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Abandoning Print, Not Peer Review

Abandoning Print, Not Peer Review
February 28, 2008

Those tracking the move toward open access publishing look for milestones such as the new federal law that will make much research supported by the National Institutes of Health available online and free or the recent move by Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences to place professors' scholarly papers in an open repository.

A recent announcement out of Indiana hasn't received the same attention, but may represent a larger challenge in the end to the traditional model of scholarly publishing, which has evolved to a system with expensive print and online publications and limited access for readers. A professor at Indiana University who is editor of an anthropology journal published traditionally has started a new journal -- online and free -- using tools made available by the library. After a one-year experiment, the journal is now officially launched and is already attracting many more readers than the establishment print model ever did.

There are hundreds of scholarly journals published online, plenty of them free. But what makes Museum Anthropology Review's launch notable is that it is being led by the same editor as the traditional journal, Museum Anthropology, using the exact same peer review system. For years, the criticism of the free, online model has been that it would be impossible for it to replicate the quality control offered by traditional publishing. When online journal publishers have boasted of their quality control, print loyalists have said, in effect, "well maybe it's good, but it can't be as good as what we're doing."

To this subjective criticism, open access advocates can now point to someone who knows exactly what the standards are at both journals, as he's leading them both. And while the professor has set up the journal with his own university library, this project isn't focused on one university's scholarship, but the best articles in the field -- again, precisely the model that makes the best journals vital to scholars.

Jason Baird Jackson, an associate professor of folklore at Indiana and editor of two journals, said of the new one: "It was an experiment and now it's a venture." He said that he is hearing interest in the model especially from libraries, which find themselves struggling to pay for journal subscriptions and yet realizing that they have the technology infrastructure to support journal publishing and to in effect become the publishers (except for the part of the old role about charging to read).

While Jackson said he remains proud of the work published in Museum Anthropology, he said that Indiana's embrace of his new journal suggests the potential for moving online. "Imagine if each university library did this for even a handful of journals," he said. "Our scholarly literature would be accessible to humanity in a way that it's not now."

Christopher Kelty, a visiting assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University, said he sees the development of this new online alternative as important far beyond one specialized area of scholarship. The traditional journal in the field, Museum Anthropology, was published through the American Anthropological Association, which made a controversial deal with Wiley-Blackwell last year to take over management of the association's journals. The Indiana model isn't just online and free, but is much more decentralized, Kelty noted, giving individual editors and libraries the ability to work out arrangements that make sense for each publication.

"Centralizing everything and making everyone publish the same kinds of articles with the same formats and same constraints may cut costs, but it deadens the possibility for innovation or editorial vibrancy," Kelty said. "It does a disservice to the anthropologists who have agreed to edit section journals and who have done so primarily because of the intellectual challenge it offers in shaping a new intellectual tradition, responding to current events or transforming a journal with new blood."

Kelty added that the birth of the online, independent model isn't just "a sign of the times" but is "the sign of the end times" for traditional journal publishing.

It's certainly possible that other models may emerge, but many experts are pointing to the "university as publisher" model that Indiana's library is now assuming (as opposed to a university press or for-profit publisher playing the role) as key. Just Wednesday, for example, the Center for Studies in Higher Education, of the University of California at Berkeley, released a report on the topic, based on conference discussions exploring how to handle the economic and quality control issues, among others.

As Jackson explains the new model, he offers comparisons that relate to economics, readership and quality control. While clearly enthusiastic about the online approach, Jackson did not criticize Wiley-Blackwell and in fact said that he has found the company responsive and helpful in his work for the traditional journal. But the bottom line, he said, is that even though that journal isn't hugely expensive compared to others these days ($56 for two issues a year), the traditional model means that he has a subscriber base of libraries "in the hundreds." In contrast, he attracted 20,000 people to his new journal's Web site.

Without costs associated with "ink and postage," most costs go away at such journals, he said, because authors and peer reviewers aren't paid. He periodically has hired copy editors or purchased art for the old and new models, so those costs stay the same. Obviously, Indiana's library built up the infrastructure that allows him to place the journal online, but with those costs established, Jackson said he spent "about $20" last year to publish a journal reaching many more people.

Then there's the question of quality. Here Jackson said that he is showing quality control to be possible because he's recruiting the same types of people (or the same people) for peer review for both journals. He initially noticed that some online comments from peer reviewers came back along the lines of "what's it going to hurt to publish one more article." While in a cyberspace way, it wouldn't hurt at all, as there is no shortage of room or additional paper cost, Jackson said that he wants to be cognizant of people's time. Readers of the online journal need to feel a high comfort level in the quality of the journal, he said. "Just because we can doesn't mean we want to publish an infinite amount."

Once that's explained, he said, peer reviewers apply the same rigor as the past. So to Jackson, the new model has obvious appeal in that he's reaching more people, has a close relationship with his publisher, and faces no costs. The quality of submissions is similar, he said, although he has noticed that there are still some pre-tenured scholars who want to be in print because they aren't sure the more senior professors who will be judging them on tenure fully appreciate the online publishing world.

That will change over time, Jackson said, while he already sees the shift in audience. Using Web tracking software, he said he's sure that even small items in the new online journal are reaching audiences that never would subscribe, join the anthropology association or visit a university library. "I"m utterly certain that we are available to people who couldn't have consulted us before," he said.

Patricia Steele, the dean of libraries at Indiana, said she viewed the publication of Museum Anthropology Review as "a natural extension" of the library's role, and one she would like to replicate with other journals.

As a library system on a campus with strong humanities and social science programs -- with an emphasis on foreign languages and cultures -- Steele said that the library is providing access to journals in a range of media (and languages). While stressing that she wasn't yet certain that every journal should be handled this way, she said, "I'd like to see open access as the model."

Steele said there are obvious economies of scale (these journals don't charge and if different libraries publish different journals, a huge range of journals could become available free). But in the end, she said she was excited about what the new journal says about the mission of the university library. "I'm not even talking about the whole cost issue," she said. "And it still makes perfect sense. Our role is to provide scholarly materials, so the key question is what role do we play in the digital environment. What are we about? We're about acquiring and preserving and distributing knowledge," she said, and this model does that.

 

 

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