Blogs and academic publishing

This week has seen the launch of the Russian History Blog, a collaborative project that has already featured, among other things, a review of the Gulag escape film The Way Back, addressing questions surrounding the authenticity of the book it is based on, Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, and a discussion of a very significant photograph of a Gulag cemetery. It looks as though it’s going to be interesting and I very much welcome the initiative as a contribution to open access publishing. I would dispute Steve Barnes‘s assertion that most peer reviewed academic journals lie behind a paywall ‘of necessity’. Even though I participate in it (of necessity), I think the present system of academic publishing is outdated and persists for a number of fairly dubious reasons (including inertia and vanity, as Dan Cohen has pointed out), and that it actively undermines the proper dissemination of knowledge. The widespread and growing assumption that the arts, humanities and social sciences are irrelevant is fuelled by the perception that academics are only interested in talking to each other (as this rather fatuous article by Nick Cohen shows), and that is not going to change while the major forum for publication of new research is one that is generally only available to other academics via institutional subscriptions. Why do we support a system that limits our readership in this way? Do academics think that nobody outside the academy deserves to read their work? Or are they actually scared that nobody else would be interested? If we want to show that what we do is significant, we need to abandon pretensions to exclusivity and enter into a proper open dialogue with people other than our colleagues. The only way to do that is to rethink the system. Blogs are clearly not the only answer, but they can (and do) contribute to the process of reform, and treating them as a mere side-show compared to the serious business of ‘proper’ academic publishing in traditional peer-reviewed print-based journals isn’t going to get us very far. In any case, we have to question whether some of those journals will survive in the current climate – university libraries will be cutting subscriptions, and support from funding bodies is also going to be under threat – so we may be forced to find alternatives whether we like it or not. Open access peer reviewed journals such as Digital Humanities Quarterly show that a paywall is not a necessity. Shouldn’t we be working towards making that model the norm rather than the exception?

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