I spent a lot of time searching JSTOR’s article database in the weeks leading up to my college graduation. I knew that I was going to be spending at least a year without much access to university resources, so I searched the database and saved copies of anything that looked interesting. While I have not yet read many of those articles, I still have them saved so that I will have access to them later. More recently I have had access to university library resources in graduate school, but I suspect that if I am facing such a precipice again, I will repeat my search in an academic version of doomsday-preppers.
To their credit, though, it seems that JSTOR is becoming more accessible to the general public. Nor is JSTOR solely to blame for the limited access to academic articles. It is merely a glaring example of this type of problem.
Now, I am a young scholar. I am only now working on getting published with academic journals, with an eye towards making myself marketable for university positions in a few years. I have heard older scholars lament the problems with peer-reviewed journals, particularly those run by for-profit presses. The most common complaint is that peer reviewed articles are the most difficult piece of writing that a scholar can produce and yet that scholar does not receive any monetary compensation for it. Some have gone so far as to declare that scholars should refuse to publish with journals that are not open-access.
While I am sympathetic to the idea of boycotting at least those journals from for-profit publishers, that is a recourse available to established scholars who have the job and means to be able to do so. For anyone looking for that security or simply for a job, they will take publications where they can get them.
But there is a more general concern than who profits from the labor of academics: the state of the humanities. It is cliche to discuss the ivory tower of the academy and to disparage academics for writing for each other in such a way that the general public cannot understand them. Certainly, some academics fit such a characterization, but, most of the time, academics are not the overpaid, underworked, and generally unimpeachable class of people they are caricatured to be. Graduate students, in particular, don’t fit that bill. In an era of budget crunches and a move toward skills-based education, though, the humanities are considered obsolete. I disagree, but that is neither here nor there since my purpose is not to write another encomium for the humanities.
I think that many people study the humanities in college and for advanced degrees because they find it interesting. Long dead people, events, languages, plays, and poems speak to them. The reason that the humanities struggle financially, then, is because even the people to whom the humanities speak do not see it as a financially safe course. Instead they go into business or law or engineering. But the interest does not die. Even when it has been suppressed for years because of work and family obligations, it can later re-emerge.
I believe that if the articles were open access there are people who would read them because they are interested in the topic. This is not to say that making scholarly articles open access is a way to save the field financially, but an uptick in readership could increase public support for the humanities. The current model perpetuates a caricature of the humanities that is itself obsolete. That image seems to stem less from the field itself and more from the publishing model that is choking off the humanities. Thus, I support open-access journals because I think that they would foster long-term support for the humanities.