Last Sunday, I published an essay on this blog setting out what I saw as the problems with arguments for open access and with the specific form of open access that is now official policy in the UK (Allington, 2013). Despite the fact that it mis-read Paul Fyfe’s (2012) critique of certain tendencies as an endorsement, it received some lovely comments, and I was deeply honoured to have my arithmetic corrected by the co-creator of CWEB (Levy, 2013). However, it has been pointed out that the essay was rather long (people were kind enough not to say ‘rambling’). Here’s a shorter (although still not exactly short) version, which focuses on what’s happening now in the UK. If you’re not in the UK, I hope you’ll still find it of interest as a discussion of what you might want to try to prevent from happening where you are. The open access movement appeals to many different interests, and once a specific form of open access becomes official policy, at least some of those interests are bound to be disappointed. Casey Brienza has analysed the movement much more incisively than I did in my blog essay, so rather than reprise my arguments I shall simply quote hers before moving to a consideration of UK policy:
[Timothy] Gowers’s boycott of Elsevier was, in a very real sense, the logical consequence of many years of trouble between corporate journal publishers and academic libraries. Two forces in particular have fueled the conflict: the proliferation of new journal titles and the rapid rise in journal subscription prices….
Libraries have struggled to keep pace… Resources to pay for these escalating costs have been diverted from investment in other materials, most notably HSS [humanities and social sciences] monographs… This has, in turn, put pressure on non-profit university presses to become market-oriented… A vicious cycle thus emerges: HSS researchers who need a book for tenure blame university presses, university presses blame the libraries, and libraries blame corporate journal publishers like Elsevier. In the past, libraries would also have shifted blame onto STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] researchers, who need journal articles for tenure and demand that the libraries maintain all of these expensive subscriptions to these prestigious, paywalled publication venues. In recent years, however, scientists and funding bodies have increasingly come out in favor of open access, non-profit publishers such as the Public Library of Science and so… divert the animosity away from themselves and back toward the multinational for-profit publishing conglomerates and the evils of capitalism.
[The open access movement] is, in other words, portrayed as a classic David and Goliath story of selfless heroism and triumph of the weak against the strong….
[T]his is a story that appeals widely to academics beyond the STEM fields. Yet, if anything, they have already been more directly victimised by the pressure of price increases on academic libraries. After all, it is most likely their monographs which are declined as economically unjustifiable and their journal subscriptions, despite being a small part of the budget compared to science journal subscriptions, which get cut back or dropped…. Thus, for humanists and social scientists, it is often self-interested impulses that lead them to the civic-minded, altruistic ideals of the movement.
At the present time, there are usually considered to be two forms of open access. ‘Green’ open access is a re-branding of the much earlier practice of archiving pre-prints or post-prints – essentially, electronic manuscripts of commercially published articles or of articles submitted for commercial publication – in repositories such as arXiv, from which they may be downloaded without charge. I follow a variant of this practice and think it is a good idea, but (as I wrote in my original essay and shall reiterate below) it does not solve some of the biggest problems of academic publishing. ‘Gold’ open access refers to making the published versions of articles available for free download. It can be achieved either through the publishing of articles in ‘free’ journals, i.e. those that make no charge at all and derive their income from other sources, or through the publishing of articles in journals that levy an ‘article processing charge’, working on a pay-to-say rather than pay-to-read business model: pure open access journals only publish articles that come with an article processing charge and are not available by subscription; hybrid open access journals are available by subscription but give authors the option of paying an article processing charge that will (a) retrospectively reduce the subscription fee by a small amount so that this specific article is not paid for by subscribers to the journal, and (b) enable the article to be downloaded free of charge by non-subscribers. This does not solve all the problems of academic publishing either, but I argue (below and in my original essay) that, unlike ‘green’ open access, it has the potential to create further, highly undesirable problems. Yet further approaches to academic publishing may be possible to devise under the ‘open access’ banner, but it is the ‘gold’ approach to open access that has been endorsed by the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and which has become policy for RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the research councils that distribute funding to UK universities.
