The American Sociological Association (ASA) has announced that it will launch an (as-yet unnamed) open access general sociology journal as soon as possible (this year, maybe next). Its proposed features are a mix of traditional and new: there will be start-up cash and a stipend for Editors, peer-review is to be on the standard, appropriately ‘prestigious’ model (but expedited and light on style corrections), a traditional publisher (SAGE) is involved, authors will retain copyright, there will be no hard copies and therefore no limit on how much can be published in any given time period, all articles (accepted or not) will be subject to a $25 processing fee, and a variable tariff of Article Processing Charges (APCs) will be implemented, from free for scholars from “non-competitive” countries to $100-150 for students and $700 for non-members (for the first 12 months, APCs can also be waived, no questions asked).
The editors at Sociological Science (one of whom we interviewed last month) have noticed that this borrows heavily from their own initiative. Sniping aside, this is surely all to the good. An indication that major academic institutions are, at last, taking open access seriously. Not quite overhauling their systems, but adopting publishing platforms considerably more reasonable than the $3,000 APCs and business-as-usual structure previously threatened. This is an important point, since it supports the claim of some OA advocates that APCs may be financially better for the academy than historical subscription rates (I leave exacting comparisons of costs and the burden of double-dipping during any transition to one side). The problem has always been that the prestige economy (and therefore the social reproduction of universities) is not venue-blind. Low cost APCs in marginal journals are therefore of little help for those still seeking the (shrinking) securities of a formal academic post. But when the reputational power of learned societies is applied, it becomes much easier to envision a world of reputable (and hopefully high quality) open access journals charging APCs at a lower net cost than we currently pay through library subscription models.
The ASA is a powerhouse in these terms, and enjoys more market influence than the International Studies Association (boasting 13,000 members to our 7,000). It is all but inevitable that the mainstreaming of open access in this way will put the squeeze on the smaller open access journals, very many of which are labours of love, and some of which seem to actively treasure their reputation as insurgents or irrelevancies. If we want more material (and particularly the kind of material that carries value in an academic market) to be open access, imitation is the right kind of problem to have. Cultural Anthropology is another example of that shift (we got the gossip from them too last year), funding an open access conversion through the largest section of the 12,000 member American Anthropological Association.
And yet this scenario is once again an embarrassing one for International Relations, which otherwise likes to imagine itself the most engaged and relevant of disciplines (state power! trade rounds! war and peace!). As well as expanding capacities, like UCL’s new open access journal platform, the pressures for a repurposing of our collective journal apparatus comes from hallowed intellectual temples, from our governments (if in bastardised form), and from the profiteering of publishers themselves. We’ve just learned that twenty of the UK’s top research universities spend £15.7 million annually on their Elsevier journals alone. Fields-Medal-winner-cum-OA-champion Tim Gowers has further uncovered that between 2001 and 2009, UK research libraries’ mean expenditure on journals increased by 82%, compared to a mere 0.17% for books, a disparity driven by journal bundling practices that effectively force libraries to pay whatever price commercial publishers deign to set. And yet our own associations do not flinch.
In the next years, the ISA will shift its portfolio to Oxford University Press, who are less closed than Wiley, but remain some way from a permissive open access policy. Under the convenorship of Dan Nexon (for the journal) and Patrick Jackson (for the blog), International Studies Quarterly is attempting more ambitious outreach and engagement than any of the other ISA journals, but the vast bulk of material from these highest of fora still remain digitally enclosed. Boringly, European journals follow a similar pattern, at most ungating small selections of their overall oeuvre for viewing by the unwashed. The utterly conventional approach taken by the European Journal of International Security, BISA’s new venture (4 issues, 5-6 regular articles, standard publication deal, no mention of open access) suggests that there is no viable prospect of ‘radicalism’ from the official UK scene either. The vanishing of even the idea for an open BISA journal should be testament to that.
What accounts for this sluggishness? Ignorance, conservatism, legitimate fear, path-dependency: all are plausible. It is part of the function of learned societies to guard their territory, and academics will tend to reproduce the vectors that produced them, but why should this be more the case for IR than for sociology or anthropology? Perhaps our tendency to be late to all intellectual parties is the culprit (after all, IR took until the mid-2000s to discover the existence of Pierre Bourdieu, who was already dead, having written his major works in the ’70s and ’80s). Or the paradoxical combination of our power lust (an infatuation with decision-makers) and our insecurity (endless discourses on failure and irrelevance). Whatever. Choices face us nonetheless. Tim Gower again:
Is there anything more that can be done? One answer that is often given is that the open access movement is now unstoppable, and that it is only a matter of time before the current system will have changed significantly. However, the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most strongly promoted — open access articles paid for by article processing charges — is one that mathematicians tend to find unpalatable. (And not only mathematicians: they are extremely unpopular in the humanities.)
It has been many times been suggested that Editors and Editorial Boards should abandon journals that maintain closed policies, especially where that work is voluntary and the publishers are particularly mercenary. But we cannot even manage a moratorium on starting new journals on the same tired models (and there are plenty of those new journals that celebrate their own supposed ‘criticality’). At this rate, that will come with a choice between high APCs or the old bargain of subscription-funded invisibility. When that choice begins to bite, some will no doubt express surprise that our learned societies had not acted sooner to guarantee our relevance, or impact, or value. This is all the more depressing if we want to insist, as we should, that IR is not just about politics, but also has a politics in the world. Right now that politics is to burn up cash whilst drifting away, disinterested, from new possibilities and new publics. Institutionalisation is no great rupture in the Western knowledge tradition, and no automatic boon to the general intellect, but it’s something. Maybe we should consider it.