36 comments on “On open access, and why it’s not the answer

  1. This is the most thoughtful thing I have read yet about OA. Many thanks.

    I would flag a few issues – one of which I have blogged more about myself on the site linked above, which is the under- appreciated role of learned societies in using their profits from publishing to support an academic environment, particularly important for those outside the main university clusters (eg London, Oxbridge et).

    Also that if people really want to access journals, there are the libraries of record around the country. (Although, this line of argument does make me wonder if OA. Is on some level the ‘modern’ version of the impetus behind the library of record?).

    However, my final thought is that recent things I have been hearing suggest that publishers are not anticipating huge changes to their income streams any time soon, which makes me wonder what the point is…except perhaps to further privilege the dominance of big funders/ research councils in setting the agenda and reinforcing such hierarchies within universities as well.

    • Thanks very much for your kind words, Sara – and thanks too for linking to your own essay, which is a very thoughtful piece that I wish I had read sooner. The relationship between learned societies, scholarly publishing, and academic culture is deep and complex, and it needs to be studied carefully before we decide that it doesn’t matter and unthinkingly smash it to pieces.

      About ‘what the point is’, the parliamentary committee transcript I quote from above is quite informative. The questioners seem to have naively assumed that the changes would reduce costs – but it’s very hard to guess why they might have thought this would happen.

  2. I agree with Sara and will go further: this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. It summarizes quite a few points I’ve been meaning to make in writing about it myself, and I’m grateful I can point people here instead.

    Just to chime in, I’ll add a few other points that I believe complement yours:

    1) Publicity. One of the main functions of publishers is to publicize (as the name suggests) our work. This costs money. it is one of the reasons Representations and Critical Inquiry count so much in English: they are well-publicized as well as being well-funded in other ways. Along with sustainability, this is one of the things funded publishers can and do offer that completely gratis operations can’t and don’t.

    2) Discipline Specificity. The blanket injunctions regarding OA completely overlook the tremendous differences in costs from one discipline to another. As Hal Abelson said in the Swartz report from MIT, the entire JSTOR back and current catalog (mostly humanities and social sciences journals from hundreds of publishers) costs less than the current journal subscription from some individual science publishers (such as Elsevier). If a main part of the pro-OA argument is the cost of journals, then it must take into account the fact that journal costs are radically different across disciplines, as you suggest.

    3) Emotion/moral argument. I have my own explanations for where this comes from and why it occurs, a question you aren’t really asking, but I think it has to do with the resistance on the part of OA advocates to really think deeply about what they are doing. There is cognitive dissonance. OA is easily seen, especially in the humanities because of #2 above, and visible in quite a bit of the rhetoric you quote, as a rejection of humanistic academic practice, not as support for it. Keeping these contradictions in mind is hard and produces extra emotion. Arguing that academics and their support system should be paid nothing while simultaneously suggesting you are supporting them is hard work, because it does not make sense on the surface.

    4) Mandates. You get near this a couple of times, but there is a tremendous contradiction in the fact that for the first time I’m aware of in history, under the banner of ‘open’ and ‘free,’ academics are being told where and how they can and should publish and not publish. There is a broad suggestion around that you touch on, that academics should not publish in non-OA journals. Whatever the moral benefits of OA may be (and they are much thinner than advocates suggest, as you rightly point out), academic freedom is more important.

    5) Libraries. The sharp edge of the OA knife is a Manichean distinction between “open” and “closed.” Anything not freely available on the web is “closed.” This is an amazing reinterpretation of the function of libraries, which have until now been seen as open institutions that provide largely free access to all sorts of published material, and still do. The fact that an article is available for a fee on the web, but for free in nearby libraries, still makes it count as “closed.” That disparages libraries (and is partly responsible for another anti-intellectual push toward putting them out of business) and turns the facts of the world upside-down. If the price of access is a trip to the local library, I don’t see why that is unreasonable. At all.

    6) The Reinterpretation of Publishing. In history, publishing has been about making things open and available, through not just printing but publicity, distribution, editing, and so on. Now we have book historians as wise as Darnton reinterpreting publishing itself as a means of preventing rather than providing access. That is really bizarre. “Paywalls” do not prevent access. Stephen King fans are not “prevented” from reading his books because they cost money. This just turns obvious facts on their head.