In practice, this means (a) that articles arising from research council-supported research will have to be made open access, with a strong preference for the ‘gold’ route (and the suggestion that tolerance for the ‘green’ route may be phased out), and (b) that a portion of research council funding will be diverted from research into article processing charges, in order to make this happen. This funding will not be attached to specific research projects; instead, it will be handed out to institutions that have received large amounts of research council funding in the form of a block grant for the institutions in question to divide up as they see fit: ‘From 1 April 2013, RCUK will contribute to the payment of APCs [article processing charges] for articles arising from grant-funded research through block grants to research organisations in receipt of substantial RCUK funding.’ (RCUK 2013, p. 5)
Existing problems with academic publication, and reasons why the form of open access adopted in the UK was not an ideal solution to them
- The public must pay to access research that has already been paid for through taxes. First, ‘green’ open access would overcome this problem just as well as ‘gold’, and already does so in many disciplines, especially in the sciences. Second, it’s far from clear that reading journal articles is the best way for the public to access research. Journal articles are written by researchers for researchers, which means (a) that they contain much content that is not necessarily of relevance to non-researchers, and (b) that they are typically written in such a way as to be impenetrable not only to members of the public but to researchers from other disciplines. They also tend to appear after a substantial delay (during which peer review, editing, copy-editing, typesetting, proof-correction, etc take place). ‘Gold’ open access does nothing to overcome either of these problems: articles will still appear after a delay (a problem avoided by some forms of ‘green’ open access), and will still be impenetrable to most readers outside the community that had access to them anyway. A less disruptive solution to both problems would be to recognise that articles are not necessarily the best form in which to disseminate research beyond the community of researchers, and require all funded research projects to produce an accessibly-written report of progress and findings, for free and immediate distribution on the web. In theory, this is already done in the UK, but the websites intended for distribution of such reports appear to be broken (see e.g. AHRC ?-2013, EPSRC ?-2013). More needs to be done to improve public communication of knowledge, but providing free access to what are (essentially) researchers’ communications with one another (which in many cases is already available thanks to what is now called ‘green’ open access) without requiring those communications to change form in any way will have little if any impact on that (see Fuller 2012). All the new policy does is to replace financial barriers to reading journal articles in their published form with financial barriers to getting articles published in the first place: an arguably more serious form of exclusion. 
- Public universities pay academics to write journal articles, then pay to buy those same articles back from commercial publishers. First, presenting this as a problem misconstrues the relationship involved: publishers receive money because they provide a service, i.e. turning manuscripts into publications. Under ‘green’ open access (which is already standard in many disciplines), everyone with internet access can get hold of the academic-authored manuscript for free; what they can’t get for free is the product worked on by the publisher’s staff, who are paid out of subscription fees. Second, ‘gold’ open access does nothing to resolve this so-called problem: commercial publishers still receive the same amount of money for the same service (UK Parliament, 2013); the only difference is that it’s in the form of article processing charges rather than subscription fees.
- Libraries cannot afford rising levels of subscription fees for journals. Much is done under the current (predominantly subscription-based) model of scholarly publication to make journals accessible to those who could not otherwise afford the subscriptions: for example, JSTOR provides free or heavily discounted digital access to journals and books for over a thousand institutions in developing world nations (thanks to David Golumbia  for pointing out this, as well as numerous other things omitted from my essay), as does Research4Life (to which one of the largest contributors is, incidentally, the much-decried Elsevier). However, it is undeniable that libraries in the developed world – including the libraries of immensely wealthy institutions – have trouble meeting the subscription costs for academic journals. There are two sub-problems here. The first is that some journals cost vastly more than others, with no clear rationale: journals in STEM subjects in particular cost much more than equally highly-rated journals in humanities and social science subjects. This problem appears to result from the fact that ‘each participant in the system receives distorted and radically incomplete market responses to its inputs’ (Anderson 2013, parag. 13), such that the process of ‘price discovery’ is effectively broken. There is no point denying that some journals seem hugely overpriced – yet others seem surprisingly cheap for what they are. The second sub-problem is that all research relies on publication, and the financial burden of research publication has historically fallen on libraries, yet direct spend on libraries has fallen in relation to direct spend on research (see Aspesi, interviewed in Poynder 2011, parag. 40). ‘Green’ open access does nothing to resolve either of the aforementioned sub-problems unless it is combined with cancelled subscriptions, which would make this form of open access unsustainable (since journals would close and numbers of published articles for upload to repositories would fall). ‘Gold’ open access does not necessarily address the first sub-problem, and solves the second sub-problem only by shifting the financial burden of research publication from library budgets to research budgets.
Of these problems, the first could have been ‘solved’ by better support for existing practices (including so-called ‘green’ open access) to no lesser an extent than it is ‘solved’ by the new policy of public funding for article processing charges; to the extent to which the third is ‘solved’ by this new policy, the same result could have been less disruptively achieved by putting the money now mandated to be spent on article processing charges into libraries (which tend, on the whole, to be very poorly funded, despite ever-increasing demands placed on them by the institutions they serve). I would argue that the second ‘problem’ is not really a problem; in any case, the new policy brings about no substantial change with regard to it, since it simply changes the mechanism by which commercial publishers receive payment.
