Musing about Publishing on Paper versus Publishing On-line

by Kenneth Anderson

I received in the mail a couple of days ago an author copy of the journal International History Review.  I have a short piece in the December 2008 issue, a brief review of Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International.  

To be honest, I had not heard of the IHR before I accepted the assignment, but I was interested in reading Hopgood’s (excellent) book.  It is an impressive journal with a fine editorial board.  It has a couple of regular academic articles, but is mostly short discussions – a thousand words or so – of recent books.  It is a helpful reference work on these books – e.g., a useful brief review of Ian Hurd’s recent book on the Security Council.  

My question is whether it makes sense into the future for this kind of brief review to appear in a hard copy publication – would it be better if this kind of brief review migrated to the web completely?  In some sense, of course, it already has, in the form of reviews on places like Amazon, blogs, etc.  But this journal is edited and reviewed by highly competent, professional, senior academics; there is a strong value in their editorial guidance – as anyone in the legal field who must deal with the judgment gaps, however understandable, of student editors, quickly understands.  Even so, for speed, accessibility, diffusion, and lower cost, surely this kind of thing would be better done as an internet publication that is searchable through Google?  Open source?

Take another example.  I am on the editorial board of an important specialist journal in its field – The Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence.  It is a very serious, peer reviewed, interdisciplinary journal – published, however, by Taylor and Francis, so it is not open access.  I don’t understand what the incentive is to continue to have a journal like this published by a for profit publishing company – no one gets paid to write for it, and the peer reviewing is likewise not paid, so it is hard for me to see what the supposed connection is between a for profit publisher and peer review.  It’s not that I don’t take peer review seriously – on the contrary, I think it is a far better arrangement than the law journal setup with student editors.  But I don’t understand the value added by for profit publishers, especially in light of the value subtracted, by not having the stuff available open access.

Now take a different kind of example.  I recently published a long review essay on the UN and Paul Kennedy – in Spanish, in the Revista de Libros (Madrid – I didn’t do the translation, the superb Luis Gago did, and made me sound so smart).  I’ve got re-publication rights, and put up the English version to SSRN.  To my surprise, it has been downloaded a bit from SSRN – I probably wrote a misleadingly exciting abstract, but hey – so then I thought, hmm, hmm, hmm, should I be thinking about seeing if some journal wants to publish this, after all, it’s 10,000 words without notes?  

Well, in one sense, I don’t really care.  I mean, its diffusion on SSRN means that it will get better distribution there than anywhere else.  So the question is whether I care whether it has a “brand” attached – the name of some journal.  I’m not as career savvy as I guess I should be, so again, it’s hard for me to care especially, but I would like people to read it, even cite it (let me just say for the record that it is a brilliant, brilliant piece, and anyone who does public international law should probably not just read it, but read it aloud several times) and maybe if it appeared in some journal it would help jog my dean, even in these hard times, into giving me a raise as a “productive scholar” or something.  (That’s assuming I don’t get a raise for blogging at OJ, which seems like a safe assumption, iron-clad, even.)  So what to do?

As it happens, the editor of my school’s very respectable international law review has been a student in my class this term, and so I sent it over to him.  He said the journal doesn’t republish stuff.  I noted that the original publication had been in Spanish, in Madrid.  I went on to note, Blagovich style, that although I wouldn’t say for certain that his grade was on the line. I wasn’t saying it wasn’t, either … no, no, no! … actually, what I went on to note was that, in its own weird way, having already appeared reasonably successfully on SSRN could be seen as a sort of insurance policy for his journal: my article had already proved it had a market, and all he had to do was stick his journal’s brand name on it.  He is thinking it over.  In case he doesn’t want it,  anyone else want to offer to publish it?

Someone able to explain the logic of journals and publishing these days?  I don’t really get it.  I know it is mostly Veblen-logic, but I still don’t get it.

One Response

  1. The obvious benefit of publication in a journal is historical staying power.  It will be easier for people to find when they are searching for it many years from now through westlaw or lexis.
    Although I think online publication is great (and environmentally friendly) I still think the level of scholarly respect for actual text and paper publications is higher. 

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