Open Access Philosophy

Why are there still hard copy philosophical journals and books?  Why is so much on-line philosophy hidden behind subscription walls?  Why are universities, students and researchers being forced to pay for access to information authors would happily give away for free?

Who disagrees with this:

The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.

Our mission of disseminating knowledge is only half complete if the information is not made widely and readily available to society. New possibilities of knowledge dissemination not only through the classical form but also and increasingly through the open access paradigm via the Internet have to be supported. We define open access as a comprehensive source of human knowledge and cultural heritage that has been approved by the scientific community.

In order to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge, the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent. Content and software tools must be openly accessible and compatible.

Berlin Declaration on open access Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities

Shouldn’t philosophers be especially sensitive to the moral and intellectual imperatives of the open access movement?  Why is it that scientists have been so much more ready to embrace it than philosophers?

When I put this question to professional philosophers I hear two different kinds of arguments. One foolish and one cynical.

The foolish argument goes like this: “

“I know that the stuff published in the journals is selected by the editors because it’s good.  How will I know what’s good without the journals? And if I can’t tell who’s writing good stuff how will I know who should be promoted, hired or tenured?”

The obvious answer is that the journals are only as good as they may be because of the judgment of their philosophical editors and reviewers and those people will not go away just because the hard-copy journals do.  Those editors can publish on-line journals, or best-of lists or run contests or simply offer personal recommendations.  There are many many different ways to do open access peer review and almost all of them are better than what we have now.

But I think this foolish objection really conceals a more cynical worry.

“Artificial and cumbersome though it may be, the economics of hard-copy publication is ultimately the only external discipline on the profession’s standards.  Without the objective constraints imposed by the textbook and library marketplace, the profession would never manage to achieve any sort of consensus about what was better than what; standards would collapse. “

The cynical worry may not be wrong.  But if it’s right it is an issue the profession should and must address.  Academic publishing is doomed.  If the end of hard-copy journals means the end of professional standards then the discipline is doomed too. 

It seems to me that the transition to open source could come swiftly and relatively smoothly.

What’s needed is a sort of academic version of the eSign Act.  eSign said that courts cannot treat a contract or signature as invalid just because it is in electronic form.  At a stroke, congress made an eContract as good as a paper one.   

What we need is for professional philosophers to declare that they are going to stop ranking philosophical quality by counting trees killed.

If significant numbers of philosophers, starting with luminaries and full professors, publicly committed to something like the following, the transition to open access could happen virtually over night.

The Open Philosophy Pledge

  1. I will make my academic writings available for viewing without charge on my personal website. I will do so before, or at least at the same time as, I (would) submit them to hard-copy journals.
  2. I will not submit my academic writings to journals whose policies prevent me from continuing to make them available, free of charge, on my own web site .
  3. I will endeavor to make copies of all my previously published academic writings freely available for on-line viewing.  I will encourage journals in which my work has appeared to make their archives of past issues open for general viewing without charge.
  4. When I am asked to judge the quality of scholarly work for any purpose, including hiring, promotion and tenure, I will not assume that fee-charging publication is always superior to open access publication. 
  5. I will encourage and participate in the evolution of new practices and mechanisms for objective peer review and evaluation in an open access environment.
  6. The format of academic books and journal articles is, in part, a function of the requirements of hard copy publication.  On-line publication will make possible new forms and structures of expression.  Realizing this, I will not assume that excellent work must take traditional forms.
  7. I will encourage my colleagues and my department as a whole to take this pledge.  I will endeavor to have the standards proposed by this pledge explicitly incorporated into my department’s and my institution’s policies on hiring, promotion, tenure, and merit.

[NB. The Pledge has been considerably revised since first posting in response to readers’ comments. ]