Problems that are likely to be created by the form of open access adopted in the UK
- By making research findings available in this expensive way, and taking the money out of existing research budgets, it will reduce the amount of research that actually gets funded
- By providing the money as a block grant to institutions that have attracted large amounts of research funding, it will (a) increase concentration of funding among those institutions that already receive the most of it, (b) take the choice of where to publish articles away from researchers (since it will be up to the university hierarchy to decide whether to pay the article processing charge for any given paper), and (c) severely reduce the options available for publication among funded researchers at those institutions which have been less successful at attracting funding in the past (since they will be required to publish with open access, but will receive no funds to help them do so)
- By enabling the UK research elite to have its cake and eat it (i.e. to continue to publish in the manner to which it has become accustomed with extra funding so that its articles will become open access), whilst at the same time leaving other researchers to choose between (a) free journals, almost all of which are low-impact (i.e. little read by other researchers), and (b) high impact journals in which they will be unable to afford to publish on an open access basis, it will make the work of the elite more citable, reinforcing the illusion that it is ‘better.’ Especially in those disciplines that use citation metrics as a direct index of quality, this will create a feedback loop that increases the relative likelihood that well-funded researchers and institutions will receive high levels of funding in the future
From now on, it will no longer be possible for unfunded researchers (including postgraduate students, independent scholars, early career academics, and researchers based in countries where there is little or no financial support for research activities, as well as researchers who have been funded in the past but aren’t funded now and researchers carrying out unfunded research on the side of funded research projects) to publish on an equal footing with funded researchers. There are those to whom this objection may make little sense: unfunded research, what’s that?  But for most scholars throughout the world – especially in the humanities and social sciences – funded research is the exception rather than the rule.
1. It is of course possible that discounts and waivers may be introduced: these currently exist for some purely open access journals in the sciences, and could arguably be (or become) equivalent to the free access options currently existing for subscription journals (see point 3). But there is no requirement for discounts or waivers in current government or RCUK policy – and good luck telling the publisher of a hybrid journal that you want to publish your article through ‘gold’ open access but can’t afford the fee.
2. I have in mind Mike Taylor’s (2013, parag. 9) response to those who argue that they cannot afford to pay article processing charges: ‘the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants.’ It should be noted: (a) that, even in rich countries like the UK, most research in the humanities and social sciences is not supported by grants, (b) that in the humanities and social sciences, it is not unknown for the whole value of a research grant to be lower than the fee Taylor sees as ‘a tiny proportion of most research grants’, and (c) that a year’s subscription to a typical humanities or social science journal costs less than that fee (often much, much less – and perhaps as much as ten times less for an individual subscription).
Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘On open access, and why it’s not the answer’. http://www.danielallington.net/2013/10/open-access-why-not-answer/
AHRC (?-2013). ‘Speaking in the House of Commons, 1756-1806 – Arts & Humanities Research Council’. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Pages/Speaking-in-the-House-of-Commons-1756-1806.aspx
Anderson, Rick (2013). ‘Signal distortion – why the scholarly communication economy is so weird’. Scholarly Kitchen, 14 May. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/05/14/signal-distortion-why-the-scholarly-communication-economy-is-so-weird/
EPSRC (?-2013). ‘(R) Solution crystallization induced by electric field’. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/NGBOViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=GR/N17287/01
Fuller, Steve (2012). ‘Open access is no more than academic consumerism. It neither democratises knowledge production nor communication’. Sociological Imagination, 23 April. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/9953
Fyfe, Paul (2012). ‘Electronic errata: digital publishing, open review, and the futures of correction’. In: Gold, Matthew K. (ed.) Debates in the digital humanities. Minneapolis / London: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 259-280.
Golumbia, David (2013). ‘On Allington on open access’. 20 October. Accessed 20 October. http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=288
Levy, Silvio (2013). Comment on Allington (2013). http://www.danielallington.net/2013/10/open-access-why-not-answer/#comment-6771
Poynder, Richard (2011). ‘The demise of the Big Deal?’ 14 March. Accessed 19 October 2013. http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/demise-of-big-deal.html
RCUK (2013). RCUK policy on open access and supporting guidance. 8 April. Accessed 27 September 2013. http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/documents/RCUKOpenAccessPolicy.pdf
Taylor, Mike (2013). ‘Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral: as a scientist your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. Hiding it behind a journal’s paywall is unacceptable’. 17 January. Accessed 22 October 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2013/jan/17/open-access-publishing-science-paywall-immoral
UK Parliament (2013). ‘Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence to be published as HC 1086-i’. 16 April. Accessed 19 October 2013. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/uc1086-i/uc108601.htm