Publish or perish. Academics need to continually publish work to keep their jobs. Universities evaluate their faculty based on how often they publish work and, often more importantly, where they publish that work. In each field there is a hierarchy of journal prestige, which is used by universities to evaluate the work of their faculty. Ideally the university would also review the work itself, but it is much easier to trust the peer review process of prestigious journals. This system can be side stepped of course, like when Grigori Perelmann published his proof of the Poincaré conjecture online and later refused the Field’s Medal. Clearly, prestigious journals are not a necessary component to groundbreaking research. Although it is possible to publish online without dealing with journals, most academics don’t. Most academics use the journals precisely because they are prestigious.
So why are these journals prestigious? In most cases they are very old publications with a history of publishing important research. Assuming that the prestige of the journals is merely a result of reputation within a community, there is no reason why these publications cannot be moved online and made available to the public.
The journals will of course resist this move, because they make a lot of money on subscription fees. If the journals won’t move online and become open access, then perhaps academics should abandon those journals completely.
Of course academics can’t abandon the publication system because they need the recognition of those prestigious journals. There are respectable online journal options, especially for developing fields, but it is more difficult to develop online, open access journals that need to compete with an existing journal. The online journal will always be seen as less valuable because if it is free and open to the public. If the work is worthwhile, then why is it being given away?
The idea that something is more valuable if it is expensive or exclusive is an element of human nature. In 1944, C.S. Lewis delivered a speech to King’s College entitled “The Inner Ring”. The inner ring is that ever elusive group of people that are cooler or smarter or more informed than we are. Some inner rings, like the cool kids at the lunch table, don’t serve any purpose other than to make their member feel superior. Other inner rings, like a group of respected academics, seem more justified. Journal publication is a fine way to increase one’s prestige within the academic community. There is nothing evil about academics pursuing prestige and respect, but the fruits of their work should not be confined to an inner circle. The research published in those journals should be available to everyone. Knowledge should not be confined to an inner circle. Restricting knowledge to those people who have the means to pay for it reinforces economic and intellectual divisions in society.
Social inner circles will never be eradicated. People will never stop trying to distinguish themselves from their peers. This may or may not be a productive element of society, but it’s not going anywhere. We can’t remove social inner circles, but we can eradicate economic inner circles that make information unavailable to those left outside.