Cancel my subscription please

I have assumed the co-editorship of Seminar, the journal for Canadian and Australasian German Studies. We’re in transition right now, but I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of open access and the rising cost of academic journals. The Times recently reported on the issue, but of course it’s nothing new. Everyone knows the story that journal costs keep rising, library budgets keep shrinking and the big loser are monographs, those things called books that libraries used to be in the business of buying, storing and making accessible.

On one level the issue is very simple: no one should publish any academic journal that isn’t open access (i.e. online, free and unrestricted). Why should libraries pay presses, whether corporate or academic, for things we write for free, supported by tax-payer money? Storage costs are so low that any academic society could support server space for archiving purposes; no one gets paid for the articles; and the copy editing is usually also done by university-subsidized labor. If all journals everywhere became free, that would free up a tremendous amount of money for libraries to spend on books, giving a huge boon in particular to the humanities.

Now here’s the complicated part: storage costs are not zero. Dealing with the technical problems of preserving a digital archive are also not zero. Presses provide archival continuity as editors and institutional ownership of journals change. Presses also do a really good job archiving their materials and making the material compatible with academic search engines like MUSE, JSTOR, or Proquest. Those services provide a huge value. But: why pay for the journal and then the aggregator, essentially paying twice, not only for something created for free, but for something that google could probably search just as well (or a cheap front-end interface for all academic journals could be created piggy-backing on google). It might not be as pretty or as functional as JSTOR, but it would work and the cost savings would be huge.

The real problem seems to be the archive. If we all went open access today that would be great. But there is a huge digitized record of research that is part of corporate websites which most researchers wouldn’t want to give up.  Admittedly, over time its value would diminish if no new material was added. But it would still be valuable. The other problem is that journals help support academic societies — the royalties from MUSE go to support the activities of the German Studies association in Canada or the Goethe Society (another affiliation I have), just as I’m sure that’s true in the natural and social sciences as well. If you think societies and their conferences are a good thing, then having a way for money to be channeled to their work is a plus. Taking it from library budgets, however, might be a way of eating our tales — the less the library has to spend the harder it is to publish, the harder it is to motivate why we need to get together or even exist.

But the real real problem is probably one of will: why should I change if no one else does? It’s the old conundrum of saving the environment or the tragedy of the commons. Are the cost-savings associated with Seminar — subscription = $60/year (check that, $150 for institutions) — really worth the work it will take to transfer it to online open-access format? For saving $60 to the library budget we incur hundreds if not thousands of dollars of costs associated with restarting the journal online. And then there are the sciences with their $15,000/year costs per journal. Shouldn’t they be the ones to go first? Or is this one of those classic lead by example moments?

I don’t like to wage battles between disciplines. I think it is more productive to think about the university as a whole and try to find those principles that unite our diverse ways of thinking and asking questions. But on this one, I feel like there does need to be a bit of turf battle. Why is it so hard to wage?

Maybe that’s the better place to put my energy as a new editor.

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