For and Against Open Journals

As a follow-up to last week’s post on open data, here is a recent article from The Economist on the argument for open journals:

Criticism of journal publishers usually boils down to two things. One is that their processes take months, when the internet could allow them to take days. The other is that because each paper is like a mini-monopoly, which workers in the field have to read if they are to advance their own research, there is no incentive to keep the price down. The publishers thus have scientists—or, more accurately, their universities, which pay the subscriptions—in an armlock. That, combined with the fact that the raw material (manuscripts of papers) is free, leads to generous returns. In 2011 Elsevier, a large Dutch publisher, made a profit of £768m on revenues of £2.06 billion—a margin of 37%. Indeed, Elsevier’s profits are thought so egregious by many people that 12,000 researchers have signed up to a boycott of the company’s journals.

For those who are less familiar with the process, academic journals work something like this. Researchers are eager to publish in journals because that is their main measure of output (“publish or perish,” the saying goes). Although publishing articles is important professional currency for academics, it almost never translates into getting paid for the content they generate. Instead, the journal publisher provides the service of taking articles generated, reviewed, edited by academics for free and distributing them to libraries. For this service, they charge the libraries substantial amounts of money.

I am not complaining about the process, but I am just sharing my understanding of how it works. The main competitor to this model is not one in which academics will receive greater financial remuneration. The new model would exploit the fact that distribution has become much cheaper to provide some sort of open journal.

There are many non-trivial details to be worked out, however. Editors and reviewers would have to get on board. The journal would have to pay careful attention to quality assurance in order to gain respect. Authors would have to choose to submit to that journal over other more established outlets. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require someone to make the first move. Not to mention that there are already too many journals.