Readers of the blog have become familiar with my complaints about our publishing system (scan the academia tag for examples): it’s needlessly slow, inefficient, hierarchical, profit-driven, exploitative, and also doesn’t work well.
Simple example: a junior scholar sends a perfectly reasonable sociology paper to a high-status journal. The editor commissions three anonymous reviews, and four months later the paper is rejected on the basis of a few hours of their volunteer labor. This increases the value — and subscription price — of the for-profit journal, because its high rejection rate is a key selling point. The author will now revise the paper (some of the advice was good, but nothing to suggest the analysis or conclusions were actually wrong) and send it to another journal, where three more anonymous reviewers — having no access to the previous round of review and exchange — will donate a few hours labor to a different for-profit publisher. In a few months we’ll find out what happens. Repeat. The outcome will be a good paper, improved by the process, published 1-3 years after it was written — during which time the paper, the code, and the data, were not available to anyone else. It will be available for $39.95 to non-academics, but most of the people who are aware of it will be able to read it because their institutions buy it as part of a giant bundle of journals from the publisher. The writer may get a job and, later, tenure. Thus, the process produces a good paper, inaccessible to most of the world, as well as a person dependent on the process, one with the institutional position and incentive to perpetuate it for another generation. There’s more wrong than this, but that’s the basic idea. The system is not completely non-functional, it’s just very bad.
With current technology, replacing our outdated journal system is not difficult. We could save vast amounts of money while providing free, faster access to research for everyone. Like our healthcare system, academic publishing is laboring under the weight of supporting its usurious middlemen. Getting them out of the way is a problem of politics and organization, not technology or cost. We academics do all the work already – research, writing, reviewing, editing – contributing our labor without compensation to giant companies that claim to be helping us get and keep our incredibly privileged jobs. But most of us are supported directly or indirectly by the state and our students (or their banks), not the journal publishers. We don’t need most of what the journal publishers do any more, and working for them is degrading our research, making it less innovative and transformative, less engaging and engaged, less open and accountable.
The people in math and physics developed a workaround for this system in arXiv.org, where people share papers before they are peer-reviewed. Other paper servers have arisen as well, including some run by universities and some run privately for profit, some in specific disciplines. But there is a need for a new general, open-access, open-source, paper server for the social sciences, one that encourages linking and sharing data and code, that serves its research to an open metadata system, and that provides the foundation for a post-publication review system. I hope that SocArXiv will enable us to save research from the journal system. Once its built, anyone will be able to use it to organize their own peer-review community, to select and publish papers (though not exclusively), to review and comment on each other’s work — and to discover, cite, value, and share research unimpeded. We will be able to do this because of the brilliant efforts of the Center for Open Science (which is already developing a new preprint server) and SHARE (“a free, open, data set about research and scholarly activities across their life cycle”).
And we hope you’ll get involved: sharing research, reviewing, moderating, editing, mobilizing. Lots to do, but the good news is we’re doing most of this work already.
SocArXiv won’t take over this blog, though. You can read more about the project, and see the steering committee, in the announcement of our partnership. For updates, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or email to add your name to the mailing list. In fact, you can also make a tax-deductible contribution to SocArXiv through the University of Maryland here.
When your paper is ready, check SocArXiv.org.