Pondering the Future of Academic Journals

Being a graduate student means that I am very much interested in the future of the profession. And being part of this blog and its podcast makes me aware, to some degree, of the impending and inevitable digitization of the profession. Recent online discussions have included the policy of embargoing the immediate and unrestricted digitization dissertations. But, in addition to changes regarding the university press monograph, there is an equally radical change to come for academic journals.

Like monographs, academic journals are hardly moneymaking ventures. The most prestigious journal in our field, The William and Mary Quarterly, has a paid circulation of 3,236.[1] Yet, the cost of producing an academic journal can easily run into the hundreds of thousands.[2] Ad revenue, if the number of ads in recent issues of the WMQ are anything to go by, seems to fluctuate. Even then, the majority of ads are from university presses, including a regular ad for the field’s other main journal, the Journal of the Early Republic. Nevertheless, subscription revenues tend to account for more than eighty percent of a journal’s total income. Revenues appear to be going down while the cost of production is rising and access through online repositories increases in relation to print access. The subscription costs are also increasing, particularly institutional subscriptions.

All of these pressures, as well as the broader trajectory of digitalization, mean that the university presses and historical societies and associations that publish academic journals will inevitably be forced to make decisions that have a significant impact on the way in which the profession is conducted. In some ways, this is a similar situation to that of the university press publishers and monographs, in that it still leaves to publishers important decisions with professional structural ramifications rather than to academic historians themselves. There is understandable unease amongst many academic historians over this prospect.

So what might the future of academic journals look like? In ten years’ time? In twenty? It’s not as if there a plethora of possibilities. I suspect that if you asked any historian that question, almost every answer would be a variation “all-digital.” In the next decade or two, it seems likely that more and more journals will move to solely digital platforms, abandoning the costliness of print editions. Of course, there are many costs that would not be obviated by such a move, particularly content creation costs (often around 50% of a journal’s costs).[3]

Some possibilities include dropping print and publishing solely through an online repository like JSTOR or ProjectMUSE. With “institutional print & online subscriptions” accounting for a large majority of subscription revenues, this move seems possible, though it is unlikely to happen before the costs of maintaining a print edition become greater than the revenue drawn from print subscriptions. Another possibility is, of course, moving to some form of Open Access (OA) model. But with funding sources decreasing, particularly at publicly attached presses, OA does not seem feasible without substantial lowering of content creation costs.

Along with other reconsiderations of many aspects of content creation, the process of peer review has come under scrutiny. There does not appear to be a viable alternative to the current peer review process, but some have called for changes, including editorial control of the process. Some of the more radical suggestions have included a form of “open review.” One could imagine articles being published on a dedicated journal website in which the readers themselves provide peer review via blog-form comments.

In Europe, especially in STEM fields, an author-funded model has been put into practice.[4] Authors fund the costs of their articles being published by a journal. To many in humanities fields, this can seem a bit distasteful, much like academic views of vanity presses. One could possibly think of it as a form of academic crowd-sourcing but this idea seems unlikely to take any kind of hold in the humanities in the United States.

Both academic publishing and the academic history profession are undergoing significant structural changes. Indeed, change is the only certainty regarding the future of academic journals. Where do the readers of The Junto see academic journals going in the next ten years? Is open access inevitable? Do you still subscribe to print editions of academic journals? If so, why? Would you be satisfied if journals were only available in online repositories? What do you think of an “open review” model?


[1] WMQ Advertising Guidelines.

[2] Mary Waltham, “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations,” report (2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[3] David J. Solomon and Bo-Christer Björk, “Publication Fees in Open Access Publishing: Sources of Funding and Factors Influencing Choice of Journal,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63, no. 1 (2012): 98.

10 responses

  1. To engage with some of the questions posed, I think that open access and open source journals are a necessary, and perhaps better, version of the current peer reviewed print model. Still, they are an unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable future for many junior academics. I point here to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book “Planned Obsolescence” (see site at http://ow.ly/oubnb), where she discusses the status of current print media and peer review models as in a perpetual state of “undeath.” The frightening and intimidating institutional requirement of a published monograph or series of articles facing a recent tenure-track hire is made worse by the ever decreasing publishing “space” available to them.

