Schrodinger’s Journals- You can’t both “publish” and publish at the same time

Posted on February 10, 2014


Have you ever heard of Schrondinger’s Cat? It is a paradox in which a cat can neither be alive nor dead at the same time. The concept has to do with physics (clicking on the link will take you to a wiki article which will explain it). Essentially, the argument is that in certain cases you can’t have two things but must only have one. Schrondinger uses reductio ad absurdum and a cat to make his point. Cats can’t be both dead and alive at the same time. This is not a game of horseshoes were almost counts or Princess Bride were one is ‘mostly’ dead but not dead-dead. (PS Schroedinger was not advocating killing cats)

The reason I bring this up is because I wonder if Schrondinger was alive today if instead of a cat he would have used the current pay-walled publishing regime as his example. So instead of Schrondinger’s Cat we would have Schrondinger’s Journals. Let me explain what I mean. In our current system of academic publishing we say an academic has published and reward them as such. However, when you look up the definition of publish (here is one, and another one) we find two general definitions that apply in this context:

“to issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution”


“to make publicly or generally known”

Just like Schroedinger’s Cat you can’t both “publish” (to issue for sale) and publish (make well known) at the same time. To publish a book or journal article means participating in a system that ensures that almost no one will actually read what you write because the work is hidden behind pay walls. If almost no one reads what you write than really you have failed in the act “to make publicly or generally known”. You might be reading this thinking, “No, your wrong! I am making my work generally known to my peers, fellow academics, etc.” That is a fair point as generally known is a subjective term. However, even then some evidence says that authors might not have actually read between 70-80% of papers they cite in their own articles. A survey found that respondents reported only reading an abstract in 63% of the cases. It is not clear if that is because they could not read the full article or just thought to skip it. I am not necessarily happy with these resources but it is the data we have on hand and it indicates that most of our peers don’t even read the work, including the ones that cite us. Because of that I find it hard to take the argument seriously that work is even generally well know among a small group of people in the current publishing system.

Of course there is an exception to this, Open Access. But that is the exception that proves the rule. OA aside, I don’t think one can “publish” and publish at the same time. Yes, you might argue that certain papers get into the news but then someone else is publishing your work and usually in their own words and not always correctly. Also, there are a few super star papers that do get widely known but what is that 1 in 1000? 1 in 10,000? For the most part, in the paywall system of academic publishing it is Schroedinger’s Journals.

As it stands now, in academia only the act of getting ones work ready for sale or distribution is rewarded, not actually making that work generally known, which is a bit of a shame.

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