    7) Access for the Disadvantaged. Many publishers and distributors have robust programs to deal with this. JSTOR (again, not a publisher but a distributor), in particular, provides free access to nearly its entire set of journals to almost every African institution and many institutions in developing nations worldwide. (The African program was in place prior to Swartz’s actions, making his mention of African nations in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto particularly curious).

    8) The Slippery Target of OA. The best arguments for OA focus on academic journal articles because they have traditionally been contributed without compensation. Yet many of the most rabid OA supporters go much further, beyond the Budapest OAI recommendations, and start to talk about mandated OA for all sorts of other things up to and including “everything professors publish.” The fervor with which this position is sometimes recommended (see: the recent AHA Electronic Thesis controversy) also smacks to me of cognitive dissonance, because depriving professors of the opportunity to earn money for their own creative and scholarly productions is one of the best ways to eviscerate what is left of the professiorate.

    • Thanks very much, David. Those are great points and I’d like to respond to them at greater length when I have time (I’ll try to do that on your blog), but I thought I’d focus on a couple here.

      The first thing I wanted to say is about freedom. My thesis is in the online repository of the university where I wrote it, it’s fully open access, that was my own choice, and I’m happy with it. But how did we get to a place where people could be forced into making that choice? I remember there was a debate on this on the Humanist list before the AHA controversy blew up. A senior librarian from a US university was defending his repository’s policy of compulsory open access for PhD theses (authors had to apply for an embargo, which might not be granted and could be of no more than three years) on the grounds that the theses would get more citations that way. At the time, I think I just pointed out that citations only matter in certain disciplines and that even in disciplines where they do matter, thesis citations generally don’t count because theses aren’t indexed by Web of Science etc. But there’s a deeper point, which is that a PhD thesis represents years of work and personal sacrifice on the part of its author, who has surely earned the right to make his or her own choices about where to publish it and how. Taking that right away on the grounds that one understands the author’s best interests better than the author does is infantilising. This can be compared to the idea that publishing in non-OA journals is somehow wrong – as in Mike Taylor’s article in The Guardian, which Sara alludes to in the essay that she links to above. I just don’t know where to begin! Is it also wrong to publish a short story or a poem in a magazine that isn’t OA?

      This brings me to what you call the reinterpretation of publishing. You’re absolutely right about that. Darnton’s been an inspiration to me for years, and there was a period during which I totally bought into his views on all this, but there came a point when I realised that many people in the open access movement – including Darnton – were talking about academic publishing as if it had no relation at all to publishing as book historians – again including Darnton – had studied it.

      But the trouble is that the emotional aspects of the debate have become so intense that questions become almost impossible to raise.

      • “This can be compared to the idea that publishing in non-OA journals is somehow wrong – as in Mike Taylor’s article in The Guardian, which Sara alludes to in the essay that she links to above. I just don’t know where to begin! Is it also wrong to publish a short story or a poem in a magazine that isn’t OA?”

        Yes — if the public paid for you to write that short story or poem.

        • Mike, I’m very glad to see you make that distinction, which you left out of the Guardian article that I allude to above. Something that is all too often forgotten in this debate is just how much research writing is not publicly funded. I had public funding for just one of the years I worked on my PhD, for example: throughout the rest of it, I worked full-time or part-time and paid my own fees. Even when I was employed as a postdoc on a publicly-funded research project, I had no writing time paid for at all (data collection, yes; data processing, yes; conference presentation, yes; writing, no). But let’s get back to the story/poem example, because it’s instructive. What I think may underlie your position is what David Golumbia (in the comment he made above on 20 October) calls ‘the Reinterpretation of Publishing’:

          Now we have book historians as wise as Darnton reinterpreting publishing itself as a means of preventing rather than providing access. That is really bizarre. “Paywalls” do not prevent access. Stephen King fans are not “prevented” from reading his books because they cost money. This just turns obvious facts on their head.

