A new report from the National Humanities Alliance finds that the average cost per page of a sample of eight humanities and social sciences journals is $526, almost twice the costs for science and technology journals. The analysis of the eight journals was conducted to help disciplinary associations get a better understanding of the economics of their publishing ventures, at a time of increasing pressure to embrace the open access movement, in which research is available online and free. The humanities alliances report finds that open access would not be a “sustainable option” for the journals studied. At the same time, the report suggests that a more complete study — going well beyond the eight journals — is needed. Such a study might better examine differences among journals in the humanities and social sciences disciplines, the current report says. The new report may be found here. Analysis of it from the American Historical Association may be found here.
via Quick Takes: The Cost of Journals — and Their Future – Inside Higher Ed.
So how’s that for a shocking little piece of information? What’s even more tragic is that the readership of those journals is often quite small. Being published is the ultimate goal in academia and when it happens it can represent many months, sometimes even years of work beginning with research, defining and argument, writing, editing, submitting and to journals, bringing it into line with their editorial expectations, and then simply waiting. And yet once the article comes out, it is met with little reaction or even deafening silence. Few people read academic journals until they themselves have to write articles.
But there’s the rub. The system is not suited to the times and it hasn’t been for some time. For the most part traditional academia and the processes through which it grants diplomas to students and tenure and promotion to faculty is geared toward print and different time when the book and the printed word were the be all and end all. Not only did you have to understand an idea or an argument and the processes by which one arrived at a conclusion, but you had to have memorized all the supporting evidence. Knowledge wasn’t a few mouse clicks away, so we had to store massive amounts of it in our heads.
Most importantly, the printed word was immutable. It was not easy to publish a book and it was not cheap either. So if something went into print and was made public, it had to be worth it. The book and writing have been sacred in almost every culture at some point and to some degree.
And so our system has us write papers. I wrote my first research paper in 8th grade. We took field trips to the city library to do the research, turned in note cards at steps along the way, then a draft, and then finally a 8-10 page paper.
There were more in high school and college. I generally got very good grades on them, but no one read them but me and my teachers, or sometimes peers in the more humanities oriented classes where we did peer correction. Technology now offers lots of strategies to break out of this pattern, but that’s for another day. Then, of course, there is the Master’s Thesis and the Ph.D. Dissertation.
My job has shielded me for the pressure of “Publish or Perish” academia, but I do have a number of articles floating around out there. I’m proud of them and they represent a lot of work. I’ve received responses on them from people I don’t know who found them useful and interesting, but no one has every disagreed with me.
When I publish something online, however, do get feedback, immediately. Sure, most of it is useless, be it positive, negative or neutral. Whether someone tells you you are an idiot or a genius, the utility of the comment is pretty much zero unless they engage your argument. But some people do, and it is very rewarding. Moreover, even if no one engages you at all, you can sometimes see the argument ripple. It may be reposted or linked to, and you can find that in the visitor statistics in your site.
Depending on how content is made available (free or to subscribers, password protected or open access, etc), the internet make every single connected computer a potential reader for your work. A journal, only those readers who are subscribed to the journal, who access it at their library, or who have access to a journal database that contains it. Of course academic journals are not found in your average public library.
The real dirty little little secret is that many academic journals serve little other purpose and to provide scholars with publication vehicles. Because if they didn’t, there would be no way for scholars to advance. The really important “journals of record” simply do not have space for all the research at the produced, especially in the digital age. That is not to say the research published in these other journals is necessarily second rate. It may well be, third rate even. But it could also be better.
And that brings me to my final point, which is the utility of the research. Let’s suppose for a moment that I am a Shakespeare scholar and I have a particularly interesting and provocative way to looking at his work, a startlingly original way that elucidates the text and from which we can extrapolate a whole new school of literary criticism.
Which is really the more desirable approach. That I go on leave next year and sit in the library writing up my argument in meticulous detail so that by the end of my leave year I have an article submitted to a handful of journals that I will hear back from several months later, or that I harness my excitement and take it public immediately in my blog. Maybe I begin teaching my students the text using this approach and they engage the texts using lesson plans I share. Others share theirs too, and we set up a wiki, diigo group, etc.
This is scholarship in action, scholarship the contributes, and scholarship that allows the academic to play the role of public intellectual, so desperately needed in todays bleak media landscape.
But now you will ask me about assessment and evaluation. How do we judge performance in such a system? How do we evaluate an online resource? I didn’t say I had answers. Besides, it’s late in the day and this is is my random thoughts and ideas. So what do you think?