Now I am a grad student and, even though I am only in my first quarter, we are being encouraged to write for academic publication. This is a great idea except:
- Submission to peer-reviewed journals causes publication delays of many months, even when the article is accepted.
- Academic journals often forbid publication of the article elsewhere, creating artificial scarcity(artificial since there is no longer a technical constraint on limitless free copies).
- Even when published, access is limited to elites (those with academic affiliation at well-funded institutions) since subscriptions to journal databases are prohibitively expensive.
To some, these may simply be inefficiencies, but I see an ethical dimension. The current system of academic advancement encourages the benefits of scholarship to be narrowly distributed, though technology now allows broad distribution. The scholar is encouraged to use her mental products for her own career advancement by seeking to have them published in a peer-reviewed journal which, as mentioned above, delays and limits broad access.
This system of academic publishing allows the scholar a benefit in renumeration (employment) and prestige (official recognition of the value of the mental product within the academic community), but prevents broad access to her findings and thus limits their social impact.
At least in the hard sciences and social sciences, this system of delay and limited access creates a contradiction by the following logic:
- If a research finding has public value, then delay in making that finding broadly and quickly public is unethical.
- If the subject does not have public value, it is not an apt focus of focus of research.
- Ergo, if a subject is an apt focus of research, it has public value, and…
- to not to make it broadly and quickly public is unethical.
It may seem odd that I am equating publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal with not making research findings public. This is a result of changes in what public knowledge means in the digital age of instant mass self-publication.
Even a few decades ago, mass self-publication was not possible, so an academic had to rely on the slow closed system of academic publishing to make their work public in any way. Now, the Internet has surpassed the past efficiency (print, closes databases), to turn it into an inefficiency (Clay Shirky pointed this out at a talk at MIT last year). Because the findings of the hard and social sciences have public benefit, to rely on an inefficient technology to disseminate those ideas is unethical.
The fact that the careersof academic are tied to this unethical and inefficient system is unfortunate. The job-for-life tenure system relies of publications of books and peer-reviewed journal articles. This makes it difficult for academics to act ethically, because they are putting their financial well-being and those of their families (not to mention their opportunity for advancement) in jeopardy. Still, I think many academics would acknowledge the truth of the argument I have sketched above.
So it is up to certain academics to decide to buck the system and not embargo their ideas. In some instances there might not be a trade-off. One may be able to share basic research findings publicly while still submitted another version of those findings for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. In other instances, however, there will be a trade-off. Publishing findings publicly will mean that the findings will not be accepted for academic publication.
I personally commit not to submit for academic publication any research finding without also sharing it publicly at the same time. I have yet to apply this personal commitment to any piece of work, so I am not sure how this will work in practice, but I am willing to make this commitment publicly in order to help myself to abide by it.
There is a project greater than publish-or-perish, greater than tenure, greater than poster sessions and conference papers. This is the human project and it is the only measure of professional success that matters.