What journals do
Mon 30 May 2011 12:32 PM
There's an interesting roundtable discussion in Theoria about journal publishing. The editors of several journals discuss the role that journals play in professional philosophy, including the evaluation of philosophers and funding decisions. They also discuss the possibilities of open access publishing.
Social responsibility of editors
Late in the discussion, someone from the audience asks "Why should the editor of a philosophical journal think so much about how the academic system appoints people to their jobs?" The alternative, one of the panelists suggests, is to just "produce good journals."
Sven Ove Hansson resists this suggestion, saying that "journals are part of, and very much integrated in, the academic system." And he's right. Whether journal editors face up to it or not, what and who gets published has real consequences for what and who gets attention and funding. There are institutional consequences of running a journal one way rather than another; that is to say, running a journal has political consequences. So editting a journal is (among other things) a political act.
More than that, there no such thing as a good journal simpliciter. What it is to be a good journal depends on how the journal will be used. The standards for how things should be written, how much citation is required, and so on all depend on the audience. For a journal with no intended audience at all, there is no difference between a good journal and a bad journal. To consider the most extreme possibility, imagine philosophers who toil to produce a journal which is immediately dropped into a black hole.*
So part of an editor's responsibility is to consider who the audience of the journal is and how they are going to use it. Given the academic system, evaluators and administrators are among the audience and the appointment and promotions system is part of how it is used. So producing good journals requires thinking about the academic systems in which the journals exist.
In the first place, journals are aimed at scholars interested in advancing the discussion about such-and-so. So, to more charitably read the original question, one can worry that editors are concerned too much about the academic system. The political reality means that editors should think a lot about it, though.
The fact that journal articles are part of an ongoing discussion underscores the value of open access publishing. Simply put, a more accesible article is more likely to be available and be read in places where it can make a difference. To their credit, most of the editors in the roundtable voice support for open access. Theoria itself is an OA journal.
One strange dissent is from Vincent Hendricks. Discussing the case in his own country, he says:
[The Danes] are introducing an interesting angle on open access. The idea is to have all Danish research articles included in a database, which is basically an open access database belonging to the state. Since the money for the research is paid by the state, everybody should have access to the database. Of course, there is a potential clash here between the state on one hand and, say, the journals on the other. There's no way Springer is going to publish papers that have already been published on a state-controlled website. If researchers have to put up their publications on a state-owned database, then nobody is going to publish their papers anyway. I doubt that those who decided this have any idea what they are getting their hands into.
I call this 'strange' because it describes open access in some bizarro universe. There are already funding agencies that require open access publishing (e.g. the Wellcome Trust circa 2004) and it's not a novel Danish innovation. Contra Hendricks' insistence, a requirement to put papers in a central database is compatible with later publishing in a journal. In physics, almost every new paper is placed in a public archive (the arXiv) even when it later appears in a traditional journal. Somehow physics journals survive at publishers including Springer.
The most charitable interpretation is that Hendricks just doesn't know any of this. He coedits Synthese, a philosophy journal, so perhaps developments in physics and biomedicine just haven't shown up on his radar. Yet, for reasons I suggested above, part of his responsibility as editor is to think about the broader context.**
The less charitable interpretation is that he does know about the developments in physics and biomedicine but conveniently overlooks them. Commercial publishers do this when they argue that open access would destroy academic publishing. Paranoia about open access is probably the narrative encouraged by Springer itself.*** Even though Springer could survive in an open access world, there is more money to be made if they can go on exploiting free labour and a captive market.
* I am here setting aside any value that writing the journal might have for the writers and editors themselves. Although they may derive some benefit from the process, it's incidental to academic publishing.
** Hendricks would disagree with the argument above, I think. He says in response to the question from the floor: "We have to produce good journals. That's all I really have to say about that."
*** There is some reason to suspect that the editors of Synthese are corporate toadies. I don't want this to be another post about the Synthese debacle, though... oops.
Mon 30 May 2011 01:52 PM
One bit of that <i>Theoria</i> roundtable that I found very interesting/ surprising -- and telling -- was that Hans Rott, the editor of <i>Erkenntnis</i>, said that his own university no longer subscribes to <i>Erkenntnis</i>, because it's just too expensive. (A quick google says it's $1100 per year.) I think this really highlights, in a striking and concrete way, the ridiculous prices of the for-profit publishing companies.
Sun 12 Jun 2011 05:40 PM
Good point, Greg.
(Sorry about the excessive time that the comment spent in the moderation queue. Some configuration issues with the blog.)