Dynamist Blog

The Future of Academic Journals

As our host Tim Kane and MR's Alex Tabbarok (both far more diligent bloggers than I) reported two weeks ago, the Kauffman Foundation hosted a lunch at the American Economic Association's meetings to discuss economic scholarship and popularization, the evolution (or demise?) of traditional media, and the current and future role of online media, including econ blogs.

One of the most interesting questions is what will happen to scholarly journals. Economics, the focus of our discussions, has long been a field in which working papers could circulate for years, with great influence, before they were finally published. (Here's a famous example, by Nobel laureate Eric Maskin.) Now, however, the web make those drafts quickly and easily available not only to economists working in a particular area but to journalists and the general public. As Brad DeLong pointed out when I saw him recently in Palo Alto, journalists, particularly online publications, will now quote a working paper without interviewing the author, something that wouldn't have happen in the past. (I still prefer to interview scholars before writing about their work, but then--as you may have noticed--I also resist the publish-now imperative of web writing.)

Given this situation, Tim Kane wondered whether the traditional process of peer review is the best way of vetting scholarly work. Could some sort of web-based community do better than two anonymous referees and a journal editor? Could you mix Slashdot-style review weights, earned over time, with weights assigned by the Powers that Be to people who've earned offline reputations as scholars and referees?

One reason working papers take on greater importance in a web-oriented world is that, shockingly, scholars usually do not own the copyrights to their published articles. Journals demand the copyright as a condition of publication. And, of course, scholars exist in a publish-or-perish world. It is usually illegal for a professor to put the final version of a published article on his or her website. Hence the importance of working papers--and the travesty of gated scholarship.

One sign of resistance: On March 5, the UCLA library will hold a seminar for UCLA faculty members titled, "Don't I Own My Own Work?": Negotiating to Keep Your Copyright. Here's the description:

As a UCLA faculty member, you must be productive in a "publish or perish" environment. But in your rush to publish, are you signing an agreement with your publisher without reading it fully or understanding its implications? You might unknowingly surrender your copyright and, along with it, the rights to use and reuse your work as you wish. Find out how to read author agreements and how to negotiate to keep your rights. Learn from colleagues who have efficiently negotiated agreements without risk to their academic advancement.

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