As academics, most of us feel a lot of pressure to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. With a high impact factor, if possible. That is a part of our trade and we do it, even though we often complain that no one reads academic publications outside a very small group of people who are interested in exactly the same thing as us. Once someone told me that the average academic paper gets read by 1.25 people. More optimistic guestimates say that it is 3, even 7, at any rate, no more than 10 people. These are discouraging news considering the amount of work and resources that go into each published article. Also discouraging considering that our research should be put to the service of the wider society, that we must communicate our findings and ideas to solve conundrums, offer alternatives, change minds.
But then, I read the article published on The Guardian entitled "Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist" by George Monbiot. Murdoch, really? The article points to the exorbitant fees that a person non-affiliated with an academic institution would have to pay if they wanted to access results published in an academic journal. Currently these fees range between US$31 and US$42 per article. Let's remember that non-academics are also our audience. They are the people who we work with, the people who agree to let us interview them, who fill out questionnaires, let us analyze their blood, and the people who ultimately might be able to organize for change. Of course, they can go to a library if there is one nearby. However, libraries are facing their own difficulties in this era of budgetary restraint and cuts to everything public. Annual subscriptions for journals range from a few hundreds to a few thousands of dollars. So library budgets are only further choked by these subscriptions that take up 65% of their funding according to Monbiot.
The tide might be changing, recently a panel chaired by Dame Janet Finch, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester argued that "access to Britain's published scientific research should be open and free of charge to all". Some highly regarded academic journals such as Ecology & Society (impact factor 3.3) or the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals have been publishing under an open-access system for years now. There is no free lunch, instead of the readership, the authors pay a fee. The fee for Ecology & Society is US$850, for PLoS ONE is US$1350. Presumably, the authors are able to cover this fee using the same public funds that support their research in the first place. If the authors are unable to pay that fee, the journals will wave it. For comparison, checking the "open access" box for a publication with a conventional academic publisher is about US$3,000. Is open-access the answer? Does it put to rest all the qualms about publishing in a largely specialized language? In English? Over the internet? Probably not, but it's a start.
It is difficult to wrap my head around the implications of academic publishing. I start to question if we should be publishing in academic venues at all. But let's say that we do, that there is value in peer-review, I think that there is still ample opportunity for experimenting with new models of publication and for questioning old ones. So the question that I like to put out to the community is: how shall we publish?