Twilight of the Journal Vampire Squid

This was in someone's open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

This was in someone’s open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

I have a piece up at e-IR today returning to the question of open access. It is partly an introduction to the issues, partly a manifesto on why academics should take the digital commons more seriously. But it is mainly intended as a provocation for the discipline (proto-discipline, non-discipline, borg-discipline, what you will) of IR, and a challenge to the in my view excessive resistance to open access that characterises its upper echelons. To wit:

What is IR’s contribution to the open access movement? Almost nothing, arguable less than nothing. There is no IR equivalent of ArXiV  – the hugely successful online repository favoured by physicists and mathematicians. Nor of PLOS  – the gigantic open access mega-journal suite favoured by hard scientists, which sustains itself on low relative processing charges. Nor of Cultural Anthropology – a learned society journal gone fully open access. No experiment like the Open Library of the Humanities – a new platform-cum-mega-journal funded by a conglomerate of libraries. No appetite for something like Sociological Science – an open access journal with quick review times and low, means-tested article publishing costs. There are a handful of open access IR journals, like Ethics & Global Politics (not to be confused with Ethics & International Affairs), the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and the Journal of Narrative Politics, run largely on goodwill, but they are sadly lacking a disciplinary presence. Publishing in them will not make a career, and is unlikely to impress hiring committees which have an eye to bankrupt measures of quality like the journal impact factor.

Worse still, the discipline of IR has missed opportunities to make itself more open and relevant, all the while fretting over its introversion and lack of relevance. Some of our responses to the open access movement have been sadly conservative and dismissive. New journals like the European Journal of International Security and the Journal of Global Security Studies are run on the standard closed model. Neither the leadership of the British International Studies Association nor the International Studies Association have followed the innovations carved out by colleagues in anthropology, sociology or STEM subjects. And young journals that position themselves as disrupting orthodoxy (such as Critical Studies on Security) have nevertheless emerged under the imprint of familiar publishing houses. While Editorial Boards in other disciplines are considering resignation and boycott to force change on the system, IR scholars are joining an ever-growing list of titles that promote business as usual. Closed journal publishing has become common sense: unquestioned despite its manifest failings.

Readers may have their own hypotheses to explain the lack of ambition, or think the charge unfair. In an effort to appeal both to the casual reader and to academic colleagues, I glossed over some of the detail. For one, there are more open access articles and issues in the traditional journals than before, surely thanks to the pressures brought to bear thus far. Good people in IR are pushing the point to Editors and publishers as much as they feel able. And there are other open access journals that overlap with some IR themes, such as the new Finance and Society. But in other regards, the outlook is bleak. Consider, for example, the recent forum on open access in International Studies Perspectives, where former ISQ Editor William R. Thompson mounts the argument that ungating articles to those outside elite institutions is pointless, since many global south social scientists simply “would not know how to read them”. The evidence provided was Professor Thompson’s “hunch”. We already have the public we deserve.

Attitudes of this sort are hopefully not widespread, but can easily thrive if the field as a whole considers the issue unimportant. How are such presumptions (indeed, views that are presumptuous) sustained? The cliches of our age – an increasingly complex world of inter-connection in which networked collaboration and greater education is the best basis for future survival – fall quickly by the wayside as soon as it seems they might involve deliberative action on the part of the Professoriate. As far as relevance goes, the topics of our inquiry are the stuff of nightly news (constant, rolling, 24-hour news) in a way simply not true for literary studies or advances in molecular biology. To be sure, the qualities of ‘expertise’ are today degraded for the human sciences, but our possible public is vast. For people who live on the receipts of teaching, academics are, it seems, strangely unconcerned with the diffusion of ideas. Something curious there.

Of course, some advocates for open access overstate the ease of transition, not least when they celebrate the often draining and sometimes sensitive work of journal editing as if it was nothing more than a couple of hours of free labour on the weekend and pocket change for server space. The academy is complex, multiple and global in scope (if not in inclusiveness), and in many jurisdictions besieged. Consequently, any platform for the dissemination of research, data analysis and critique will itself have to be a machine of some scale. Properly acknowledging open access therefore means embracing what has recently been called an infrastructural moment in the human sciences: the work of imagination and design for a different knowledge system. This is not so much a question of a unique time of decision gifted by a leap in technology (we can always claim to be facing such moments) as it is an acknowledgment of our current capacities and the assembly required to enjoy them.

As previously discussed (here, then here), it is hard to foresee that moment without a major journal changing its perspective. If not that, then a conglomerate of influential actors (in professional associations, editorial boards, preeminent departments, and funding bodies) working together to think at a scale greater than the vainglory of a new journal title. Perhaps, following the example of PLOS, we should begin a PLOPS (Public Library of Political Science), embracing in its very name the contempt with which some legislators hold us. Or, following ArXiV, the IRcHive, a mega-repository-cum-journal spanning comfortable bounds, the great melange of global political knowing. There are surely things for an academic discipline to lose, but relevance – understood not just at the interface with policy, but in public debate, reputation and status, fusion and discovery, political education, general knowledge, the very stuff of thought – is not one of them.


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