What does a publisher contribute to a journal? We academics supply the content, and we do the curating too, as referees and editors. Does the publisher supply the website, the editorial software, and the storage of published papers? Even that’s all free now, thanks to libraries like the University of Toronto’s and the University of Michigan’s, and thanks to the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal System.
So what’s a publisher good for? Converting the ragged miscellany of files submitted by authors into professional, publishable PDFs. Oh, and in the process they establish the official page-numbers later authors will refer to.
It’s a surprisingly trivial contribution, but if you want your journal taken seriously, you had better produce a uniform and minimally stylish product. So unless the editors have time to convert each file by hand (!), or they can recruit someone else to do it ($), a computer must do the job. The catch is: computers can’t do this job unless they can read each author’s chosen file format and identify all the sections, headings, citations, numbered lists, tables, diagrams, etc. For reasons I won’t go into here, popular software like Microsoft Word makes this impossible to do reliably.
This problem was actually solved by computer scientists at Stanford way back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The solution wasn’t some fancy program that parses the messy files produced by Word and converts them into polished journal pages. It was instead to get people to write in a standard file format that already identifies headings as headings, citations as citations, lists as lists, etc. Leslie Lamport created the format that is now standard in math and many sciences: LaTeX. It generates beautiful, finished products, of even higher quality than those produced by professional typesetters, thanks to free software created single-handedly by Donald Knuth. (If you’re not familiar with Knuth, he’s a fascinating character with an amusingly idiosyncratic home page.)
LaTeX is now standard in fields where mathematical formulae are common, because typing math in Word is excruciating and slow with unlovely results, while LaTeX makes math easy, fast, and beautiful. But philosophers have been slow to adopt the format. It has just enough of a learning curve to make Word preferable in the short run, if you don’t need to type any math. So few philosophers bother to learn the system that every mathematician learns as a student.
This leaves us philosophers dependent on publishers in a way mathematicians are not. Editors of math journals can count on authors to use LaTeX, and they can use Knuth’s free software to typeset papers without any help from a publisher. But in philosophy, file formats pose a final, petty barrier to open access publication.
So are we doomed by our ludditism to eternal dependence on publishers? No. Simple, user-friendly options are now available. And thanks to a large and supportive community of programmers, free software for working with these simpler formats is plentiful. One promising such format is Markdown, created by John Gruber with help from the late Aaron Swartz (yes, that Aaron Swartz). This post was written in Markdown and published using the wonderful pandoc program created by philosopher John MacFarlane. To see just how simple Markdown is, you can read the source-text for this post here. For more on the scholarly use of Markdown, go here.
There are other moral reasons to prefer a format like Markdown. The software isn’t just free, it’s also open-source, meaning the code is publicly available for anyone to copy or modify. Software that "nobody owns" is essential to a public forum like the web. In fact, most of the web is open-source. (Most web servers are open-source and over 70% of web browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, are open-source under the hood.)
When we write in Microsoft Word, we defect in a collective action problem. We make ourselves dependent on commercial publishers and software companies, lining their pockets at the expense of students, taxpayers, and universities. Were we to cooperate instead like the mathematicians, this outcome could be easily avoided.
Though we don’t ordinarily think it, some file formats are morally superior to others.