Recently I received news of three new journals with laudable goals: one is Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies, an online, open access, peer-reviewed journal; the second is The Sociology of Islam Journal, which will be published by Brill on a subscription basis. The third is Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia (ACME). When I started my graduate career in the early 1970s there were only a few journals dedicated specifically to the study of Islam and none to the anthropology of the Middle East or Central Asia. Der Islam, Studia Islamica, the Muslim World were solely for Islam, although they rarely had sociological or anthropological articles. Most scholars published in journals of their discipline or broader Middle Eastern Studies, such as the Middle East Journal, the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Arabica, Quaderni di Studi Arabi, and the like. The first journal devoted solely to contemporary Islam, with an anthropological focus, is Contemporary Islam, founded by Gabriele Marranci. The first journal created for the anthropology of the Middle East is, appropriately enough, Anthropology of the Middle East.

As the co-editor of a major Springer journal, Contemporary Islam, and the editor-in-chief of an online, peer-reviewed open access journal, CyberOrient, I am probably the last person who should be complaining about more new journals. It is not really a complaint as much as it is a contemplation: why are there more and more subscription-based academic journals when library budgets are being skimmed and few scholars can afford the exorbitant individual subscription prices of major presses? Is it the case that there are too few journals out there? Given the quality of the articles I sometimes see in professional journals, it seems as though quality or cogency is not always significant for getting into print. An argument could be made that there are so many more academic scholars these days, that new journals are needed to accommodate them. I can see this point, but then why not create open-source journals, like Mashriq & Mahjar, which can as easily be peer-reviewed as those distributed by major publishing houses?

There are several disadvantages I see with the expanding number of subscription-based academic journals. First, it is hard enough, if not impossible, to keep up with all the new relevant material being written, even though there is quite a bit of redundancy in what is covered. Unless one teaches at a major university with an almost unlimited library budget (I realize this is a bit rhetorical), access is not likely to be easy to a subscription-based journal. If I requested my library to cough up the $250-$300plus per year, I would be asked what existing journals I wanted to give up. Second, the sheer number of articles appearing can draw attention away from those rare articles that are so good they need to be digested and read more than once. A very good article may simply not get read because there are so many to choose from. Or else, the only scholars reading are those with a specific or narrow interest.

All this leads to the conundrum of who are we writing for anyway? Almost all the journals that major academic publishers offer are for fellow academics. There is nothing wrong with this, but academics writing for other academics so easily leads to elite ivory towerness. We complain how ignorant the public is about Islam and the Middle East, but consider the vapid and at time flagrantly wrong information that is spouted by talking media bobble heads on cable news or that circulates on the Internet. We need to be the ones writing for and communicating to the general public as well. Leaving it up to journalists is a precarious option, as anyone of us familiar with the “reporting” of Tom Friedman can attest. Blogs are one option, but these also tend to have a select audience, a slight exception being that of historian Juan Cole. Writing for reputable and well-known organization websites, like that of the Middle East Institute or Foreign Policy can certainly widen the scope of readers. But there is a need for mass market books that are not authored by Bernard Lewis.

Then there is the question of who actually reads anymore. I overheard an undergraduate student at the end of this last term noting that now that school was out she would not need to do any reading at all this summer. There is hope that some forms of technology may “kindle” renewed interest in reading, anywhere at any time, and without needing a library of heavy book bag, but the demise of Borders following the disappearance of most local bookstores does not bode well for the future of reading. Publishers know this and are looking for creative ways to continue their business and make money, but whether or not there is light at the end of the tunnel, there are less and less people taking advantage of that light to read new journals.