    In this case funding is certainly an issue, as this post suggests, but Fitzpatrick also brings in a discussion of the “gatekeeper” mentality of the journals and the exclusive control they have over content. Open review (Fitzpatrick at length talks about just how uncertain this reality could be) can serve to mitigate these controls in the face of tighter budgets and more salable scholarship that can come only from big names. They, perhaps rightfully, will forever hold an important place in scholarship, but this form of open engagement can allow new bright minds with fresh, controversial ideas to join the conversation with those distinguished scholars in the field, and in the end, make the conversation far more fruitful. I highly suggest reading Fitzpatrick here, because this is one of many very difficult potential and controversial futures she grapples with.

    Open access is also a very important part of this, because with a broader and accessible platform, scholarship is not only limited to authors and other academics, but the public at large. With open access, people are suddenly in touch with scholarship and conversations that only universities and libraries with tens of thousands of dollars to spare have privileged access to. I am very fortunate in NYC to live one block away from the library where I have access to these materials (and through my CUNY GC access), but someone without that geographical convenience or institutional connections would have a far more difficult time engaging beyond popular teleological histories, and thus may miss the more pertinent, nuanced, and important conversation entirely.

    I think a revision of the review process and open access are vitally important not only to the future of academic history, and perhaps academia at large, but also in truly involving the public in that debate. I think that specifically open access has the potential to educate and inspire more people than ever before, and to turn our back on that potential in favor of the status-quo is doing our profession a disservice.

    Admittedly, I am a little biased because I did my MA work at George Mason, and there I was introduced to the CHNM (http://chnm.gmu.edu/). My introduction to digital history and the research potential of digital methods was inspiring, which I hope explains my long winded response and firm embrace of a digital future markedly different, but in very important ways the same, from our current publishing world.

    A final note, I would also recommend reading “Reclaiming Fair Use” by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi. Though an easy read ranging from video to print media, they introduce Creative Commons licenses and do I fine job piecing through the delicate but legally enforceable balance between open access, information and content sharing, and the firm controls desired by some on their intellectual property.

    • John, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. You make a number of excellent points regarding the virtues of open access. However, I would like to push back a little bit on one of your arguments. You wrote:

      Open access is also a very important part of this, because with a broader and accessible platform, scholarship is not only limited to authors and other academics, but the public at large. With open access, people are suddenly in touch with scholarship and conversations that only universities and libraries with tens of thousands of dollars to spare have privileged access to.

      I can’t help but think that the “access for the public” argument is a bit overly-romantic (if not a touch vain) on the part of academics. I would love to think that there are non-academics out there interested in my own scholarship. But do we really think that there is a sizable contingent of people who read popular histories and who have the interest and/or motivation to read the WMQ if only it were available to them? Do we really think that there is a general audience for history dissertations? And one so rabid that it is morally wrong to make them wait two years to read them? It may be overly cynical on my part but I just don’t think that audience is real (at least not in any significant numbers).

      That is why, from a practical perspective, I find the “access for the public” argument much less compelling than an “access for students” argument. As an early Americanist, when you mention databases that cost “thousands of dollars,” I think of something like Readex or, for secondary scholarship in general, JSTOR. As an undergraduate at the City College of New York, I did not have access to any of the Readex databases. We did not even have access to America: History & Life. To me, the real shame is not that the public as a whole does not have access to these materials so much as that undergraduates and graduate students don’t have access to them. I was able to get access to the Readex newspaper database because I happened to take a class at another CUNY school which did subscribe to it (the only one out of all of them, which I didn’t know at the time). Had I not been that fortunate, I would never have been able to write the kind of honors theses that helped me get into the doctoral program that I am in now. Students actually suffer tangibly from lack of access in a way the “public at large” does not and the disparities of access perpetuate the social and institutional hierarchies higher education, which is why I find that a more compelling argument overall.

      I do think that what is primarily at stake in the open access debate right now is not about whether non-academics can access journal articles and dissertations. It seems to me that it is about the establishment of an ethos that will best serve the profession as it goes further into the digital age. And I agree that an ethos favoring accessibility and access is necessary for the future of the profession.

      • Hi Michael, thanks so much for the response. I will say that I agree, my comments certainly are romantic in considering the public as a big part of this open access debate, but I do not think that universal access is a secondary concern. I absolutely agree with you when you say that access for students in public universities can be painfully limited, and is an issue that needs to be addressed. As a product of public universities from the beginning of my academic career starting at Rowan University, which during my time was a small state school in southern New Jersey, I can certainly sympathize, but once publishing changes are made to account for the digital age and to harness its capacity for access, I think the debate shifts.

