Starting a journal is hard, and starting one that is open access is harder still, especially if your motivation is displeasure with the status quo arrangement that puts scholarly work behind a paywall. But people regularly underestimate the costs and challenges involved in creating a viable alternative to the status quo, if blog commentators and conference dinner companions are any guide. Happily, this proposition is about to be put to test by the launch of a couple of large scale open access philosophy journals. I applaud those efforts. I hope they succeed. But, I wouldn’t bet on them.
Why? A miscalculation of the cost to start is one problem. But a miscalculation of the cost to really compete is a bigger one still. I explain one aspect of this below the fold.
Some see in the switch from printing press to electronic publishing a windfall for publishers that was not shared with university libraries, and there may be something to that. However, it is foolish to think the change was merely a switch from paper to PDF. Modern academic journal publishers like Wiley, Springer, and Taylor & Francis are now in the database business, not the book binding business. Journal articles, in both private presses and university presses, are invariably set in XML, and many of the major publishers have invested in converting more and more of their back catalogs to XML files. Thus, the major publishing houses’ catalogs should not be viewed as mere directories of PDF articles but databases in which each article itself is a structured data file. And that structure can be used for all sorts of things: by indexing services (including DOAJ) to list and classify contents; to support sophisticated “semantic” search results; to support recommendation systems for finding similar articles; for bibliometric and datamining in general; and to support dynamic/adaptive displays: for example, PDF is a lousy format for mobile devices, which is why some have pushed for HTML5 as an alternative. A modern publisher with an XML catalog has the flexibility to accommodate all these features, and more.
The best open access journals, such as PLoS One, are mindful of this. More importantly, PLoS One has a business model that will allow it to adapt to future changes in technology. (XML encoding is but one example.) The question is whether OA philosophy journals are similarly positioned.
One might forego this turn to XML in favor of simply hosting PDF files on a server, as Philosophers Imprint seems to do, judging by the LaTeX macro the authors are instructed to use. Perhaps the benefit to philosophical scholarship from an archive in XML isn’t worth the candle. The problem is that the current crop of OA philosophy journals have already decided on this question in the technology choices they have made, and those choices do not put them in a good position to change course should it turn out that they made the wrong decision.