Saturday, January 12, 2013

Academic journals are an obsolete historical appendage of academia

I don't know if it's in my best interest to write this, but it's been a sad day and I feel like it needs to be said, again and again, by everyone who's been affected.

Historically, when information was spread exclusively via ink on paper, academic journals provided a crucial service to the academic community: distribution.

Over the past few decades, the advent of the internet has fundamentally changed the way we use and share information, but traditional journals remain a staple of academia - not because they continue to contribute unique value, but because they're entrenched in the system and careers still depend on publishing in them.

The internet makes publication of information easy and efficient. Modern academic journals don't provide any additional value that could not be easily and cheaply replicated, and because of their history as a physical medium they have been slow to realize the full potential of the publication of information via the internet. Journals still publish discrete issues, enforce page limits, and sometimes charge to print color figures. In the digital age, all of these practices are unnecessary - laughably so. They also charge exorbitant amounts for access to articles by anyone who isn't affiliated with a subscribing university.

What services do modern journals provide?

  1. Peer review. Journals don't provide this; volunteer academics do, for free. Journals simply organize it and then profit from it. Any impartial third party could serve the same function and provide their stamp of approval to a paper. There are also numerous alternatives to the current model of peer review employed by journals. One is to use post-publication review and encourage public dialogue on research publication websites. This is already done on journal websites and others like arxiv.

    Peer review and some degree of expert filtering is important, but many are frustrated with the current system for good reason. Peer review should have a well-defined and limited scope. Reviewers should check research for soundness and rigor and, where possible, replicate results. This is one of the pillars of the scientific method. Yet, modern peer review typically fails to attempt any sort of replication. It is also subjective and can be driven by political or ideological conflicts instead of validity. Given a medium such as the internet with practically unlimited storage space, reviewers should not be questioning the potential impact of work; they should reject bad science, and nothing else.

  2. Name recognition. You score more points for publishing in some journals than others. Is this a good thing? Papers should be judged by their measurable impact and the ensuing discussion, not which company deemed them worthy of publication. The current system makes it easy to scan someone's list of publications and instantly judge their quality as a researcher. Maybe it shouldn't be so easy.

  3. Topical organization. I love reading a few specific journals, like Global Ecology and Biogeography - it's a topic that interests me and so I find most of the papers within it interesting. But publishing separate journals for different subjects is hardly necessary. The internet already knows how to categorize and organize information. Wikipedia, Google, and Reddit are three very different examples of how this has been done successfully.

  4. Formatting and typesetting. This is not a concern with content published online - just use markdown or HTML. Even if a physical printout is required, thanks to tools like LaTeX, these tasks are simpler than ever.
Academic journals provide marginal, replaceable value to the dissemination of research, and by doing so they somehow earn the right to profit from and control access to the results of research (often publicly funded research) they had no part in. This is astonishingly unethical, and more people need to start challenging the status quo like Aaron did.

The rising generation that grew up in the age of the internet believes strongly that information should be free and available, not guarded for profit. Something needs to be done to disrupt academic publishers. The results of scientific research should be freely available to everyone, and private publishers should not act as gatekeepers to knowledge.

I reject the idea that any corporation can profit by publishing publicly funded research that should inherently be free. I want to see widespread rejection of this idea. Share your PDFs. They can't arrest all of us.

Aaron Swartz's Open Access Manifesto