        Of course it starts with what we both see coming; a revision of how peer reviewed journals and the like are built. My last post recommended Fitzpatrick’s book, and I turn to her and the last post for more details on that front. With that in mind, and assuming the future moves the way we both think it will, I think that your focus on higher education becomes a very similar conversation to broader open access. We are the ones who use these resources most, no doubt about that, but once these publishing and access changes are in place, ones that allow public universities and less-well funded institutions to take part in these same resources, I am not sure it is too romantic and far-fetched to consider the public as part of this movement, especially considering the relationship between the taxpayer and the public university.

        From my perspective, those hierarchies that exist in the “social and institutional hierarchies (of) higher education” remind me of those that supposedly separate the “Ivory Tower” from everybody else, and the whole conversation about access and the digital age is not to further limit the availability of those resources, but to expand them. Steps should be taken to give more access to those universities with student who should use them most, and in that way I agree with you 100% as these are very logical first steps, but even at this early stage I do not think it unproductive to consider just how far the digital age can take us.

  2. Michael,
    Your post would be much better if we had some real economic numbers. I know these numbers are nearly impossible to come by, but it’s hard for me to make sense of your concern about the W&MQ from what you pointed out. You say “the cost of producing an academic journal can easily run into the hundreds of thousands” and that the institutional print and online subscriptions are a large majority. Let’s run some numbers:

    If simply half of the 3,236 subscribers — 1,618 — are institutional subscribers paying only for a print subscription that costs $90 (the subscription rates are here: http://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/subscription_information.html) then that makes for $145,620. While we don’t know the cost of each electronic subscription (an institution must “Contact JStor”), I think its extremely conservative to say that the institutional subscription rates are somewhere over the $200,000 mark. But in terms of the electronic institutional subscriptions, what sort of cut does JStor get and what goes to the W&MQ? Also, let’s not forget paying individual subscribers or ad revenue.

    So what does it take to operate a journal? What is the W&MQ really bringing in? We need better numbers to make sense of your concerns. Is the W&MQ a bad example? Should your post have focused on less prestigious journals to make your point?

    While I know academic presses are hurting around the country, let’s not forget about libraries, who have to pay the costs of the institutional subscriptions. It is disturbing that you did not mention libraries once in your original post. If they’re paying the subscriptions, they need a say. The history profession in general needs to work with librarians, who are the big champions of open access.

    The scholarly communications librarian at Kansas State University put together a good blog post on the costs of open access: http://ksulib.typepad.com/talking/2012/10/open-access-fees-pay-to-play.html – it’s well worth a read, even if she is focusing on science publishing. If the costs range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to pay for open access fees, could the groups who fund our fellowships start thinking about that cost as part of the award they give us? Could schools create a pool for graduate students and faculty to tap into to pay for the open access fees? Perhaps make it part of the funding package for incoming graduate students to give them an incentive to publish in open access journals while in grad school? A school could say they will pay the fee of one open access journal article published while the author is enrolled in their graduate school. That could even be a selling point in the recruitment process. I know those ideas are certainly not a true solution for the problem, but it’s something.

    I also think a part of the solution has to come from established history scholars. They have to publish in open access journals and help make them more prestigious.

    A bigger part of the solution would be to get the word out on the actual economics of electronic subscriptions. I know those numbers are hard to come by and often kept from view due to non-disclosure agreements, but it’s brutal on the library bottom line and open access can help.

    I know you’re probably thinking that it would be impossible to get schools to put more money into paying open access fees when budgets everywhere are being slashed — but I think it does make perfect sense when one thinks long-term. If schools pumped more money into paying open access fees and more institutions created digital institutional repositories and really pushed hard for fair use, then library budgets would eventually be eased. That would leave more money for the university as a whole. So if they spend a little now, they can save a lot in digital subscription fees later.

    • Dave, the economic numbers are indeed hard to come by. The ones I had are in the cited materials. But I think you may have missed the point of the paragraph (and perhaps I should have been more explicit). I used the WMQ as an example primarily because it is the main journal in our field, not to imply that it is in any danger. Obviously, the WMQ, unlike many journals, has the backing of an independently (and well) funded institution. My point in that paragraph was that it costs a lot of money to produce a journal and that those costs are rising while hardcopy subscription numbers are going down. At some point, journals will cross the economic Rubicon and producing a print edition will simply no longer make any sense or even be fiscally feasible. What happens then?

