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Blogging the Academy

Academic journals are the closest the paper media has to blogs. Like blogs, academic journal articles are full of references to other journal articles. Like the content of blogs, the articles are ‘peer reviewed’ for quality. Like authors of blogs, authors of journal articles don’t get any payment for their work.

Unlike blogs, however, you have to pay out a fistful of money to get a copy of an academic article. A single reprint of an article generally costs USD 15. A subscription will run into hundreds of dollars a year. But things are beginning to change in the Ivory Towers.

So what’s going on? Well, academic publishing is a big, powerful industry. Reed Elsevier, the biggest in the business posted revenues of over EUR 2.5bn and profits of over 30 percent in its academic publishing business last year.

You can see where the profit comes from when you consider how much cheaper it is to typeset and publish now than it was twenty years ago, thanks to technological improvements. All you need is some basic software to do the layout, and a printing company who will print short runs for as little as 4.95/book for a 200 page book. (And you can take it for granted that the price of journals hasn’t fallen much over the last 20 years.)

So why does this go on, now that we have the web? Well, the academic publishers forbid the distribution of journal articles by authors over the web or by email, except in very limited circumstances. They have a very narrow, controlled system for licencing. Authors generally want to keep on the right side of the academic publishers, because their career progression depends on getting published in prestigious journals.

But a group founded in Budapest is setting out to change all that. The Budapest Open Access Initiative encourages universities to exploit a loophole in the publishing system which allows them to publish versions of their papers on-line.

They exploit the fact that a ‘pre-print’ of the paper can be distributed without the publisher’s permission, just as long as it isn’t identical to the actual paper as published. They even recommend an open source software system which universities can use to make articles available on the Web. It’s underpinned by the OAI protocol for metadata harvesting, which is used to complile an index of all the repositories of pre-prints.

It’s a great idea, and no doubt it will make the lives of people who have to consult journal articles a lot easier in years to come, when they’ve built up a head of steam and have a good pool of journals available.

In the short-term, though, there’s a lot of ground to make up. Not very many academics are taking advantage of the idea (even though there is compelling evidence that academic articles available online are much more likely to be cited than ones that aren’t.) As it stands, it’s downright difficult to find anything much in the system.

It will work in the end, for sure, although it depends on university administrators pushing for academics to take advantage of this scheme, which ultimately benefits universities by increasing their prominence and reducing the amount of money they have to spend on academic journals. And when it does happen, then academics can truly take their places amongst the blogging peoples of the world.

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