articles are always available for individual purchase in electronic form, at an affordable rate. This way, there are profits to be had in the way of the most recent content of *whole* journal volumes for those institutions and individuals who want them, and over the long term, *all* of the content of *all* journals is available to be downloaded completely for free [without having to go through *any* sort of subscription service], as long as the author is willing to "donate" his or her work to their home institution, or maybe even to a national, electronic humanities research archive. With books, we simply go completely electronic, the copyright stays with the publisher, but cut the prices in half, if not more. To keep print books alive [and I'm all for that], we start thinking harder about smaller books and boutique-style publishing collectives that would work by subscription, similar to a journal [or a poetry chapbook series]--this kind of relates to #2 above.

As I shared in one of the ITM posts Matthew linked to in his post here, the BABEL Working Group and Palgrave Macmillan have joined forces to produce a new journal in medieval cultural studies [we'll announce this more officially any day now], and it is my hope that, over the next few years, we can start exploring and developing together--"we" meaning we medievalist scholars, but also we medievalists and other scholars working in and beyond the humanities, and also we medievalists and corporate publishers--new and more fiscally sustainable ways to produce *more* scholarship in our field--scholarship, moreover, that would have stronger institutional, corporate, but also *collective* support.

Eileen Joy said...

I just realized in my comments above that I imply that the scholarly collective known as Open Humanities Press *funds* journals in critical and cultural theory. Initially, when I first heard about them, I thought that's what they were doing, via grants. What they are *actually* doing is lending the imprimatur of their name [their Editorial Board, as I indicated, is impressive] and also offering some technical support to open-access, online journals who want to be under their umbrella.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Eileen, wow. Thank you. Generally, I think you and I are on the same page. Journals are too expensive as is. Open Access often means that we have to "donate" our time with little prospect of academic/ institutional reward. And in answer to your question about what the ultimate difference between the type of book series I'm proposing and a "traditional" academic journal: not much at all, as I think you see. Also, the idea of shorter, cheaper books is also a good idea.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing more about the cultural studies journal that you mentioned here & @ ITM.

I think there's a way out of this mess but it requires some long-term vision and it sure as heck ain't gonna be easy...

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Here's another problem: Editing collections sucks more than editing a journal. Standing journals tend to have a whole lot more institutional support -- grad students to sift through the slush pile, an editorial board of people who are (in theory) responsible, a set schedule of publication that means one or two deliquent scholars cannot hold up the entire volume, pre-sold volumes (in the form of subscriptions), etc.

Editing journals is no picnic, but journals tend to be viewed as institutional, whereas scholarly collections tend to be viewed as the responsibility of a single scholar.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

A couple of things that Eileen says seem to me to deserve remark. Firstly, what rang very true, the "something I know we all have written at least once: it's longer than article but shorter than a book, and it needs a home". I just want to point out that we've bred those expectations of length ourselves. In German, Italian or Spanish journals, for example, you sometimes get seventy or even two hundred page articles, it's still an article. And you get series which are sometimes journal-like with numerous articles, sometimes conference publications, sometimes Festschriften and sometimes monographs (I'm thinking here especially of El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media, which emerges yearly more or less and has been all of these things in various volumes). The fact that UK and US academia can't deal with such category-breaking publications is our own fault, and in the UK at least I guess down in part to the Research Assessment Exercise's categories frightening scholars into not producing work that falls between two judgement stools.

Secondly, I want to challenge the expectation that it is possible to set things up so that: "the content is available to be *permanently* electronically archived at a host academic institution". Can I point you all to an initiative called Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe, which exists solely because that isn't guaranteedly possible? Institutions suffer funding cuts, as with Columbia's Digital Scriptorium, priorities change, budgets shift, publishers go bankrupt, and what was a permanent archive on the web goes away, *blink*. How many scholarly resources can you think of which have had their domains changed or simply disappeared (The Heroic Age the former, for a handy example, or for the latter, Simon Keynes's online Anglo-Saxon bibliography)?