          Thinking about trade publishing rather than scholarly publishing (as David does with his Stephen King comparison, and we are with our hypothetical story or poem) makes this point clearer. So, to return to our example, let’s say that I’ve received public funding to write some prose fiction. When the manuscript is ‘finished,’ I can simply upload it to my website as my gift to the public. Or I can go to a publisher. The publisher adds value – that is incontestable. People prefer to read professionally edited, professionally designed texts. Also, people are more likely to read texts that have been professionally marketed. I could go on. There’s a systematic discussion of the contributions trade publishers make on pages 14-22 of John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, which I very much recommend reading. (If I may digress from the prose fiction example for a moment, I would also recommend Kent Anderson’s shorter and less systematic but highly thought-provoking list of useful things that scholarly publishers do: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/10/22/updated-73-things-publishers-do-2013-edition/.) If the public has paid for me to write that story, why would I prevent all this value from being added to it?

          But all these ways that publishers have of adding value cost money, and that money has to come from somewhere. One option – we could call it vanity publishing, but let’s call it ‘gold’ open access instead – would be for me to pay that money to the publisher. Where am I going to get that money from? If I take it from my own pocket, I’ll have to ask myself what the point was in being publicly funded. Perhaps I can get it from the public? Well, thanks to David Willetts, perhaps I can. But then the clear moral standpoint you take above no longer seems so clear: the public paid for the story to be written, so now, as a matter of moral necessity, I must demand that the public pay for it to be published as well…

          But perhaps there’s another alternative. If the public pays for the story to be written but the publisher pays for it to be published (in expectation of a return on this investment in the form of sales), it could be argued that what the author owes to the public is not the published version but the unedited manuscript. So I publish my story in the conventional way, with a publisher who adds value in the way that publishers do, but I also upload that manuscript – typos, self-indulgent ramblings and all – to my website. Voilà: ‘green’ open access.

          Now, here’s a paradox: the typical trade publisher won’t let me do that, but the scholarly publishers that it seems to have become socially acceptable to hate are mostly quite happy with that sort of arrangement.

  3. Great post – very insightful and thought-provoking. I share your concerns about the exclusivity of the form of OA that Willetts envisages, your belief in expert knowledge, and your worries about losing what’s best about traditional scholarly publishing. But I don’t see why your position should be one of scepticism about open access academic publishing in general.

    First, Willetts hasn’t won yet – see the recent report of the BIS select committee, slamming the current Government’s OA policy in no uncertain terms.

    Second, the gulf between expert and lay knowledge is not as wide as you suggest. The expansion of mass higher education (though now in the process of being reversed) has spread expert knowledge across whole swathes of the ‘lay’ public – a public that includes a substantial ‘para-academic’ constituency on the fringes of the university sector but still in touch with it and able to use new communications media to learn about and debate current academic thinking. (Wikipedia is problematic in many ways, but its editors and contributors are exemplary of the kind of mass intellectuality that is now out there beyond the university’s walls) That expert knowledge is (and should be) ‘difficult’ seems clear to me too, but there are now many apart from the few who have access to it through journal subscriptions who are in a position to make sense of difficult material. Open access publications are crucial to ensuring that they can actually read it. And these readers are potentially key to the translation of expert knowledge into idioms that are more readily comprehensible by the truly uninitiated: they are key agents of the very ‘explication of research findings for non specialist audiences’ that you agree is desirable. As you say, most professional academics have neither the time, inclination or aptitude to carry out this work of translation themselves.

    Third, why dismiss the entry of universities into publishing so swiftly? Granted that the infrastructure of peer review that closed access journals have nurtured must be salvaged, and that a staff of copy editors etc will continue to be needed to support that infrastructure, why shouldn’t all this be done by universities, and in a way that is free for author and (non-commercial) reader alike? You suggest that this would overburden universities, but I can’t see why – as long as publication is entirely online, the costs involved are now low, and in any case justifiable by reference to universities’ mission to engage with the public; and the visibility of a university’s brand would go a long way towards ensuring that published work actually reached audiences. (You assume that a book on a Waterstones shelf is more likely to find a reader than a text stored on a website – but what if the website is e.g. the OU’s or LSE’s own?) If we are concerned to defend the ‘community of scholars’ and its values, while at the same time blurring the sharp line that currently divides it from the wider community, it seems to me that the institutional home of the community of scholars – the university – is best placed to nurture the publishing vehicles that could best achieve these goals. We might well end up with far fewer journals, and far fewer published articles, but if that meant more considered, thoughtful articles and less production for production’s (or promotion’s) sake that would be a darn fine thing!

