Sunday, November 07, 2010

Publish. verb. to make something public.

The irony of publishing today is that publishing does anything but make something public.

With the invention of the printing press, ‘publishing’ became a live possibility. That is, a means for the mass reproduction of written material was available, and in conjunction with the Reformation and related social and religious changes, put to great effect. Writers could, with the proper backing, produce a text and see it promulgated to all and sundry. It was possible for private discourse to become public propaganda (in the most beneficent sense of the word).

As publishing developed it became more and more a means to share – to share ideas and information. How else would you get your ideas into the hands of others interested to read them and hear them, short of going in person to speak?
Eventually you get the advent of periodicals and journals. Regular publications designed to highlight and desseminate worthy writings on a particular topic. Now ‘to publish’ means to have a piece deemed worthy by the editors, or peer-review, of being given a hearing. A form of censorship and vetting enters the process. And not necessarily a bad one. The control of publishing is also a filter for garbage, provided the filter can be trusted.

But we now live in a world where academic publishing does anything but make knowledge public. That is, the cost of subscriptions continues to increase, and journals become harder to access, and copyright is locked up and articles remain hidden behind fireways and pay-walls, and all this made sense in an older world, but this is the world of the internet. This is the age when someone can publish something online, public for anyone who can get hold of a computer with a connection (admittedly a small percent of the population, yet a staggeringly large small-percent).

So now the cost of academics choosing to publish in elitist journals, with commercially-driven pricing agendas, is not to spread their ideas, but to refuse to spread their ideas. ‘Publish or perish’ actually means ‘play the prestige game’ of elitest academic publishing. What good is another academic tome selling for $200? It will only be bought by libraries and borrowed by a handful of people. What good is an article that is published 3 years later than it was relevant, in a journal only those with access to wealthy libraries can read? When this kind of work could be freely and publicly published for all? Sure, we can quibble about the value of peer-review (though even in the hard sciences peer-review is not always all it makes itself out to be – there are personal and political agendas there too) and filtering the garbage, But if a work is good enough to stand on its own, then readers should be critical enough to come to their own determinations and conclusions. It is the task of the student and reader to assess their sources thoroughly.

Knowledge wants to be free. Ideas live by copying. No-one loses from free information, except the gatekeepers of dead media.


Mike W said...

why cant the academic elites produce a peer reviewed free online journal?
Where does the money go?

Seumas Macdonald said...

There's no reason they couldn't, except for a perceived bias against (even a peer-reviewed) online journal. That it would be (a) online, and (b) new, would count against its prestige, and thus its reliability.

As I understand it, many of the journals are owned by publishing houses, not the academic societies that are associated with them, so the money gets rolled into their profits.