Imagine a world where, instead of journals there are assessment houses. You send your paper to an assessment house of your choosing, just as you now send your paper to a journal of your choosing. That assessment house, possibly after a round or two of referee feedback and revision, assigns your paper a grade. You then may post that paper with the grade from the assessment house. Perhaps the assessment house notes all the papers it has assessed and their grades. Existing services such as Phil Papers or Academia.edu provide a stable online place to archive one’s paper in a citable format. Papers there are available free to all. Perhaps existing editorial boards for journals might serve, initially at least, as the assessment houses.
The advantages of such a system are that 1) more people would have access to more scholarship, 2) the process would cost less money, 3) since the average paper would be refereed much less frequently this would require much less overall refereeing which would allow referees to focus more carefully on the fewer jobs they take on and make it easier to quickly find willing referees who are especially well suited to assessing the paper at issue, 4) this would make scholarship available more quickly, and 5) graduate students and junior faculty could be more secure that papers completed close to tenure decisions or when they go on the market would be taken into account.
The main benefits of the journal system, that it provides a rough assessment of the quality of papers and a way to access them, seem as if they are secured by this alternative. Indeed, arguably the new system is superior at this because it can express more fine-grained assessments than accept or reject.
There would be an issue of where the money would come from to support assessment houses. Currently, subscriptions provide income for this. But this should be a solvable problem given that the system would require less money overall. Perhaps universities might start diverting a portion of their library funds to pay for such a system, initially dropping subscription to the more expensive journals so as to support this alternative.
I am sure there are disadvantages of such a scheme. Perhaps, for example, the loss of physical journal issues would be a big deal. But the real issue is whether the imagined system is inferior to the status quo. I would like to think with you about whether the imagined system would be inferior. Certainly, many questions would have to be worked out. Can one have one’s paper assessed by more than one assessment house? Can one withdraw a paper after submission if one does not like the referee comments and not have the paper assessed?