I teach at a large, urban public institution that has dealt with declining state support by rapidly increasing both tuition and fees over the last decade. While that has allowed the university to survive, we face numerous budget challenges: slowing enrollment growth as we price ourselves out of the market, the heavy burden of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) on state finances, and the impact of sequestration on research funds. While all parts of my institution have been affected, one unit has faced particular challenges: the library. Like many institutions, the funds for books are facing a shortfall because of the rising costs for journals. If you are an academic, this probably sounds all too familiar.
Many other academic blogs have talked about the challenge that the for-profit nature of journals poses for our libraries. I’m far from the first person to note that it’s a strange system in which we write the articles, or review them for the journals, but then can only read them after our libraries pay astronomical amounts. Most of the heat in the blogosphere has been directed at the academic publisher Elsevier, which has been the target of a boycott. While this boycott is valuable, I think that there is a simpler solution. We all need to start publishing only in open-access journals.
I recently had a paper on avian influenza accepted by an open access journal. I had two thoughtful and expert reviews completed in about two months, and the paper will be out shortly. To my mind, there was very little different in the experience -certainly not in the quality of the reviews- except that it was much quicker. I have waited before for over a year for a response from a journal (but then, who hasn’t), while this open-access journal completed their work in an academic quarter. I have no idea if that’s typical or a fluke. But I’d hesitated to publish in an open access journal before because I was concerned that the publication would not be perceived to be as prestigious. Having spent more time reading articles in open access journals lately, that idea now seems quaint. I’m outraged by the rates that Elsevier and other journals charge for their publication. Now that most journals are also on-line, why would you want your article to be behind a pay-wall where fewer people could read it? I don’t think that I’m likely to ever again publish in a journal that isn’t open access.
Of course the economics of producing an open access journal are challenging. Dan Nexon has a great piece on this at a truly great IR blog, Duck of Minerva. I don’t know how to solve these issues, but it seems to me one place where a well-financed grantor could truly make a huge difference. In any case, there are some great open access journals in International and Global Studies. Let’s start by publishing our articles there. But what about books?
I’ve recently completed a book manuscript on indigenous religion and colonialism in Northern Canada. When I spoke with an editor at a major Canadian press, they wanted to make sure that I understood that if the book made it through the peer review process, they would still need to apply successfully for a subvention grant to print the book. I did understand that this was a typical part of the experience for publishing an academic work in Canada. No academic publisher is making significant profits on monographs, and they need this support to survive. But it did make me start to wonder- how different is this really than self-publishing? If this is not going to be driven by the free market, how could we make our works more accessible? For that reason, I’m impressed by what the University of Athabasca has done, making all its books open-access. You can purchase its excellent books in a paper format, or download them for free. If you are interested in Canadian or indigenous history, I particularly recommend Carter and McCormack’s Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands. But also check out their book list, all of which can be downloaded as a free PDF. The press says that it is the first in Canada to have open access books. I wonder, could other presses follow their lead? And how can they have a business model that makes this possible?
I don’t think that this is a feasible model for most academic presses. I also think that both authors (including myself) and university presses deserve and need to see a return on their work. But I do wonder -in some niches, where there is never going to be a large market, could the universities subsidize the cost of some open access works, for which the press is unlikely to ever make a profit? How could greater support be given to university presses, so that they could do this with a small portion of their catalog? Or are there other models to support our libraries’ book budgets, to avoid the terrible trade-off between purchasing monographs or journals?
Prof. Shawn Smallman, Portland State University