I just published a paper I’m rather proud of that sums up three years of work documenting Marché Atwater in Montreal. The paper is full of photos and starts setting out some of my theory on seasonality and Canadian cuisine, and describes my evolving relationship with photographic methodologies. But what makes this article interesting, and what makes it warrant a blog post, is that everyone with an internet connection can read it. The paper is in Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures, which unlike most journals is open access. So go ahead and read my paper!
Why this is unusual is that academia still operates on a particularly draconian scarcity model for knowledge. An academic career is partly determined by the number of papers one publishes, the quality of the journal as measured by “impact factor”, which is a measure of how often papers in that journal are cited in general, and one’s personal citation rate. It would seem logical that having more readers would be good, but the dilemma is that most of the “best” journals are behind very expensive paywalls.
Academics are almost never paid for publishing papers; it is considered part of the job. In addition we peer review other researcher’s papers, also free of charge. Most journal editors also do their work as part of their larger job. One might then think that the knowledge produced by universities is free to access. In a word, no. Journals are owned, largely, by large publishing companies, who charge very large subscription fees to libraries. Academics get “free” access as long as their library maintains a subscription, which given each subscription can cost thousands of dollars and there are hundreds of journals, can tax even the largest library budgets. Many smaller schools are having to trim their subscriptions, in effect crippling their researchers. If someone outside the university wants to read one of my papers, they would have to pay a one-time fee that is usually around 25 dollars or more. I get none of that, my university gets none of that. The shareholders of the publishing companies, however, do pretty well.
This system made some sense when journals were physical print objects, but in a digital age, one would expect that journal prices would be dropping. Instead, they have been rising steeply, creating a world where academic work is only accessible to academics at a few elite universities. People at NGOs and in local governments who might want to read my work, which is, after all, applied, are just out of luck. That such a model where supposedly smart people donate free labor to a corporation and then require tenure track professors to feed the system boggles the mind.
Enter open access. Open access journals are available on the web, to everyone. They sometimes charge a fee to the author, which is a little vexing, but many do not. My most quoted article is on the open source journal “Ecology and Society”, showing there is an advantage for academics to make their work accessible. But in general most academic publishing is still tightly controlled. It is academics themselves who must push the change; if we set up open access journals, publish in them, and heaven forbid value them in our own internal evaluation processes, perhaps we can set knowledge free for everyone to use. Some sciences are experimenting with online rapid peer review, and other great innovations that could actually speed up the flow of knowledge. I’m at a stage in my career where I feel I can commit to publishing in great journals such as Cuizine, which, I might add, has a great reputation even if it is open access. So go ahead, read my paper. Because most of you can’t read most of my other work. At least, not yet.