Why Keep Academic Journals As They Have Been?

Over the past decade, newspapers have learned that they need to change to survive. The deaths of papers all over the United States made that quite apparent, and the journalism industry, though hating to do it, learned to adapt. Today’s newspapers aren’t merely print, but are intertwined with other media, including television, radio, and websites of many natures, including blogs, online versions of the print edition, and quite a bit more. Flexibility and adaptability have become part of any newspaper model.

Academic journals, not having had to respond to either changing readership habits or advertising models, have not similarly expanded. With “captive” writers–scholars who need to publish in “name” academic venues in order to gain grants, tenure, and promotion–clamoring to provide them with content and libraries (not themselves beholden to any commercial model) trapped into paying almost anything the publisher demands, there has been little incentive for change. Even online, an academic journal (with a few significant exceptions, of course) looks little different today than it did a quarter of a century ago.

The newspapers had to adapt–or die. For academic journals, there has been no similar need.

So far, at least.

It may take an act of some bravery, but the mechanics of presenting a digital-age replacement to the traditional academic journal, one that can easily step into the “certification” role of the “top” journals, are not hard to imagine. The bravery will come when one large university or university system says, “Enough!” and offers its own replacement, challenging the rest of academia to show why the new entity is not as scholarly and relevant as any older venue.

The universities, after all, are paying for the work that the commercial academic-journal publishers are profiting from. They don’t need to continue giving scholarship away for the commercial gain of others. On the other hand, they don’t need to lay their own proprietary blanket over the work of their professors, as commercial enterprises do when their employees create. They can find ways of presenting and promoting the work their scholars do, ways that promote the university, the scholar, and subsequent work based on that presented.

Sure, there are plenty of academic journals housed in universities and even colleges. But these tend to be in individual “silos,” each one standing on its own and not as part of a system-wide collective, well channeled, mapped, and linked. Such a system could provide a home for “traditional” academic journals, but also for blogs related to them, or aggregating sites relevant to particular topics. Some parts of the collective could be carefully structured, vetted, and edited, while other portions could be clearly informal. The trick would be to make the whole easily negotiated, both by visitors and by scholars, particularly by scholars wishing to contribute, or to update their contributions.

Problems, in terms of university administration, will come when desire to protect reputation butts up against academic freedom, as will happen. This, probably, is one reason why nobody has yet to offer a large, freewheeling site of this sort.

What we would have would be something akin, in part, to academia.edu, a blog, a wiki, an online academic journal, and much more–all structure so that they interact, so that a researcher can go back and forth between parts with ease, and can even organize documents, providing their own aggregation within the whole.

Once something like this appears–a CUNY Research Commons (to imagine one in my own system), for example–the commercial journals will begin to disappear and the non-profit journals will migrate into such sites. Scholarship will begin to be more accessible and usable. The universities will be able to boast of work that is there for all to see, and scholarship, in general, will be able to come out from behind the walls that have been built, too often, around it.