Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can academic journals survive?

Denis Wright (and @deniswright) drew my attention to Andrew Carr's post Time to open the academic vault. Andrew states: 

Here at The Interpreter, we've tried a few times to run a monthly Linkage feature of the latest academic papers in international relations, foreign policy and the like. But getting public access to these articles is often impossible. I can get them as a uni student, but the journalists, government officials and members of the public who read this site often can't.

As much as subscription access to academic research/journals once made sense, it's time for an end to the system. The general rule should be that if the public pays for any of the costs of an article, a free PDF version should be made available (with costs charged for hardcopies, ala ANU's E-Press system). Private journals can obviously decide their own affairs, but the academic community is only hurting itself, and its long term public support, by keeping its knowledge behind high subscription walls.

I do understand the economics behind current publication systems. When I was CEO of The Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists the money we got from the journal publisher was critical in keeping our journal going. Had we made it freely available, the College would not have been able to maintain publication.

That said, the present system is an effective lock-out for private researchers outside the academic environment. We either don't have access at all, or access at a price that none of us can afford. In theory, my position as an adjunct of the University of New England should give me on-line access, that was one reason for entering into the arrangement, but in practice it hasn't worked out that way.

This effective lock-out is quite serious for it severely limits what we can do in certain areas. Yes, there are work arounds such as physical visits to particular libraries, but we cannot always access as we need, nor is there any point in giving links to particular pieces of work since others cannot themselves follow up.

In The joy of history in an internet world, a post I wrote on my personal blog, I said that I was only guessing, but I would estimate that by 2000 there were at least thirty amateur historians for every professional. Those historians have access to some on-line resources, but are  locked out of almost the entire academic literature that bears upon their areas of interest.

This gives rise to the somewhat odd situation that entire fields of research are effectively broken into two, the formal academic and the ever growing rest. I say ever growing because the quantity of on-line material of all types outside academe continues to grow exponentially. It may not meet the canons of the formal disciplines, its quality may be variable, but that is the material that people access.

The internet offers three special features not to be found in academe. The first is the very large number of people with niche interests whether it be dress, cars or the dating of photographs. I use them all the time. The second is self-publishing combined with interactivity. This gives a degree of instant response and feedback not found in the more formal academic circles. The third linked factor is simply the wisdom of the crowd, the way in which absolute mass provides its own corrective.

I don't think that it's a specially good thing in a general sense that people outside academe don't have access to the journal material. Certainly its frustrating to me because while I am an history populariser, I am till trying to ensure that my formal history meets the canons of the discipline. However, I think that there is a more fundamental problem.

I would pose it this way. How long can the journals themselves survive outside very specialised areas once they cease to have relevance to the broader discourse on a topic?

In many areas we are at this point already. Only things such as Australian Government "excellence" requirements and associated formal career needs keep the articles coming. By the time they come out, the world has already moved on.

Andrew referred to the latest academic papers in international relations, foreign policy and the like. To the journalists, government officials and interested members of the public who might access them but cannot, they cease to be relevant. The academics themselves recognise this. Increasingly, they make material available in other ways.

I said at the start that I understood the economic challenges facing the journals and the associated institutional structures. However, they do need to change, to find ways of making material more broadly accessible. It's not only my personal frustration at the current position. It's their very long term relevance that is at stake.


An amplification or really qualification on my personal blog, Academic journals, the shuttle & the internet.

Postscript 2

Fellow history blogger Jayne pointed me to the UNE press release on which the Express story was based. My thanks.


Denis Wright said...

I so want to write about this - a subject dear to my heart after being the Treasurer and co-editor of the major international journal South Asia for 15 years or so, but I've been hit with another seizure - http://tinyurl.com/4xyfe8f - and it will have to wait.

It's a vital topic but I wonder how must navel-gazing there really is about it.

I shall return... in the seizures don't get me!

Denis Wright said...

"must" = "much"!

Jim Belshaw said...

Not a lot, I think, Denis. Those in academe have access and don't worry about it. Most outside academe don't bother or aren't interested. It's the small middle group that complains.

Jayne said...

How sad, widening the distance and killing the interest the next generation may have.

Re Carol Baxter media article is available online HERE
Looking forward to reading her book!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jayne. I don't think the widening gap will kill the interest, just make things different and not as good as might have been. Thanks for the link. I will bring it up on the original post.