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.)
Dear Professor Weatherson,
I’ve received quite a few emails concerning the editorship and pricing of Synthese recently and am sending you and Brian Leiter a copy of what I’ve been writing in response. If you’d 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 I’ve been getting, I thought that you wouldn’t mind. Apologies if it’s 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 Jaakko’s very big shoes. The principal reasons that I was asked to edit the journal two years ago are practical. I’ve 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-90’s Jaakko’s 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 Jaakko’s 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, it’s 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, we’ve had real but admittedly partial success.
With respect to the institutional pricing, things aren’t 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 €/$1652. I can’t give you a precise figure because the price varies depending on the arrangement that libraries or consortia of libraries make with Kluwer. Chances are, if your library now carries the print version of Synthese, they will soon within the next few years and will adopt it in electronic form as part of an electronic bundle of journals instead.
In terms of accessibility, they tell me that the journal currently reaches 15 million desktops via electronic institutional subscriptions. I have no idea how they calculate that figure. However, I do know that the online usage statistics for the journal are extremely high and so my sense is that while fewer libraries carry the paper copy, many more people are reading the journal now than they were 10 years ago. This is a positive development.
Another change is the number of readers using the pay-per-article feature on the Synthese site. This is very surprising to me. I would’ve predicted that readers would simply go to their library’s I.L.L. office rather than paying for access, but apparently the convenience is worth €/$ 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 €/$70 individual subscription price is Kluwer’s 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 don’t 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 I’m 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. I’m confident that these new publishing models are taking shape, but it’s not simply a matter of flipping a switch and it’s 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 that’s 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 €/$5 per issue price, we’ve taken the first small step.
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.]