Suggestions for Changes in Journal Publication Rules

(This was originally a post on the now defunkt Perestroika mailing list, on 9/27/10.)

I have two suggestions stemming from the discussion over the last few weeks.

Well before the Perestroika list started, many people have expressed complaints about how the American Political Science Review (APSR) and some other journals poorly represent the work of some; despite some changes, the complaints haven’t  subsided a lot.  Since the APSR treats journal space as a scarce resource, it should not be a surprise to all of us political scientists that we still see lots of political discussions like these surrounding the allocation of those scarce resources.   However, more recently, the world seems to have passed a threshold in publication where online is as good or better than print.  If you don’t already find it more convenient to look for an article in jstor sitting at your desk  than reaching ‘all the way’ behind you to grab the print version, you will soon.  Plus it's much easier to search electronic versions, and a vast amount of value-added information is being created with the digital but not print versions – comments, collaborative highlighting & note taking, social media posts right from the publications, etc., etc.  Moreover, in many areas of scholarship, if you can’t find prior research through Google or Bing, it just doesn’t exist.  

Whether this change is good or bad is a good question but not my point.   Instead, I suggest we ask the APSR and APSA to recognize this change and respond to it, since when scarce resources become plentiful, many problems are automatically solved.  And acting as if they are still scarce only perpetuates unnecessary division.  So instead of pushing the APSR to publish more works like whatever we each do, why not push them to vastly increase the number of articles published?  The marginal cost of publishing more articles is now nearly zero.  My own view is that the threshold for publication should be something simple like whether the article represents a positive contribution to our knowledge or understanding of the world (or to something!); if yes, then publish.  If its wrong, or misleading, or unclear, or dumb, or fraudulent, then reject.  And if reviewers can “revise and resubmit” the author into doing a better job, then great.  But we don’t need reviewers and editors deciding on assessments of “importance”, “area”, “quant vs qual balance”, or other irrelevant, or essentially political matters. 

The Internet (and searches that return >2M items, but ranked so that the one you want is first) is ample proof that more information doesn’t hurt anyone.   When the press was actually a physical press, publication was expensive and the presses became the gatekeepers to their pocketbooks (and the visibility of our work); now publication is almost free.  If someone wants to have a series of awards for the best articles, or articles that are above some higher threshold, or which meet some criteria such as area or balance or anything else, then fine.  Let the politics continue around these awards, rather than what it does today, which is to essentially ensure that some types of works or some works do not see the light of day.   

I’ll go another step.  The point of the APSA is the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge about political science (and a vast array of supporting activities).   To achieve these goals better, why not make the APSR open source and free?  Open source journals have more readers (especially in the developing world) and a bigger impact on the rest of the scholarly literature.  The APSA as an association will still do very well financially, and its mission will be achieved at a much higher level.

So how about it?  Encourage the APSR to publish more – without discriminating at all based on area and type of work and only on quality – and to make the proceeds of our work available for free to the world.