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September 29th, 2003

Synthese

John Symons, the new editor of Synthese, sent me the following letter about what they are doing to address some of the issues that have been raised here and on Brian Leiter’s blog. It’s fairly interesting, and presents a different side to the debate to what has been here so far. It is, however, reasonably long, which is why it is in the extended section. (By the way, did you know Jaakko Hintikka was no longer editing Synthese? I had no idea. Shows you how inattentive I can be sometimes.)

9/29/2003

Dear Professor Weatherson,

Iíve received quite a few emails concerning the editorship and pricing of Synthese recently and am sending you and Brian Leiter a copy of what Iíve been writing in response. If youíd like to post it, I think it might clear up a few things regarding what has been happening with Synthese over the past year and a half. Since your sites are mentioned in the emails Iíve been getting, I thought that you wouldnít mind. Apologies if itís a bit long for the blog format.

To begin with, many philosophers have been surprised that a young and relatively unknown philosopher has become editor of Synthese. While I have the full support of the Jaakko Hintikka and editorial board, none of us are under the illusion that I have filled Jaakkoís very big shoes. The principal reasons that I was asked to edit the journal two years ago are practical. Iíve worked on the organizational side of Synthese for many years as managing editor. At that time, I helped to reorganize the journal so as to bring it back on schedule for the first time in decades. Back in the mid-90ís Jaakkoís office was getting between 200 and 250 unsolicited papers per year, authors were waiting at least a year for a decision, and at its worst, the journal was 13 months behind schedule. The reasons for this had much to do with Jaakkoís eagerness to provide a rapidly growing number of papers with at least two referee reports and his habit of writing personal letters in response to submissions. Reorganizing the journal was a long process, but at this point, Synthese has been on schedule for three years, our review process is now entirely electronic and decisions on unsolicited manuscripts are made in an average of about three months. As referees become more familiar with the new review process, itís getting even faster. For the most part, we continue to provide two or three referee reports to authors. Additionally, rather than having to wait for the official publication date, all forthcoming papers are now available online as soon as they go through an initial proof check (usually within a month after acceptance). These are all important developments and have made for a more responsive and dynamic journal, in my opinion. Of course popular opinion among philosophers often lags behind reality by a few years, so I continue to hear complaints that the review process is slow, etc. There are some cases where a paper is difficult to review responsibly in under three months, but those are quite rare.

Of course, the most significant complaint about the journal (primarily from philosophers in the United States) concerns pricing. Nobody on the editorial board is happy about the institutional price and many of us have taken steps to change things. And yes, while we are grateful for the infrastructural support provided by Kluwer, some of us have explored the possibility of non-commercial publishing. Unfortunately, library consortia and grant-based models of open-access have not offered us a way of maintaining Synthese in anything like its current form.

The editorial board of the journal is well aware of the problem with the price and they and Jaakko have been struggling with Kluwer for years to change things. When I was asked to become editor of the journal, it was with the understanding that the price be dropped significantly. As you can see, with the new individual subscription price and the refunds to individual subscribers, weíve had real but admittedly partial success.

With respect to the institutional pricing, things arenít quite as simple or as bad as the raw number implies. The way things stand now, the number of paper subscriptions from institutions is slowly decreasing. However, the number of libraries buying electronic subscriptions to a bundle of journals (including Synthese) now outnumbers those subscribing to the paper copy. As libraries stop renewing their paper copy, they have tended to shift to the online version as part of an arrangement where they subscribe to all or a selection of the Kluwer journals. Consequently, the price that libraries pay for the e-version of Synthese is considerably less than Ä/$1652. I canít give you a precise figure because the price varies depending on the arrangement that libraries or consortia of libraries make with Kluwer. Chances are, if your library now carries the print version of Synthese, they will soon within the next few years and will adopt it in electronic form as part of an electronic bundle of journals instead.

In terms of accessibility, they tell me that the journal currently reaches 15 million desktops via electronic institutional subscriptions. I have no idea how they calculate that figure. However, I do know that the online usage statistics for the journal are extremely high and so my sense is that while fewer libraries carry the paper copy, many more people are reading the journal now than they were 10 years ago. This is a positive development.

Another change is the number of readers using the pay-per-article feature on the Synthese site. This is very surprising to me. I wouldíve predicted that readers would simply go to their libraryís I.L.L. office rather than paying for access, but apparently the convenience is worth Ä/$ 20 to some people.

