Form beginning to end, publishing today is miserably astraddle medievalism and commercialism. Its rationale and organization are obstacles to research and scholarship.
In a quip that few bothered to understand, Robert M. Hutchins once said that we should give the college diploma to anyone who applied and paid a fee. We are reminded of this when we consider the problems of "scholarly" publication. Since today almost anyone can publish his ideas, and often the quality of the work is inversely proportional to its easy publishability, we must also say: "We should publish anything a scholar wants to publish, no questions asked." Let any social scientist who has the nerve to write be assured that his writing will be available to those who might be interested in his ideas. Let him bear the praise or blame, as he will in any case.
There would be no waiting while overworked editors read a study and arrive at a questionable decision about it, no need to pretend that many of the heavy costs of publishing are more than a waste, no need to pretend that many of the heavy costs of publishing are more than a waste, no reworking of a piece to satisfy the eccentricities of a succession of journals and publishers. We venture to say that no decline in the quality of writing overall would be apparent, and only a moderate increase in quantity. (Consider that currently much bad writing is done to persuade academic superiors of a parsons' merit. If anyone could be published, this spurious activity might diminish.)
Suppose the several journals that form the bulk of a discipline's publishing joined their resources, and set up an inexpensive format, in loose-leaf, with standard typefaces and sizes. Counting on a continuous flow of manuscript, a most efficient printing operation could be set up. Whatever manuscript came in would be printed, if its author said it was ready to go. Books and monographs could be handled in the same way. Can anyone familiar with printing and publishing doubt that this complete enterprise would involve less cost than present professional publishing? Are not the present expensively bound, miscellaneous collection of studies an anachronism and an enemy of orderly research?
How should we account for differing demands? First by permitting each author of the group only a certain number of copies free. He might either designate the recipients or instruct the center to fill all requests until his quota was exhausted. Mean while, all members of the group would check on a monthly list the items they wanted until a yearly quota was exhausted, after which they would pay for items. No longer would they perforce collect pounds of useless material for every ounce they used. The author could also pay for extra copies, as he does now.
For those who wished a more exotic garb for their work, a central service would reproduce and send any member's work to a list of journals and publishers simultaneously. The first offer received by the author, returned on a standard form accompanying the manuscript, would be accepted. This method would both save the author's energies and time, and hasten publication. Opposition would come from author's agents and publishers, both of whom like to have sole option on a work. However, particularly for scientific writing, their policy is against the author's best interests.
Those not liking either plan may be consoled with the thought that an author would not be bound to the plans and could use traditional channels. Nevertheless, the impact of the two phases of the new plan would be likely to break up many frustrations that serious authors today encounter in persuading others to publish their work, in getting their ideas to the few who might use them, in preserving their time, energy, and money for their principal raisin d'être--- scholarship---, and in cataloging and using the large variety of published materials.