And even if the institution sticks around and continues to fund, digital storage is simply not permanent, not when formats change so quickly and machinery leaves the old ones behind. What would happen if Adobe went bust? How many old PDFs would that cost us? But it's our archive format of choice, which is kind of stupid. So there is this important thing to be said for print, which is that it will still be accessible in sixty years whereas your CD-R of PDFs or Word documents most likely won't.

As to Matt's actual idea, I'm still musing it over. I can't help thinking that it's something that a pick-n'mix style of electronic subscription would render largely unnecessary. Why that doesn't yet exist I don't know, but the business model of the big bundle must be running out of glue surely.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Scott, you're right. Editing volumes can indeed suck. But if the series were more institutionalized (with formal editorial boards, etc.), then some of those problems could be ameliorated.

Jon, the pick-n-mix idea might work too, though I highly doubt you could get a library to buy the institution a specific article. Moreover, what if a student needs an article? Can he/ she go to their librarian to request it? With an entire volume, you could at least have the entire, themed collection of essays there.

Steve Muhlberger said...

To pick up on a remark made by Jonathan above, the current electronic journal-bundling format is not just a problem for scholars and libraries, but a big potential problem for publishers and aggregators too. Can't sell a bundle if no one can afford it. At least if your bundle is not neurosurgery, and even then Nipissing University will never buy that bundle, will it? even on the medical and scientific front there has been some pushback already.

theswain said...

Ok, third time's a charm? Matt's post and subsequent comments raise a number of important issues that need to be discussed and having been in electronic publishing for 16 years (I started an electronic literary arts journal in 1993 called Eklektoi), I naturally have some thoughts. But since I am trying to produce an issue of a freely available, all volunteer, electronic, peer-reviewed publication, and have papers to correct, and my beloved pug Mooch whose beard looks like mine is once again in surgery as I type, I'll keep it brief.

First, a couple of recent articles in JEP address some of these issues:;cc=jep;rgn=main;view=text;idno=3336451.0012.102


Second, Jon we do get long articles in some publications, such as Speculum. But with the cutting of budgets over the last 30 years for public universities in the US, the disappearance of university presses which once published academic journals and the impact that has had, has resulted in slimming down articles and even journal print sizes from yesteryear.

Third, and speaking of which, a number of academic journals have left the academic presses and small presses, etc. BUt those that remain and those that are published by societies (MAA for example, JEGP for another) could go completely online for free, or for a nominal cost that would both cost the originating body much less, and certainly cost a lot less to subscribe to if not put out there for free. It would cost everybody less to do it online, period. And the long term availability issues can be addressed. We've had the Web long enough now that we can be smart enough to address these things. So yes, a cost is still incurred: someone has to host the sites, someone has to put in the time etc, but overall, the costs are significantly lower than the traditional paper journal mailed to one's home. The current model *must* change.

Matthew Gabriele said...

This can only be a good thing in the long-run. Thanks to Jeffrey for pointing us to it.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Some more thoughts (from England) on how ludicrous the price structure of academic journals are:

Richard said...

Three important factors are:
1) recognition of the significance of editorial work as an important part of an institution's research profile for research assessment exercises. Editing a peer-reviewed journal is not seen as important as publishing an article in a peer-reviewed journal;
2) recognition of the quality of contents of an Open Access journal that is not supported by a major university or commercial press. Kudos can currently be scored by publishing rubbish with a respcted academic publishing house;
3) recognition of the significance of the peer review as part of a healthy research culture. At the moment reviewing is deemed less meritorious than writing 'original' material that could, actually, be rubbish.

Richard Woodfield
Journal of Art Historiography

Matthew Gabriele said...


Thanks for this and I'm glad this conversation is continuing. I agree wholeheartedly with everything here. The question is how we can make sure that such contributions are more valued by departments, colleges, universities, etc. I don't have a good answer for that right now...