Another Downside to the Current Journal System

One day I imagine I’ll have a paper that isn’t rejected for publication. When that happens, in the joy of adding a journal-title to my CV, perhaps I’ll wave goodbye to my days of fierce antipathy towards journal conglomerates. In the meantime I’m going to continue to embrace the journal-corporation hating. The system, after all, seems increasingly stupid.

Because I’m affiliated with a university, I have access to a relatively large selection of journal-databases and journals. In fact there probably aren’t too many university library systems that provide better access than mine does. Since I’m so happily situated, when a friend or colleague who isn’t so fortunate needs access to a particular paper locked behind a pay-wall, I try to help by accessing it and sharing it with him or her. …As an interesting side-note, if I automated the process and downloaded millions of papers and made them available to everyone rather than to just one or two friends, I’d potentially be risking indictment by the federal government. I suppose it’s one of those “when individual grains of sand turn into a pile of sand” situations. As the IP-law scholar Larry Lessig put it: “We live in this weird time, this kind of age of prohibitions, where in many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law…”

Yesterday Schaun asked if I could access two articles about measuring satisfaction and quality of life with surveys. In case you’re interested, the two articles are here and here. They’re both behind a pay-wall. One costs $36.00 and you can’t even see the price for the second without registering. But more surprisingly, it turns out that the library system I use doesn’t have access to them either.

To me, this is an amazingly stupid situation. One of those articles was published in 1995, the other was just published in 2012. Neither of them is publicly accessible without paying a far steeper price than I think hardly anyone would pay. But it’s not just that, neither of them is available even to affiliates of a well-known university with a massive library system which has paid millions of dollars to journal corporations (which perhaps means there aren’t many universities with access). I can’t help but feel really bad for the authors. I’m assuming if they took the time and effort to write those papers and get them published, they probably meant for them to be read.

Yes, I know part of the reason they published in a journal probably had to do with professional requirements and constraints. But the enjoyment of research and making contributions to science and knowledge also must have played a role. That their papers ended up locked down behind very high pay walls seems entirely opposite to that part of their life and work.

Situations like this make me think of publishing in most journals (the locked-down ones) as a sort of absurd tradeoff: you get to add a title to your CV, and in exchange the journal owners get to make it incredibly difficult for anyone to read anything underneath the title. And of course, you make nothing from the stupidly exorbitant price charged for access either. In essence, your work is reduced to its title.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the idea of copyright (at least, not as it currently operates). But it seems especially out of place in the realm of academic and scientific publishing. Yes, appropriate citation practices and intellectual credit are incredibly important. But charging for access? And why? It’s not like journal formatting is any great marvel. The digital space is no longer a factor. What they provide is a name to put alongside your title, and they support the institutionalized peer-review process (which is a good thing, all things considered, but it’s hard to imagine that that process really requires the journal corporations). I just don’t see where they’re really adding value.

I’m done ranting, but just because it’s on my mind, here are some other arguments against the current system of patents and copyright (in various forms, some connected to academic publishing, some not):

The case against idea monopolisation

“Elsevier wants to keep boosting its profits…”

Textbook Publisher Pearson Takes Down 1.5 Million Teacher And Student Blogs With A Single DMCA Notice

Why There Are Too Many Patents in America

The Patent, Used as a Sword

Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices


One thought on “Another Downside to the Current Journal System

  1. Particularly annoying when dealing with publically-financed research (NSF, SSRC, NIH, etc.)…

    One of my favorite journals is open-access, but authors have to pay a crapload to get published.

    Interesting model, different kind of trade-off.

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