      You’re coming at this from a library-centered perspective. But, from my perspective, I’m not sure how much I like the idea of open access shifting the costs onto the authors, whether they’re funded from alternative sources or not. That could easily create a situation in which top programs can afford to offer that funding while lower-ranked, lesser-funded programs will not, putting their students and junior faculty at a further disadvantage, much like conference funding now. It would seem to me that the goal of Open Access is to minimize rather than further entrench higher education hierarchies. However (in line with my comment above), I am more sympathetic to an argument for open access that is focused on higher education access rather than broad public access. Nevertheless, you raise interesting questions about potential possibilities which is exactly what I hoped the post would elicit. Establishing the ethos of Open Access is probably the easy part; the hard part is how to implement it in a way that actually solves problems in the profession related to publishing. Because if it won’t do that, then what’s the point of open access?

  3. Tim Hitchcock and Jason Kelly wrote this proposal a few months ago. The most interesting part to me was their idea of “badging,” which works like this:

    “Rather than submitting to a traditional print journal, authors who use OSP will ask journal editors, institutions, professional societies, or consortia of scholars to ‘badge’ their work. In other words, like many of the publications of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Royal Society, organizations will add their imprimatur without carrying the burden of publication costs. These organizations can peer review the work using their own standards and reviewers.”

    They don’t explain how this whole system will be funded, though.

    I think open access has some knock-on implications that people don’t always talk about. For example, although Michael is skeptical that the broader public will want to read technical scholarly articles, I’m not so sure. The Internet has a way of corralling previously isolated readers into new communities and there are plenty of nonacademics out there who read not only popular histories but the more accessible scholarly monographs. With OA academic journals, it’s easy to imagine aggregation blogs popping up that curate the best articles, according to some idiosyncratic editorial standard, which can appeal to a broader audience.

    Which brings me to a question. Does academic publishing have to go all OA or can a multi-track system be workable? There are already some really interesting online history journals/magazines out there, like The Appendix, The Public Domain Review, and Lapham’s Quarterly. Is it possible that publishing in these venues will count for academic promotion purposes, whether that’s tenure or some other system?

    • Ariel, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think the idea of badging is an interesting one. After all, the academic prestige f getting an article published in a specific journal comes from your work having been deemed at the standard of said journal. In a sense, publishing now is a form of badging. Even if each journal kept their traditional peer review process in place, the amount of time it would take for an article to be “recognized” or “badged” would be much shorter than it would take for the same article to eventually appear in print. The only problem is that peer-review is not primarily about judging a final product but about offering guidance for revision. How could an open system compensate for that without producing multiple versions of revised drafts with different badges? Perhaps the open peer review process is the way around that, and I personally like the idea of peer review becoming an open discussion and the products of peer review (i.e., the commenters’ thoughts and ideas) being openly accessible as well.

  4. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for bringing these issues to a wider audience. I just wanted to send you a quick note to say that we are bringing together a number of journal editors in our field to discuss Open Access policies and other changes in academic publishing at the McNeil Center in Philadelphia in late February–so please stay tuned for information about that workshop. And please know that we are eager to work with our readers and our authors to maintain the integrity of our editorial process and to continue to publish exciting scholarship at the level expected by our community.

    With best wishes,

    Eric Slauter
    Visiting Editor, William and Mary Quarterly

    • Dr. Slauter,

      Thank you for reading the piece (and blog) and for taking the time to comment. I will very much be looking forward to the publishing workshop at the McNeil Center next year. Congratulations and good luck for the rest of your year at the Quarterly.

      Michael D. Hattem

  5. Michael,
    Thanks for raising these important issues. As editor or a relatively new journal (History of the Present) that appears in print and in JSTOR, is peer-reviewed, and published by a university press (Illinois), I can attest to cost – a university press is making a substantial commitment, about $100,000 over 5 years, with the assumption that at least those 5 years, the journal will be a financial loss. Open access is tantalizing, but it does not address the expenses of operating a journal. There is also the issue of the amount of labor that goes in to running a journal – while it is a fundamental part of academic practice, journal editors are not paid, frequently do not receive course releases, and the work is generally filed under service in annual reviews and tenure files. While service is important, it is treated as less important in most reviews. Editing a journal has been the most intellectually rewarding experience of my relatively short career so far (doing it collaboratively with five others has certainly helped), but it is also onerous at times with little institutional support or recognition.


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