In any event, my sense is that the large publishers have accepted that their business model has to change and I think that this Ä/$70 individual subscription price is Kluwerís implicit acknowledgment of this. By the way, in response to suggestions and inquiries about the libraries switching from institutional to individual subscriptions, you should know that for years now, dozens of libraries have been doing this. Please donít ask me whether you ought to do it or not!

Ultimately, I think most of us share the goals of the open access movement and Iím optimistic that eventually something like cheap, if not open, electronic access will be the norm once we can figure out business models that get big labor-intensive outfits like Synthese running on minimal budgets. Iím confident that these new publishing models are taking shape, but itís not simply a matter of flipping a switch and itís not something that has to (or perhaps can) happen in a non-commercial venue.

While there are some philosophers for whom Synthese has come to symbolize everything thatís wrong with publishing, I think this is unfair. Jaakko has built a great institution that continues to have vast reserves of goodwill in the philosophical community. In addition to the increasingly rapid and responsive editorial process, I think that philosophers have correctly appreciated the openness of Synthese to contributions that fall outside of the sometimes parochial Anglo-American mainstream. The purpose of my editorship, as I see it, is to ensure that the journal remains a venue for some of the best work in philosophy while making it as accessible as possible to both readers and authors.

I began reading the journal when I was a teenager in Ireland and I continue to regard it as one of the best. Alas the library where I first read the journal stopped subscribing to Synthese long ago. So yes, I take the idea of open-access very seriously. By getting the Ä/$5 per issue price, weíve taken the first small step.

Best wishes,

John

John Symons
Editor, Synthese
jsymons@utep.edu

Let me just add that to find the preprints, just go here and click on forthcoming papers. Sorry for such indirect links, but I can’t find a way to directly link to that page. (Nor can I find a way to track it, which means I’ve been missing out on some links for the papers blog. I’ll keep working on that.) [This last paragraph was from Brian, in case that wasn’t always clear. I just changed the typesetting to distinguish more clearly what I wrote from what Professor Symons wrote.]

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

7 Comments »

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7 Responses to “Synthese”

  1. Neil says:

    One worry about libraries switching to electronic subscription is that people who are not officially members of the institution generally can’t access the jounals. This is not a big problem for a journal like Synthese, but I’d like to think that some philosophy journals are accessible to non-philosophers. As I understand it, Australian university libraries are supposed to be open to the general public. There are also the not insignificant number of people who want academic jobs but don’t have them who are excluded.

  2. Jonathan Sutton says:

    Speaking as a serial submitter of unsolicited papers to journals, including Synthese, over the years, I think John Symons should take care with his implicatures, as helpful and informative as his letter is. I kinda thought that was what those journals wanted, and certainly that it is what is expected of many of us…

  3. Matt Weiner says:

    One worry about libraries switching to electronic subscription is that people who are not officially members of the institution generally can’t access the jounals.

    Indeed, people who are members of the journal often can’t access the journals from home, if they have a non-university ISP at home.—I suppose this is no worse than having a print copy of the journal, for which you have to go to the library (which presumably has computers), but it still could be better.

  4. Matthew says:

    You can reach the ‘Forthcoming Papers’ page directly by clicking here.

  5. Keith says:

    As one who urged philosophers to give some preference to reasonably-priced over very expensive journals, both in submitting one’s papers to journals and in accepting refereeing tasks, I should add that all the work that people put into refereeing — and editing: what a huge job that must be! — for journals, whether the journals are expensive or reasonable, is very important and beneficial to the profession, and is to be commended.

  6. Kent says:

    Anyone asked to referee can be selective about doing it for journals that gouge subscribers and/or libraries. Demanding a fee would be futile, but it would be interesting to try asking for a free subscription for one’s donated efforts. NB: many of these overpriced journals give free subscriptions to the members of their ostensibly prestigious editorial boards, many of whom are there in name only and do little if any refereeing.

  7. Keith says:

    Kent: As it happens, I offered just that about a couple of years ago to a Kluwer journal (I forget which one). I offered to referree a couple of papers/yr in exchange for a free subscription for the Yale library. (I had heard that they sometimes don’t mind someone using an individual subscription to stock their department’s reading room if the main university library already was already getting an institutional subscription, so what I was offering was to do some work in exchange for Yale’s main library getting a free subscription — so Yale wouldn’t have to pay the institutional price at all.) They didn’t take me up on it.