Academic Substack: Open, Free, and Subject to Review

Substack as a Better Model for Academic Publishing

I’m fortunate to be an American professor working at a small university in Germany. One reason I’m fortunate is because my position here is a teaching job with no burdensome publication quotas or demands to participate in research beyond that which I choose to do myself.

But the academic work I have done on my own time frequently remains unpublished, since the media available to us researchers are obsolete, overly exclusive or subject to market demands incompatible with real science. I want to spread the word, but I prefer not to contribute my hard work to a system that is so exclusionary.

I may be way off here, but it seems to me that Substack has hit a digital publishing sweet spot that makes it a candidate for the academic publishing model of the future.

What are the most common media for scientific publication today?

Generally, research and experimental results will be published in academic journals whose content is made available to the authors’ peers for (further) extensive scrutiny. Other researchers may choose to publish works in the form of a monograph which allows for more creative and detailed presentation of the work.

Authors less concerned with detail or rigor may furthermore publish their work themselves via informal online media such as medium.com, personal blogs or even Twitter. These have obvious limitations in the context of academic publishing; specifically a lack of peer review or commercial pressures that drive the most popular platforms.

None of these media is perfect, but, I would argue, the greatest criticism of each medium can be eliminated if academic publishing were to adopt a Substack-type model.

Consider the most frequent criticisms of academic publishing:

  • Access to journals is prohibitively expensive and therefore practically unavailable to independent researchers. Furthermore, the revenue from subscriptions or digital downloads is not fairly shared with those who generate the in-demand scientific data.

  • Apart from the financial walls that academic publishers encourage, there are frequently de facto barriers to participation as a contributor, reviewer, or consumer of published work. Unaffiliated scholars or even those who are attached to the wrong institutions may be denied access to the most relevant and up-to-date work.

  • Finally, the review process itself may be subject to intellectual protectionism and even unintentional gatekeeping that prevents research from reaching a broader audience that can help the ideas grow. Specialist literature reviewed by specialists from the same field may seem like an intuitively correct way to verify, but real interdisciplinary work and broad studies require an open field of experts. More critical eyes - even on the specialist literature - foster greater rigor and a kind of intellectual cross-pollenation that the fortress model of contemporary publishing prevents.

These three major flaws are most evident in the context of scientific journal publication. Other flaws in monograph and digital self-publishing are apparent, but don’t seem to be such serious threats to the health of international academic expression. Long-windedness and superficiality, for example, are problems that careful readers can solve for themselves.

A Substack model for academic publishing could avoid the three traps described above. This medium is freely available - costing nothing and placing no barriers to access beyond basic Internet access - while also inviting users even from unrelated fields to examine and respond to content. If Academic Substack were used across scientific disciplines, the potential for innovative collaboration and robust review would strengthen academic publication in ways difficult to imagine under the present regime. Access and cooperation are this medium’s great strength and the foundation of science generally.

Feel free to contact me as I encourage my colleagues to participate in this new forum that strives to be open, free, rigorous, and inclusive.