    • Thanks very much, Anne. I’m so glad that we agree on some points. I’ll respond to the others quickly.

      First, I’m not assuming that we’re stuck with Willetts’s version of open access forever: it’s hardly the only policy of the current government that I’m hoping might be reviewed, and to be honest as an OU lecturer there’s at least one policy of the previous government that I’m grateful that Willetts himself is proposing to overturn (though that’s another story). But it’s already become part of RCUK policy, which cannot but have a major effect on whatever happens from now on in British universities.

      Second, as I see it, the gap between expert and lay knowledge is not so much about who’s inside and who’s outside the university system as about who’s part of a particular research community and who isn’t. I hinted at this point by using myself as an example of a layperson with regard to quantum physics. As a member of staff at a university with a good library, I’ve got easy access to the published versions of all the research papers I could possibly desire – but the thing is, I’m better off with a Penguin paperback.

      Third – ah, that’s an interesting one! I didn’t mention this – partly because I don’t want to seem too much of a cheerleader for my employing institution and partly because I don’t want to claim credit (even implicitly) for good things it’s doing that I’m not directly involved in – but the OU is actually quite heavily involved in the public communication of knowledge. There are the OU/BBC co-productions and there’s a fantastic website called OpenLearn, which I have been planning to contribute to for some time (and which has no connection to FutureLearn, which I have very different feelings about). In effect, OpenLearn is an online publishing platform of exactly the kind that I think you have in mind. But the thing is, it needs staff and costs money. Because I have training in design, used to work in publishing, know how to do web stuff to some extent, etc, it might be tempting for me to say, ‘Never mind all that, I’ll do it myself.’ But the issue Rick Anderson raises concerns capacity. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t edit video as well as a professional. But it certainly matters that I don’t have time. A more conventional university wouldn’t be able to justify the level of expenditure required to build in the capacity to undertake that sort of work in a serious way – it’s different for the OU, because it says in our charter that this is part of what we are and what we must do.

    • I tend to agree with Anne Barron here, especially that “the gulf between expert and lay knowledge” needn’t be as large as we tend to assume.

      This isn’t strictly a question of academic and nonacademic readers; it’s also a matter of communication between disciplines. My own interest in OA is based on experiencing how easy it can be to “break into” the conversation in scholarly fields (like computer science) where pervasive green OA has already made the boundary between expert and lay knowledge rather permeable.

      I wouldn’t have known which journals to read in computer science — and perhaps not even which databases to search. A few years ago, I didn’t even know that certain subfields of computer science existed. But I’ve always been able to find what I needed, because the articles are largely accessible via a naive web search. I’m sure I’m not the only person outside computer science who has found that kind of access useful, and I suspect scholarship in the humanities might also be more widely influential if it were more accessible to readers outside a disciplinary community.

      This is not to deny that you’ve raised a lot of acute questions about OA, especially within the UK context. (I’m located in the US, where the story seems likely to play out a bit differently.)

      • Hi Ted, and thanks for your comment. I think you may have been writing it at the time when I posted my response to Anna, because I emphasised there that – like you – I don’t see the academic/nonacademic distinction as the most important one here.

        I should also point out that I’m a practitioner of green open access, in that – with the exception of one chapter that I wasn’t allowed to upload – all my research writing is available from repositories. My primary problem is with gold open access, and with the specific form of gold open access that’s become policy in the UK. That said, I’ve also come to realise that there are problems in the arguments that have been made for green open access, and this is something I’ve tried to bring out in this essay. In particular, green OA simply can’t save money from library budgets – unless it’s combined with the cancellation of subscriptions, which (as I argue above) would render it unsustainable.

