Why do we need academic journals in the first place?

It may not get as much attention as the disruption that is occurring in newspapers, e-books or other parts of the mainstream media industry, but there is a revolution of sorts going on in the academic publishing business. It has recently exploded into public view with the boycott of Elsevier — one of the largest publishers of academic journals — over legislation that would block researchers from sharing their work. And for some, it has raised a broader question about academic publishing: namely, in an era of democratized distribution of information, why do we need expensive paywalled journals in the first place?

The boycott of Elsevier (please see disclosure below) seems to have become the flashpoint for many in the academic publishing world, and much like the recent grassroots protest against supporters of proposed anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, the boycott is based on Elsevier’s support of a proposed law — in this case the Research Works Act. One of the main elements of the legislation that has sparked criticism is that it would prevent researchers who get federal funding from publishing their work anywhere other than a professional journal like the ones that Elsevier controls (Elsevier has published an open letter in response to the boycott, saying many of the issues raised have been distorted).

Traditional publishers are threatened by the “open access” movement

Researchers say the law is a direct attack on the “open access” movement, which supports the sharing of scientific research outside the paywalled silos of academic journals. Critics say the academic-publishing business is unfair because it takes research that scientists have in many cases created with public funding, gets other academics to do peer reviews of that research for free, and then publishes it in limited-access journals that are only available to institutions and in many cases cost thousands of dollars. In an opinion piece in The Guardian last year, author George Monbiot said:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

The open-access movement — which has been supported by many influential researchers, including sociologist Danah Boyd and Fields Medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers — is part of a broader effort to encourage what some call “open science,” or the sharing of knowledge as a way of promoting collaboration. The Research Works Act would make this much more difficult: among other things, it would prevent the National Institutes of Health from allowing researchers it funds to publish their research anywhere other than a professional journal, something the NIH has allowed for several years.

Quantum physicist and open-science advocate Michael Nielsen recently published a book called Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, which describes how research in mathematics, astronomy and other disciplines has been accelerated by the open sharing of research through blogs and other forums. Some of those forums include the Public Library of Science or PLoS, the open-research archive called arXiv.org, and services such as Mendeley — a kind of social network for academics — as well as ResearchGate, which my colleague Bobbie Johnson has written about.

Why not get rid of academic journals altogether?

In a blog post at the ScienceBlogs network, Ph.D. student Kevin Bonham raised an interesting point: instead of just protesting Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act, or boycotting its journals because they are too expensive, why not give up the entire practice of publishing in professional journals altogether? As Bonham puts it:

We don’t need any academic journal’s services anymore. If you publish in any journal, you are making it easier for them to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t… the truth is, journals add very little value to science, and impose huge monetary costs, as well as costs in terms of delayed publication and limited distribution.

But what about peer review, the professional oversight that academic journals are supposed to provide so that science doesn’t go astray? As Bonham notes, peer review is a relatively modern invention — and it has also failed rather spectacularly in many cases, with clearly bogus or questionable research being published after multiple reviews by other academics. Why couldn’t researchers review each other’s work on blogs and in forums like Mendeley or the Public Library of Science instead?

As Bonham and others have noted, the biggest obstacle to this happening — and to the spread of open access or open science as a whole — isn’t the control that publishers like Elsevier have over the professional publishing process. The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life. Even some researchers who support the Elsevier boycott have said they will continue to publish in its journals because they feel that they have to.

Until that structure changes, or until enough researchers and academics decide they don’t care about the system and start to publish their work freely, the current system is unlikely to disappear any time soon. But just like the rest of traditional media industry, it is looking shakier and less stable all the time.

Disclosure: Reed Elsevier, the parent company of science publisher Elsevier, is an investor in GigaOmniMedia, the company that publishes GigaOM.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and View D’World