Academic journals Uncertain future?

Academics usually do not enter academe to make money. Most academics believe in progress, in the sense that their contribution, often small and minor, will build on existing knowledge. Therefore many academics would be quite content when their research is more widely known.

As such ensuring that academic output becomes accessible widely by distributing it for free or for a minimal fee makes a lot of sense. Intellectual advances are build on an incremental basis, and in the age of the internet, where documents and ideas can cross borders easily, the chances are that one idea far, far away can be a source of inspiration for another.

Inevitably, a move to make everything open presents problems. The biggest potential problem is the fate of the academic journals. Publishing journals cost money, and most publishers are not charities, but companies which need to make a profit, therefore they have to sell their products. At the moment, other than being an institutional or a private subscriber, it is possible to purchase an article online. However they are prohibitingly expensive: I recently came across a 20-page article would have cost me over £20.

In this digital age, where reserach publication can be immediate and online, aren’t costly academic journals, both in print and online, destined to extinction? This is probably not the case. Whether they make a profit or not, academic journals still play a crucial role in the dissemination and discussion of research.

The first point to make for continued existence of academic journals is that if more pairs of eyes read the manuscript, better the research output will be, both in substance and style. Research articles need vetting, i.e. peer-review, by other specialists, who make sure that submitted articles are of certain quality. While there are many academics who write in elegant prose, there are an equal number of academics, if not more, who struggle to combine substance with style. If something is in an academic journal, then you can trust that it’s worth your time to read it.

Academics may not care too much about money, but reputation is another matter. In any group, there is a hierarchy: publications and citations in journals are crucial in many academics’ reputation and their place in the pecking order. The pressure to ‘publish or perish’ is quite common, not only for individual satisfaction, since institutional reputation and funding depend on individual reputations.

If there were an equivalent of an iTunes store, where articles are sold less expensively than the example I have cited, it may balance the need for openness, accessibility, and profit.