        • I’d just like to reiterate my point about how OA can help narrow the gulf between lay and expert knowledge, which I don’t think you address Daniel. Sure, you as a linguist/cultural historian are better off with a Penguin paperback if you want to understand quantum physics, but what about post-doctoral physicists who have left (or been pushed out of) academia and are now working as, say, chefs but still have a passion for physics? These people can read and understand the best scholarly scientific work, and ‘translate’ it for others; they can thereby participate in the scientific research community and widen the effective reach of the scientific public sphere – but only if they have easy physical access to this work. This is Ted’s point too as I understand it.

          Regarding universities as publishers, anything could happen. If you’ve been following the debates about UKHE that were sparked by the Browne review you’ll know that all kinds of traditions and conventions dictating what universities are and what they do are now being questioned. Our universities can’t afford to just circle the wagons; we need to seize whatever opportunities present themselves to maintain our role as facilitators of both expert knowledge and public education. The challenge we face is to take the ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’ agendas and turn them to ends other than those of serving the needs of business and Government. The kinds of activities the OU has long engaged in could and should become standard for universities in general.

          • Hi again, Anne. Ted’s point was quite specifically about ‘green’ open access, and I think it’s clear from my essay above that I not only am in favour of, but actively use the institutions that are now grouped together under that label. The very first study I cite was accessed through arXiv, and I specifically draw attention to this in the fourth paragraph of section 2.

            The idea of seeing postdocs who’ve been pushed out of academia into the catering industry as unpaid agents in the public communication of knowledge is not one that I had considered, but I’d like to draw your attention to the argument I tried to make about including people in the production as well as the consumption of knowledge: journal subscriptions exclude people from consumption but there are well-established mechanisms in place to overcome that (a point which David Golumbia took much further in his comment); article processing charges exclude people from production and no equivalent mechanisms are in place. As far as I know, such mechanisms haven’t even been proposed – you are, of course, welcome to propose one on this blog, but I think you’d be better off proposing it to David Willetts.

            Regarding universities as publishers: yes, anything could happen, but only if the funds are made available. The OU is a special case because public communication of knowledge is officially one of its core activities – other universities would only be able to put significant resources into this by taking them out of something else. If Willetts had announced that he was going to invest in helping universities to set up and run non-profit scholarly publishing units with a brief to support public communication of knowledge, I would not have written the essay above. What he’s actually doing is taking money out of research and putting it into article processing charges. My essay is partly about why that’s a bad idea, and partly about how the issues have been confused by conflation of multiple agendas under the open access banner.

      • I don’t find such testimonies of personal experience as Ted Underwood’s to be worth much in this context. One could as easily testify something clearly at odds with it: that physical libraries, and indeed the ostensibly “private” personal contact that animates the entirety of any college or university campus, have always made such cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations possible, for those motivated to locate or create them. The problem of having missed out on that is also strictly a personal problem, sitting squarely in the class of those “never likely to be addressed by any form of open access,” in Allington’s words.

        One could as easily have come to feel that the ideology of OA enthusiasm licenses a newer shallowness in such cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration, in which the contact between difference practices of knowledge is being quite deliberately sought, as we say, in public — now by policymakers who for political reasons would like to see one category of practices of knowledge absorbed or eliminated by another category, now again by scholars engaged in power struggles very much within their own disciplines.

        Where the latter is concerned, the difficult read is that of the politics of the enlistment of another discipline in a power struggle within one’s own. In one case it may be progressive; in another, reactionary. At a historical moment when right-wing and left-wing political projects have mingled in the triumphalist academic-industrial-military cultural complex of what we call “Silicon Valley,” much in the politics of Open Access enthusiasm, as a historically specific form of valorization of cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration, remains to be sorted out. Agreeing with the assessment of many commenters above, I think Allington’s essay offers a leap forward.

        • Thanks very much, Brian. I could say so much about how ‘physical libraries, and indeed the ostensibly “private” personal contact that animates the entirety of any college or university campus, have always made such cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations possible’! My own university and its library are becoming increasingly ‘virtual’, which in my experience works against any sort of cross-disciplinary conversation.

