There is growing move against overpriced refereed academic journals. For example, see Stephen Matchett of the Australian here. And the economics discipline is a great example of both the failure of refereed journals and why their imminent death is exaggerated.
In economics, refereed journals are a historic archive. The lags between submission and publication are often years. Simultaneous submissions to multiple journals breaches journal rules (so evaluations are sequential) and rounds of revision take many months/years. Rejection and resubmission at another journal (rejection rates at the best journals are well over 90%) means more years of wait. And even after acceptance, official publication may take more months. So researchers publish new research and access new research in public working paper databases, like SSRN. By the time a paper is formally published in a journal it is ‘old news’. So the expensive journals should be easily eliminated, right?
Refereed journal publications are used to judge academic quality. Papers in the twenty-top-journals-who-claim-to-be-in-the-top-ten are the benchmark for tenure at the best universities. Lower level journal publications are needed for jobs at other universities. It is not just publish or perish that reigns. It is where you publish that matters.
Not all of these journals are expensive as some are published by ‘societies’ that keep the price down to more modest levels. But many economics research journals are published by the for-profit presses. And all of the highly ranked economics journals follow similar snail-paced processes for reviewing submitted papers.
The self-reinforcing culture, that places the journals as the measure of quality, is hard to change. It is hard to break because a new journal is automatically ranked middle-to-low. This makes it hard for open-source journals or journals using a different model (e.g. B.E.Press in its original incarnation) to ‘move up’ the rankings. Academics (particularly junior academics) are reluctant to publish in such journals because they are not highly ranked. And they can’t become highly ranked without getting highly cited papers from good researchers.
Existing senior academics in the economics discipline have little reason to alter the system. They have their historic archive of papers in highly ranked journals. They may grumble about the submission fees, the refereeing requests and the publication delays but they are the winners in the current system.
The importance of publishing in ‘highly ranked’ journals is reinforced by universities in Australia who explicitly want to use journal rankings (such as the ERA list) to evaluate academics. So while the universities may complain about the price of the journals, they are part of the problem because they use these same journals as a measure of quality.
Is there a solution? Changing a ‘bad equilibrium’ such as the one in economics can be hard. It usually requires a big coordinated leap to move to a ‘better equilibrium’. The best universities in the world may be able to orchestrate such a shift but they (or their economics departments) would have to act in unison. An alternative to the journals may involve an open source database like SSRN with a ranking system – but the alternative would have to be strong enough to drag along the academics and this means it has to be a credible alternative measure of prestige for those academics.