Monday, January 16, 2012

Death to Academic Journals, or, 150 Million Readers Turned Away

JSTOR made an announcement this week that made me want to tear my hair out. JSTOR is an online database of journal articles that you can only access with a subscription, something only academic libraries have. So unless you work for a university, or have a good friend who does, the thing is useless to you.

You can reach the title and abstract of JSTOR articles via an online search, and they regularly come up when I search for things. But you can't read them. So you are left gnawing your knuckles in frustration, wondering if the information you want is just a paywall away, trying to think of some professor friend who owes you a favor. According to JSTOR themselves, they turn away 150 million requests for journal articles every year.

What, exactly, is the purpose of academic publishing? Isn't it to get research out to the world? And yet JSTOR turns away 150 million knowledge seekers every year. What good is being done by turning away those poor slobs, who have the misfortune of not being professors? And don't try to tell me that people have to pay so creators can be rewarded for their efforts, because the professors who write the articles on JSTOR don't get paid a cent. The money all goes to the publishers of the journals.

The announcement JSTOR made is that they will start offering limited outside access to their journals:
In the coming weeks, JSTOR will make available the beta version of a new program, Register & Read, which will give researchers read-only access to some journal articles, no payment required. All users have to do is to sign up for a free “MyJSTOR” account, which will create a virtual shelf on which to store the desired articles.

But there are limits. Users won’t be able to download the articles; they will be able to access only three at a time, and there will be a minimum viewing time frame of 14 days per article, which means that a user can’t consume lots of content in a short period. Depending on the journal and the publisher, users may have an option to pay for and download an article if they choose.

To start, the program will feature articles from 70 journals.
Better than nothing, I guess, but not much. I say it's time to abolish academic journals altogether. We should just set up web sites where people can post their work and let readers judge them, offer editorial suggestions, etc. Or, if some philanthropist wants to endow a journal in a particular field, it could have an editor to supervise the content. But there would be no paper journals piling up by the felled forest in library basements, and the information would be free for all.

Somebody is probably thinking, but who will supervise the content of these web sites? False information will be published that will lead people astray! Without peer review, the quality of academic work will collapse! And how will tenure committees know which assistant professors have enough game to be worth keeping on? To which I answer: academic journals are already full of crap, peer review is mainly a system of forced conformity that has nothing to do with quality, and the number of articles in "top" journals is a bogus measure of scholarship anyway.

The purpose of scholarship is to learn things and share them with others. Once upon a time, academic journals were the best way to do that. Now we have a vastly better way, the Internet. I suggest we use it.

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