          Your mention of ‘the politics of the enlistment of another discipline in a power struggle within one’s own’ reminded me of Casey Brienza’s article – which I think represents the real leap forward. I probably should have quoted it at much greater length than I did. Here’s one of the key parts (which also speaks to David Golumbia’s concern with identifying where the emotional energy of the OA movement comes from):

          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 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, like [Timothy] Gowers, divert the animosity away from themselves and back toward the multinational for-profit publishing conglomerates and the evils of capitalism. (p. 162)

          Brienza, Casey (2012). ‘Opening the wrong gate? The academic spring and scholarly publishing in the humanities and social sciences’. Publishing Research Quarterly 28 (3): 159-171.

          • Your mention of ‘the politics of the enlistment of another discipline in a power struggle within one’s own’ reminded me of Casey Brienza’s article – which I think represents the real leap forward. I probably should have quoted it at much greater length than I did.

            Thank you so much, Daniel, for the generous compliment. It’s such an honor–particularly coming from one who has given these issues as much careful consideration as you have!!

          • You’re very welcome, Casey! If the problems of academic publishing are to be solved, we need to listen more to what people in publishing studies have to say. And I don’t think I was being at all generous: your article makes a huge contribution to the debate.

          • There are probably self-identified publishing studies scholars out there who would take exception to your characterization of me being “in publishing studies.” To be perfectly honest, I’m just a sociologist lots of (too many?) strong views on publishing and books.

            I do wish, though, that we heard more from people within the publishing industry–and not just management–on these issues. Unfortunately, I find that most academics are not interested in knowing what ordinary publishing people do or don’t think about academic publishing. Why? Because their existence reminds us that we aren’t fully in control of the means of intellectual/knowledge production, and that makes us feel very threatened indeed.

          • There are probably self-identified publishing studies scholars out there who would take exception to your characterization of me being ‘in publishing studies.’

            Casey, you research publishing, you teach publishing, and you publish not only in PRQ but also in Logos. You’re as ‘in publishing studies’ as it gets – even if you’re also ‘in’ sociology. :p

            But I completely agree with you about the need to hear more from the people who work in publishing. And you’re right about the threatening awareness ‘that we aren’t fully in control of the means of intellectual/knowledge production’. Bearing which in mind, it’s paradoxical that a notable portion of the rhetoric against publishers has come from people working within the field that Jerome McGann played such a role in establishing.

            Incidentally, Kent Anderson’s list of contributions made by scholarly publishers has been updated. It’s a good read:


  4. Very interesting article. I don’t understand, however, how you get a 145% increase (in price) to be equivalent to 6 years’ worth of 6% increases (in content). Is there a typo, or an arithmetic mistake?

    • Dear Silvio

      Thank you so much for your generous assessment of my essay’s interest – and thank you even more for pointing out the error. It’s neither a typo nor an arithmetic mistake (strictly speaking), but it’s certainly wrong. When I saw the figure of 145%, I somehow read this as meaning that the price had risen to 145% of what it had been six years previously, but of course what was meant was that the price had risen by 145% of what it was. Against blog etiquette, I’ve edited this above – but I’m leaving your comment and my reply as a record of the change. The basic point still stands, i.e. that comparison with e.g. the consumer price index is misleading, because the product being purchased is increasing in volume from one year to the next.

      I’m tempted to make some cheap point about how this illustrates the great merits of peer reviewed (not to mention copy-edited) publication over putting stuff you wrote the night before straight onto the web and hoping for the best…

      Best wishes


  5. Pingback: POST: On Allington on Open Access ← dh+lib

  6. In section 3, aren’t you essentially arguing that because A the public is not–and should not be–the primary audience for scholarly publication, and because B popularization of scholarship is–and should be–a separate skill with its own separate communication channels, then Cneither scholars nor the public have any interest in open access to scholarly publication?

    This member of the public disagrees. So what if codicology research is used by book-binders at rennaissance festivals, or palaeographic research by calligraphers? Maybe those amateurs will only use a publication partially, and in sevice to ends unrelated to the researchers’. Maybe genealogists won’t engage with a historian’s argument at all, instead harvesting the footnotes and bibliography for new sources to mine for their family research. Maybe an activist won’t understand “intrathoracic herniation” in a medical paper they’re mining to trace webs of funding between pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers. So?

