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Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future by Martin Rundkvist.

February 16, 2008

PDQ SubmissionRundkvist, M. 2007. Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future: The Fornvännen Centenary Round-Table Seminar, Stockholmm 21 April 2006. Konferenser 65. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien.

It’s a measure of the quality of this book that I have delayed putting up a review until I have thought it could get the audience it deserves. The volume brings together papers by nine editors of journals across Europe, each with their own perspective on what the future holds for publishing. Their opinions are diverse and provocative, but even where some assertions are demonstrably wrong they highlight misconceptions about publishing which need to be tackled.

The first paper is ‘Scholarly Open Access Journals and Libraries’ by Jan Hagerlid. This can be an overlooked aspect of the Open Access debate, with academics concentrating on the content rather than the medium. Hagerlid raises some interesting points highlighting that the aims even of of traditional and conservative scholars do not necessarily align with those of publishers. For example he notes that the transition to electronic subscription would have mean the end of the inter-library loan, had the publishers been granted what they demanded. He also argues that it would be wrong to treat publishers as a monoculture. The big publishers and their habit of bundling subscriptiosn with ever increasing prices threatens the subscription base of the independent journals. If the subscription model continues to hold into the current century many smaller publications will either be bought out or disappear. The paper provides an excellent summaries of what Open Access means and why it is an important issue. It also serves as a reminder that the changes ahead, however they develop, are not trivial and will need collaboration with librarians if access of any sort to research is to continue.

Hagerlid’s paper bumps out Kerstin Assarsson-Rizzi’s ‘Fornvännen On Paper and On-Line’ from the first spot, which is an interesting choice for a Fornvännen centenary volume. Following Hagerlid’s paper, Rizzi’s piece is short, and possibly would fit as an introduction chapter. However the ordering, moving from libraries to the KVHAA makes sense. Rizzi’s piece helps in introducing the role of the scholarly society in some of the later chapters.

Martin Carver’s ‘The Future of Antiquity’ is the most problematic paper in the book. Parts of it are demonstrably wrong in 2008, and were also known to be incorrect in 2006 when the meeting was held. Initially it would be tempting to simply state that Carver provides a useful catalogue of misconceptions about Open Access. This would be unfair, there are also questions he raises for which there are no quick answers. After several readings my biggest concern is that Carver opposes Commercial and Open-Access publishers. There are both OA and subscription journals which are said to be non-profit. Equally subscription and OA access are open to exploitation by commercial publishers. Nor is there a division of medium, For instance in a table he produces on page 39, commercial publications are discovered through the library, publisher’s website and off-prints. For Open Access the discovery is baldly ‘Google’. Hagerlid’s own paper shows that OA is compatible with library access, possibly more so than a subscription based model. Equally OA authors can provide off-prints more easily than subscription based authors. Similarly demand for commercial publications is listed as Researchers / Readers / Students while OA only serves Academics. He misses another obvious demographic, the Public, who have economic demand for publications from both, which is only likely to be supplied on a regular basis by OA.

Some of Carver’s objections are sound, if a little one-sided. He argues that the publisher pays model puts pressure on the journal to accept a paper in a way that does not apply to subscription-based journals. This is wrong if one examines the market. He is right there may be a pressure to accept papers, but a journal which consistently accepts poor papers will cease to be an attractive venue for other authors. Accepting a thousand dollars now could cost ten-thousand dollars in the future. The laws of supply and demand still apply, but now to the authors rather than the readers. In contrast there are pressures on commercial publishers to cater for the expectations of their audience. Quality is not the sole arbiter of acceptance for a commercial publication, there is also the need to satisfy an audience. Nonetheless Carver’s underlying point, the need for strong editorship, is important.

As an example of what could be lost with a move to OA, he talks about Antiquity’s focus on neglected areas of archaeology such as African or Islamic Archaeology. Carver’s position is that journals should lead and that spotlighting overlooked areas is something you can do with a journal where the readers are locked into reading what you publish. It’s an interesting point, but I’m not sure that a subcription-based journal is necessary for that. This is why I am high ambivalent about Carver’s paper. Carver is a tremendous advocate for the importance of editorship in a journal. He clearly has strong ideas about journals being an active player in research rather than a passive record. He makes the case that there will be a need for independent journals for many years to come. Unfortunately he doesn’t make a case for the need for a subscription to guarantee that independence.

Finskt Museum Between the Past and the Future’ by Helena Edgren, puts the current debates into a historical perspective by examining the past of Finskt Museum Finnish Museum a Swedish-language journal based in Finland. The journal faces challenges which are mentioned again in later papers, the problem of language. She also states that the reproduction costs for images on the internet is simply too high for many journals. This is a major problem. The development of Creative Commons licensed photobanks may be a help, but this so far is a challenge which scholarly societies have failed to take up.

