This page was previously used as an index to those of my publications for which versions are available online. I am now using the URL as a location for the following commentary on a related topic. After I wrote it as a web page, the editor of Learned Publishing asked to reprint it, and it appeared in vol. 19 of that journal, pp. 234–5, in July 2006.
Later, in 2009, at a time when the journal Computational Linguistics had recently gone electronic-only and open-access, its Editor read the Learned Publishing piece and asked me to write a related paper for the “Last Words” spot in his journal. Unfortunately, after I had put some time and effort into drafting a paper and sent it in, the Editor decided that it did not match what he was looking for in respects that he had not discussed with me in advance. Rather than see the work go completely to waste, I include the Computational Linguistics draft as another page on this site.
Britain has some claim to have invented the modern learned journal. I believe there were forerunners in Italy which have not survived, but the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (first published in 1665) is the oldest academic journal that still flourishes today, and Britain is the home of a wealth of journals supporting scholarship worldwide, from household names like The Lancet and Nature down to hundreds of publications serving obscure specialisms. So it is ironic that Britain is now set to kill the whole system off.
The hit-men are the research councils – the organs of State that dole out grants to enable academics to do the kind of research which needs salaried assistants and equipment, which nowadays means most university research. Now that we have the internet, the research councils are not satisfied that journals are an adequate medium for disseminating research findings. They are expensive; few university libraries can afford to take all the titles they might like, and not everyone has access to a university library. So the research councils are proposing to make it a condition of future grants that any resulting output is published online.
The likely consequence is that many, perhaps all learned journals will collapse. Universities are struggling to keep afloat financially; their journal spending is a significant feature of outgoings. If they know that much of what they currently pay to read will in future be freely available, subscriptions will be dropped. Journals will be wound up, or turn into electronic publications run by academics for academics at minimal cost. Even the kind of scholarship which does not need research grants will be published online, for lack of traditional printed outlets.
Does it matter? If online publication would achieve what printed journals achieve now, it would be foolish to pine nostalgically for ink on paper. But it won’t. In the first place, the learned societies which maintain the journals provide a great deal of “value added” by way of professional editing and production services. Academics are experts on their subjects, but most are no better at writing clearly and unambiguously, or even avoiding spelling mistakes, than others tend to be these days. Before an academic manuscript gets into print it has to be polished, often heavily polished, to make it readable; but the research councils propose that authors will upload their own stuff into electronic “depositories”, so the polishing will stop. Scholarly writing often depends on tricky things like mathematical notation, letters with foreign accents, diagrams and illustrations – journal staff know how to deal with these things electronically, the average academic does not.
Then again, the functions of the better learned journals are not limited to distributing particular articles; journals create intellectual communities which are more than the sum of their individual members. An academic will commonly have a personal subscription to at least the one or two leading journals in his field, or will routinely scan issues as they reach the library; so the members of a discipline share a common awareness of a body of evolving knowledge, and authors do not have to keep explaining everything from the beginning before getting to the meat of their own contributions. Journals run book reviews, a crucial service for anyone who aims to keep abreast of a developing field. There may be pages of news about the activities of the society sponsoring the journal, or about events in the outside world which have some special relevance to the discipline in question. Often a learned society will be a reality more through its journal than through physical meetings, or premisses (which only a few possess).
It might seem that these things could be provided in electronic journals. But in practice they will fall away, because the way people consult electronic material is different. When a new issue of a printed journal arrives, the natural thing to do is to skim through the whole, perhaps reading only a few items carefully but at least glancing at everything. With electronic publication one goes straight to a particular item that has been brought to one’s attention – there is no physical continuity encouraging one to access the other items published under the same brand. A “virtual journal” is just a scattering of separate items in the ocean of blogs, commercial hype, teenage home pages, and porn which is the World Wide Web, and without professional editing the academic material will not even look notably less amateurish than the rest.
At a meeting in September, spokesmen for scholarly publishers met research council officers in the hope of finding compromises to avoid destroying a system of communication which has served scholarship well for centuries. The research councils were clear that they had a legal obligation to make findings that had been paid for by public funds as accessible as possible to the public. One might suppose that they were entitled to balance that goal against the goal of maintaining the health of academic disciplines which provide the context in which individual research projects are undertaken. But then, since the Jarratt Report of 1985 it has been explicit State policy that university staff are paid to help their employers compete against sister institutions, rather than to serve wider ends. Perhaps there are no agents in Britain now who can claim a legitimate interest in the health of scholarship.
Legitimately or not, plenty of academics do care about the future of their subjects; so one might expect howls of donnish protest against the proposals. But the subject which is making most of the running is an untypical one. In most areas, the best journals are owned by not-for-profit societies or university presses; there may be other journals produced by commercial publishers, but competition forbids profiteering. However, because online publication depends on computer technology, it is computer scientists who are most aware of the drive towards online publishing, and computer science – whether because it is new, or because of the general nerdishness of us who practice it – has failed to create a successful infrastructure of learned societies and publication. Commercial publishers are charging massive fees for the journals they have created to fill the gap, and academics naturally object to paying shareholders through the nose to read findings which taxpayers’ money has produced. Most computer specialists are not much bothered about editorial quality control (they wouldn’t know what a verb is anyway). So they are happy with the proposals. Once humanities and social science academics (who do care about clear writing) grasp what is about to hit them, it will be too late.
In Britain the die is now all but cast. An interesting question is what will happen elsewhere. So far, there has been little indication of the USA or the leading Continental countries moving in the same direction. If they do, then it seems that international scholarship must disintegrate into a babble of individuals and tiny coteries all talking essentially to themselves. If other countries do not go the same way, then scholarly publication will continue (and British libraries will have to go on paying for overseas journals); but our nation will no longer be contributing an important voice to the scholarly chorus.