Open Access Journals

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.

After Aaron Swartz killed himself people began to comment on the JSTOR terms of use. JSTOR and MIT had been suing Swartz for illegally distributing academic articles (see here for more links on the case)–a violation of the terms of use and a federal crime for which he could have been jailed for thirty five years. Some commentators have focused on the misuse of the legal system in this case, however Swartz did break the law and, for better or worse, JSTOR has a business model in which they control access to academic articles. Interested people either need to have institutional access to read articles, purchase an individual membership, or purchase articles individually (a randomly selected article ran twelve dollars). And, even then, JSTOR is mostly just a convenient database since articles generally do not appear on the site for several years after publication.

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.

Assorted Links

  1. When Philosophers Join the Kill Chain-An op-ed by Mark Levine in Al-Jazeera about Bradley Strawser, the philosopher who has been defending the moral imperative of done strikes. Levine is highly critical of Strawser, particularly in his attempts to defend the use of drones through the concepts of just war without considering the implications for actual people. Another academic is less than thrilled at Levine’s blunt use of philosophers, but agrees with his overall point.
  2. Remembering Gore Vidal: A Dying Breed– A blog post on the Economist that points out that Gore Vidal was a breed of public intellectual that is not commonly seen anymore.
  3. Court Rejects Assertion that ‘Tenure’ Means Continuous Employment-A law professor in Michigan was fired after she refused to teach the assigned courses, an act that has now been upheld through a court case and an appeal. I am not entirely clear on what the details of the case were, but it seems that she tried to make the claim that tenure entails continuous lifetime employment, something that the court explicitly did not uphold. It seems that this will just help define the parameters of behavior that warrants termination, but it is a definition that bears watching.
  4. Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage– A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how humanities can survive in the future. Not much new here, but it is nice that this sort of argument seems to be slowly picking up steam. The idea is that communication, writing, teaching skills need to be taught and then we should stop writing books that are utterly incomprehensible.
  5. Writers and readers on Twitter and Tumblr-An article on Slate that implies that “coddling” (my words) has a negative impact on art and artistry, so the feel good back-patting that takes place between authors and readers online only serves as a cheap form of therapy, but does not improve literature. I think that the author is not totally wrong.
  6. The “Immeasurable”– An enlightening graph about grading.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?