The proliferation of “paywalls” for academic journals is educationally counter-productive and WRONG. Today, we accept as “normal” that academic journals charge fees for digital access. In an analog world, when publishers bore tangible costs for distributing paper-based copies of articles, this made more sense. In our increasingly digital world today, however, when the marginal cost of distributing another digital copy of an article via the Internet is ZERO, the existence and “normalcy” of academic journal paywalls is repugnant. Clay Shirky hit the nail on the head in his EDUCAUSE keynote in Denver a few weeks ago with these observations:

When English academic journals were initially founded they were created to increase the speed of access and size of the audience for an academic journal. Now, however, the function of journals is precisely the opposite: They SLOW DOWN the speed with which readers have access to published materials and additionally REDUCE the size of the audience. (This is my best attempt at a paraphrase of Clay’s words.)

This situation is not acceptable. Here’s a case in point from tonight.

At our church’s monthly session meeting, our Pastor (Mateen Elass) mentioned a recent article by Paula R. Kincaid, “Discipleship is not a program, but the core of the church.” In that article, Paula opens by citing Stephen Prothero‘s thesis in his 2007 book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t.” That book is available in paper versions from different sellers ranging in price from $10 – $15, from Amazon as a Kindle eBook for $3.79, and on Scribd as a PDF for free.

I’m not sure how or if Scribd user John Cicchino got permission from Harper Collins and Stephen Prothero to freely republish the book, but he published it in January 2012 and Paula linked to the free Scribd version in her article. It will be interesting to see how Harper Collins responds to my tweet tonight, which may prove to be my first “copyright infringement tattle tweet” ever.

Message to HarperCollins about possible copyright infringement

Tonight I opted to pay $3.79 and bought the Amazon Kindle version of Prothero’s eBook. It’s similar in context to E.D. Hirsch’s book, “Cultural Literacy,” which I read a number of years ago and highly value.

Religious Literacy

In the first chapter of the book, Prothero cites a July 1987 article in “Theology Today,” which is a peer-reviewed journal published by the Princeton Theological Seminary.

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The link is unfortunately NOT clickable in the DRM-protected Kindle .mobi version of the eBook, so to search for it I highlighted the link, searched for the link text on Google, then copied the link from the Google search bar and put it into a browser window on my iPad. Then I was able to visit the link, which it turns out is now broken because “Theology Today” has been electronically published “In cooperation with SAGE Publications” on ttj.sagepub.com. With the move to a new domain, apparently all old links to old articles are broken.

I next visited the new web home for “Theology Today” and drilled down to find the July 1987 article. Instead of being able to click on the PDF and read this article by Craig Dykstra, I was presented with a paywall page informing me I’ll have to fork out $25 to gain access to this peer-reviewed journal article from 1987.

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This is wrong and is a situation which must change. It can and will change when we change the MINDSET of academic journal article publishers to RETURN to original principles: Academic journals USED TO exist and STILL SHOULD exist to increase the speed of access and the size of the audience which has access to published articles. Our digital information landscape makes it EASY for publishers of any size to make their articles available FREE. As professors and educational leaders, we should lead the way in this paradigm change for digital academic publishing.

For more on this topic, I commend my March 2012 post, “Open Access Crimes” as well as Chris Anderson’s excellent book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” Also check out the “Directory of Open Access Journals” and the Annotum theme for WordPress. I’ve used Annotum to start my personal digital publications archive, which is (of course) completely free and open access.

As authors and writers we can and should find ways to continue to monetize our published intellectual property, but “refereed academic journals” are not the space for monetization. As educators, learners, and members of diverse communities convinced of the importance ascribed to OPEN INFORMATION ACCESS, we should work to support open access journals and open academic publishing. Hopefully in my lifetime, we’ll see this digital academic publishing paradigm change.

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  • http://twitter.com/andthatrhymeswi Albert Henderson

    The publishers’ problem is how to pay for the first copy of a journal.

    Universities started cancelling subscriptions in 1970 and never stopped. They now budget less than half the percent spent on libraries then while fostering growth in R&D grants that generate ever more papers.

    Information is the least costly element of R&D, yet it is the most influential on positive results. Something is wrong with this picture, and IMHO, it is the increased profitability of higher education institutions.

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