Scholarship Wants to Be Free

Political science journals, particularly those which exist to provide scholarly insights into matters of public policy, ought to be freely available online.

Henry Farrell makes a persuasive case that political science journals, particularly those which exist to provide scholarly insights into matters of public policy, ought to be freely available online:

Perhaps this could be justified as long as other professional organizations were doing the same thing. But that isn’t true any longer. I see no justification whatsoever for continuing to hide Perspectives behind a paywall when the American Economic Association is providing full, unfettered access to its cognate journal. Political science is supposed to communicate to a broader public. We political science bloggers do bits and pieces here and there to push research as much as we can. Sometimes (as with Paul Staniland’s guest posts in the last several days), we do a lot of work to try to summarize internal debates for outsiders and to draw out the publicly salient implications. But we’re working without any professional support, and there is only so much we can do. Perspectives is the obvious vehicle for a genuine, concerted outreach effort by political scientists to broader debates. Indeed, such outreach is supposed to be part of its mandated mission. But as long as it is effectively inaccessible to the public, it cannot fulfill this vocation.

Aside from the ability to charge for access, there’s no justification that occurs to me for keeping any scholarly journal — especially in the social sciences but, really, any discipline — behind a pay wall.  The scholars themselves are generally paid for their work and happy to see it disseminated as widely as possible.

But there is a cottage industry in selling journals to libraries at outlandish rates and/or doing the same with electronic versions through arcane systems that arose during the earliest days of the modern Internet (the early to mid 1990s).

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    When we pay for scholarly research with tax money, we should prefer that the result go to open access (or better yet, public domain). That’s happening a bit, with things like PLoS. It requires a bit of an inversion in refereed journals though. If you don’t like subscriber-pays, you have to move to author-pays.

  2. Btw, you left out a key word:

    “The scholars themselves are generally not paid for their work and happy to see it disseminated as widely as possible.”

    At least in terms of being paid for the article published (indeed, in some disciplines the scholar pays page charges).

    Indeed, some journals charge outrageous fees for individual articles and the author gets squat. For example, I wanted an article from Electoral Studies a while back and they wanted $25.00 to d/l a PDF of it. Luckily I knew the author and was able to get a copy from him (and I asked if he got any money from the sale of his piece–and he said that he did not).

  3. J.W. Hamner says:

    As of 2008, any article about research paid for by NIH funding is free at most 12 months after publishing. That’s on the long side, but it’s better than what it was before, and still allows journals to be competitive.

    Social Sciences are a different beast though… where do they get their money? I’d guess it’s mostly from the universities themselves and private foundations, but I don’t really know.

  4. J.W. Hamner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Once again from a biomedical sciences perspective… but I imagine this would apply to all scholarly fields… authors are allowed to distribute reprints of their work free, and usually more than happy to send it around. If you ever want a copy of something behind a pay wall I would feel absolutely free to politely ask the corresponding author to send along a PDF.

  5. @JW: This is true in the social sciences as well (i.e., the odds are decent that I could get any article I wanted by e-mailing the author and some people post the PDFs to their web sites these days).

    The money to produce the journals comes, typically, from fees associated with various associations. For example, the Journal of Politics is subsidized by memberships (and conference fees) paid my members of the Southern Political Science Association. And, then, by subscription fees to universities. They probably also get fees for allowing their materials to be listed in various databases.

    What I would be curious about would be whether such funds would be enough to host electronic versions of the journals if they cut out the costs of producing the written versions. At this point in time, the hardcopy, published journal is largely (in my experience) obsolete.