The State of Publishing in Online Journals

Mike Palmquist, Colorado State UniversityMike Palmquist, Editor
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This just in: nine out of ten doctors prefer print to electronic publications. The doctors I'm referring to, of course, typically have their offices in college or university English departments. And their preferences are deep, strong, and largely uninformed.

These preferences are shaping our profession in unfortunate ways. Up-and-coming scholars are told by their older, wiser colleagues to avoid publication in online journals, largely because those journals are unproven. Instead, our olderandwisercolleagues encourage publication in proven print publications -- or even in unproven print publications -- or, heck, in anything that's on paper. Just avoid online publications.

My response to this advice is straightforward: check out the editorial board and review policies of the journals before making judgments. Quality is not dependent on medium per se. In the case of Academic.Writing, our editorial board is strong and our peer review policy is fair and effective. Yet, like other online journals, we continually receive reports that a publication in our journal will receive less weight than a publication in a print journal, regardless of the quality of that journal's editorial board and review policies.

As a tenured professor with a few years remaining before retirement, I have the luxury of taking the long view. In the near-to-intermediate future, this situation will change. Journals will be distributed largely via online subscription. Subscribers who prefer to read their articles in print will have two options: they can print out the articles on their printers or, in some cases, they can pay a premium to receive a printed version of the journal. Current distinctions between print and online journals will disappear as mainline journals embrace online publication as their primary mode of distribution.

Economics will shape this change. It costs less to publish on the Web than on paper. The editors of many of the smaller print journals will tell you that they spend much more time collecting subscriptions than they do soliciting and developing articles. Yet these journals don't make a profit, and much of their editors' efforts amounts to facilitating the transfer of funds from subscribers to printers.

The editors of larger print journals will call your attention to another set of concerns. Most established print journals require their authors to transfer ownership of the intellectual work published in their journals to the corporate entity that funds the journal. In exchange for underwriting the cost of publishing and distributing the journal, the publisher receives the rights to future uses of the published work.

If you've had the unfortunate experience of seeking permission to use your own work in your classes, you'll realize that the price you pay for publication in a print journal is much higher than you might have originally thought. My students have had to pay fees to read my work, fees that have gone directly to the corporate offices of the publisher of the journal. I realize that this is a small price to pay for publication in a reputable journal, and for many years we've had no choice other than to assign our copyrights to our publishers. But this need not continue. Now that reputable alternatives to publishing in corporate-sponsored journals exist, we should examine them carefully and, when appropriate, choose them.

I'm not asking for a lot. But I will ask you this: when one of your colleagues asks what you think of publishing in an online journal, take the time to check out the editorial board and review policies of that journal. Check out, as well, the journal's policies regarding assignment of copyright. Blanket generalizations about the quality of a journal based solely on publication medium reflects poorly not only on the individual making the generalization, but on our field as a whole.

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Publication Information: Palmquist, Mike. (2001). The State of Publishing in Online Journals. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: May 15, 2001

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