A Plea for Socialized Academic Journals

December 10, 2012

If you have kicked around my blogs a bit, you know that I have written some things for academic publication; and if you have looked at any of those items, you know that I tend to be fairly heavy on the citations.  I like to see what the experts have said, learn from it, and direct other people toward those sources.  That is what they have taught me to do in school.

But there is a problem.  You can’t check what the experts are saying if you don’t have access to their publications.  Professors, especially, publish their work in journals.  Good journals are competitive, peer-reviewed enterprises that receive more material than they can publish, and therefore must winnow out the chaff in order to select relatively worthy material.

There are many academic journals.  The vast majority of users of such journals have access through university libraries; few users could afford their own personal subscriptions.  Indeed, only the wealthiest university libraries are able to provide access to really broad lists of journals, across the various fields with which professors are involved.  At most universities, including even some large state universities (not to mention the several thousand smaller colleges), faculty cannot get decent access to such materials, because their schools can’t afford them.

Professors in leading research universities could publish their stuff in blogs and webpages like mine.  Sometimes there is some readership in that sort of thing; often there’s not much.  Readership aside, there’s no prestige to it, because there are typically no quality checks.  It’s my blog; I can write whatever I want.  Granted, the intelligent reader can often get a general sense of whether a given piece is worth looking at.  But this is a far cry from the precise, carefully critiqued output that characterizes the best academic journals.

In short, we have this ludicrous situation where a nation that prides itself on its universities, and on its long-term investments in research and discovery, is not able to make the knowledge arising from such activities available to the public or even to amateur and would-be scholars – not even to many of those at the PhD level.  Most people who might like to know what is in such journals, people who could be applying that research across disciplines and in everyday life, are able to access nothing more sophisticated than the local public library.  We have this arrangement simply because the companies that own the journals can make a lot of money from them.  In effect, people are earning PhDs and devoting their lives to research in order to help those companies become more profitable.

The United States sinks a tremendous amount of money into higher education.  The people of this country deserve to get the most from that investment.  The products of higher education are among the very first things that the public should receive from universities and other centers of learning.  No doubt the priesthood is best trained to interpret academic scriptures; no doubt some such publications would be misunderstood by the laity.  But openness could also have had some positive impacts on academic fashions and indulgences over the years.

As in the time of the Protestant Reformation, we have powerful new means for distribution of publicly funded knowledge.  The scriptures of the day should no longer be kept under virtual lock and key, effectively concealed from public view.  Academic journals should be made publicly available.

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