Monday, December 24, 2007

The Ongoing Debate on the Usage of Print vs. Electronic Journals: Perspective of an Ivy League PhD Student

I recently had an enjoyable conversation with a former roommate and friend, back from our days at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, who is currently nearing completion of a doctorate at the graduate school of an Ivy League institution in computer science, about his views on using print vs. electronic journals. Our discussion centered on the notion that a journal Tradition, published by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a leading institution of American Modern Orthodox Judaism, charges a fee of $25.00 per year (or $15.00 to students) for non-Tradition subscribers. Parallel journals from within the Modern Orthodox community, like The Meorot Journal (formerly The Edah Journal), published by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Torah u-Madda Journal, published by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University, are published in both print and electronic formats, thus allowing their publications to be read by individuals from throughout and beyond the geographic and ideological world of Orthodox Judaism.

Below is a lightly-edited version of a letter that I received from my roommate and friend C.G., posted at the Seforim blog with his express permission.
Dear Menachem,

Regarding our conversation about Tradition, we discussed whether graduate students use online journal access through their universities. In my experience, not only do they use the online access, they only use the online access. I know that in 4 years as a PhD student at Columbia I have looked up an article that wasn't online exactly once. There is just too much material online and too many accessible journals for me to bother going to the library to photocopy a journal that is behind the times. (The one time I did go was for a seminal article from the 70's that it is de rigueur in my field to cite.) If I had to pay for the article, even a few dollars, there is no way I would have done so. My experience is that other PhD students take the same approach - for all intents and purposes, an article that isn't freely available to us online doesn't exist. (By free, I mean "free to me," as in either free or available through a University's e-journals program.) Free abstracts isn't much of a help either, if the article isn't free. It isn't even that I'm particularly cheap - it simply makes no economic sense for me to pay. There is always another article you can cite, and considering the hundreds of articles I read before each paper I write, the cost of a few dollars per article would add up pretty fast. It's the equivalent of replacing a library with a bookstore - if I have to pay for every book I read, I'll read a lot fewer books, and if most of the books I want are free but a few cost money, it would take a lot to interest me in the ones that I need to pay for.

The New York Times discovered this recently; charging even a small fee for their opinion pages drastically reduced the impact of their columnists on popular thought, which is part of the reason that they are suddenly free again. (Incidentally, they were smart enough to make themselves free to academics even when they were charging the general public). New York Times continues to charge (the general public) for archived articles and I guarantee that this has reduced the frequency that archived articles are cited by non-academic researchers. New York Times can afford to do this because the fact is that they were the paper of record for more than a century and if you are researching news from the 1930's you don't have a lot of other choices. However, a small journal that isn't widely known outside of a relatively small circle doesn't have the same power.

I will admit that $15 a year is a fairly nominal cost, and if I was planning on citing Tradition a lot I would pay it, much as I pay for various magazines. However, the key here is that I would only do that if I already knew that Tradition was full of material for me. If I came across a Tradition article and I wasn't familiar with the journal or didn't think I'd be citing many Tradition articles, I'd just click along to the next result on Google. This is the reason that it's standard practice in my field to make your own articles available online for free - the easier it is for someone to get it, the more likely it will have an impact. I also concede that my field (computer science) is more "online" than other fields. However, a lot of my friends are in graduate programs and an informal straw poll says that the same is true for other fields. A friend in psychology told me that an article that isn't free online "doesn't exist" and a close friend who was researching a Jewish Studies topic in conjunction with the chair of a university department told me that anything he needed to pay for or even needed to go to the library for wasn't worth his time when there were ten other articles that were free.

My opinion: Tradition's current pricing is perfectly fine for a magazine. If that's the model they are aiming for, it's entirely sustainable, and it's what most magazines do, as their goal is to maximize subscriptions and revenue. However, an academic journal usually has a different goal of having an impact on the currents of thought in the broader field, and in that respect, if even 25% of researchers are like me and my friends (though, to be honest, I suspect that 95% are) then Tradition is making a big mistake.

Just my opinion of course. Be well,


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