Ruth Hegarty contributes ‘The Royal Irish Academy as a Small Academic Publisher: Keeping Up With the Times’. She brings out the social aspect of publishing. Learned societies exchange journals with each other and each journal costs. She estimates savings of at least €40 per copy if exchanges went electronic. She also charts how the Royal Irish Academy is adapting its working procedures to meet the future. It would seem that the RIA is seeking to use its facilities to promote the work of its authors in the prevailing conditions, rather than and compromise with tradition. It suggests that the RIA will achieve its goal of presenting itself as an organisation at the cutting edge of research.

‘Archaeological Journals in Poland: Past, Present and Future’ by Zbigniew Kobylinski and Jesper Laursen’s ‘Kuml and the Jutland Archaeological Society’ make a good pairing because they present very different, but equally sensible responses to a problem mentioned by Helena Edgren regarding Finnish language journals. What do you do if you publish in a minority language? Would an open access journal in Polish or Danish help expand the readership of work?

There’s really no need to make the case for the importance of Polish scholarship. The country has historically been a source of important work for centuries. But while the language of the past was Latin, Kobylinski states that for some journals the modern use of Polish will not get work the audience it should. Archeologia Polski should have been a solution, publishing translations into various European languages. However Kobylinski had concluded that the only viable language for international readership is English. Despite this circulation is now at 350 copies. Poland is not that dull a country. On the contrary, from what I’ve read Poland is a fascinating country with much of interest to be reported. Yet left to the market it is clear that English language publication of Polish material is not viable, Kobylinski’s paper would indicate that Archeologia Polski may be one of the victims of subscription consolidation if workable open-access solution cannot be found.

Laursen’s paper in contrast takes a different view of who their journal is published for. Kuml is the annual of the Jutland Archaeological Society. It’s published in Danish, and Larsen reports that Danish language publication is seen as of lesser value than international language publication. This is a concern. If you cannot publish high quality work in Danish then where can you publish it? Larsen makes much of Kuml’s connection not simply to Denmark but specifically to Jutland. As Kuml is a regionally-based archaeological journal he makes a strong case for publication in Danish, even if its results are of international importance. I’ve known European archaeologists outside of the big five nations make the argument that international publication means English-language publication, but Larsen’s paper shows there is a cost to be paid if this attitude is adopted across Europe.

Klavs Randsborg contributes ‘Blue. Reflections on Acta Archaeologica’ which is very much an internationally orientated publication. He makes powerful points about the longevity of electronic media. Archaeologists often consult books from the 19th century. In contrast digital media from the 1980s can be inaccessible. I suspect that he will be wrong in saying that nothing of the current day internet will be read by people in ten years’ time. HTML 1.0 pages are still readable by the latest generation of web browsers and being a text-based format, I suspect they’ll be readable through XML browsers with parsers in a century’s time. However while file formats may be legible, the physical formats will, as he rightly says, be upgraded many times. This would suggest that the library will play the role of conservator in the future, and that this may we be a more regular task than the re-binding of texts. The consolation is that if standard file formats are adopted the task can largely be automated.

He comes closest to asking questions about the shape of journals in the future. He foresees the use of hypertext for linking between papers. I would add the evidence from weblogs would add the possibility of reverse citations, a bibliography of papers which cite the article, as well as the traditional bibliography of sources cited. In this scene he shows the importance of access. How can this material be used, and will the abstract be all that the non-subscribers see? I would have liked to have read more about this. The existence of gated communities would have major implications for the usability of information between sites. It would be shame to see a sharp divide between sites like the PAS offering open data access for re-use elsewhere being exploited by subscription only journals,

The closing paper is somewhat grim. ‘Meddelanden från Lunds universitets historika museum 1930-1995. A scholarly journal of the past’ by Berta Stjernquist reminds us what is at stake if the growing funding crisis is not solved. I hadn’t heard of Meddelanden. It is possible that it’s because I haven’t read much about Scania, though as Stjernquist points out there was more to Meddelanden than that. But even if there were not should that matter? The end of Meddelanden seems not to have been due to the quality of its papers, nor its international importance. A major reason government funding ceased is that it was said to be too focussed on the area around Lund. The fact that these discussions had value beyond Sweden was not sufficient. That is a matter for grave concern because all archaeology is, at some point, local. The Pyramids of Giza may be the world’s most famous archaeological monuments, but to understand even these requires placing them in the context of their locality.

The debate in this volume isn’t solely about open access, but also includes other issues of globalisation. Nonetheless the shadow of economic pressure casts a shadow over most of the papers in the book. Hagerlid says in the opening paper that maintaining current subscription models would be the most risky strategy for a journal, and Sternquist’s closing paper shows the dangers are real and serious. There are some highly questionable assertions used in some of the papers, but even so these papers are of interest and raise matters which will need to be tackled. Rundkvist has pulled together a book which is well-presented, thought provoking and, unusually for a good book, hopefully will be short-lived in importance. It is essential for many journals that some of the problems discussed are solved soon. It is an important contribution to the debate upon academic publishing in archaeology. Should I ever have the urge to set up a journal I’ll be sure to try and learn some of the lessons in this book.


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