    Bell’s “meaningful open access” is not a substitute for open access, as in many cases an effectively popularized version of scholarship will eliminate any public uses not envisioned by the popularizer.

    • Sincere thanks for a really useful comment, Ben. One of the differences between publishing a piece of writing to a blog and submitting it to an academic journal is that there’s no cooling off period. I can see so many faults in the above essay, and wish it was shorter and better organised. I can’t do much about that now, but responding to queries like yours provides me with an opportunity to clarify things and I’m very grateful. There are things I probably should have left out, but the points you draw attention to are not among them, so I’ll gladly expand on them here.

      To begin with, I’d like to point out that Bell’s argument is not that public engagement (‘meaningful open access’) is ‘a substitute for open access’, but that open access is no substitute for public engagement. This may or may not address your concerns, but I thought it worth stating as it’s important to my argument that forms of open access as currently conceived are by themselves a poor solution to the many problems surrounding scholarly communication.

      Having done that, I’d like to have a look at your examples:

      1. Amateur craftspeople with an interest in codicology, who make use of a codicologist’s research article ‘partially, and in service to ends unrelated to the researcher’s’.
      2. Amateur genealogists who, in making use of a historian’s research article, also do so partially, only ‘harvesting the footnotes and bibliography for new sources to mine’.
      3. An activist who is not interested in the content of a medical research article, but wishes to understand the ways in which medical research is funded (presumably by reading the funder acknowledgements).

      These are all great examples of how research can be of interest and value to people outside the community of researchers. However, one of the interesting things about the uses you have envisioned for research articles is that none of them will be any better served by the published version of an article than by the pre-publication version that a researcher would upload to a repository under the system of ‘green’ open access: as you will note from sections 1 and 2, I’m in favour of uploading papers to repositories; as it happens, I approved a download request a few seconds before starting to write this reply (I don’t think this sort of practice is ‘the answer’ to many of the problems we face, but it doesn’t do any harm and I still think it’s a good idea). Moreover, the first of your three example uses would almost certainly be better served by the system I discuss towards the end of section 1, i.e. the requirement for researchers to upload a user-friendly account of findings to a public website. As I point out in section 1, the technical and institutional infrastructure for this exists in the UK, but it appears to be broken.

      One of the reasons I dislike the term ‘open access’ is that it conflates very different practices. Advocates for open access generally argue by coming up with lists of problems with the subscription system. When you look at those problems closely (as I try to in the above essay, although not necessarily with success), some turn out to be addressed by ‘green’ open access solutions, some by ‘gold’ open access solutions, and some (including perhaps the biggest) by neither. In your comment, you don’t distinguish between ‘green’ open access and ‘gold’, but the uses of research writing that you list would be served equally well be either. However, it is ‘gold’ open access that was recently mandated by the British government. This replaces the subscription system’s relatively easily-crossed barriers to becoming the reader of a journal article with far higher barriers to becoming the author of one (see my follow-up post: in particular, the last section, the second footnote, and my response to Ernesto Priego’s comment of 23 October). I consider the imposition of such barriers to represent an unacceptable cost for an insignificant return (by which I mean that part of the return that would not have been delivered by less disruptive solutions, such as greater support for the longstanding practices now rebranded as ‘green’ open access), and observe that arguments in favour of the policies involved (i.e. arguments for adopting this particular solution to current problems, and not other solutions) are virtually absent (note Willetts’s appeal to anecdote, quoted in section 1 of my essay: weak evidence for the existence of a problem that would have been solved equally well/poorly by ‘green’ open access and that might better have been solved by a different approach entirely, such as fixing the aforementioned infrastructure for public reporting of findings). The only really persuasive argument for preferring ‘gold’ open access to ‘green’ is that it makes library budgets easier to manage – but it does so only by shifting the expense to a different part of the academic economy.

      So I wouldn’t say that ‘neither scholars nor the public have any interest in open access to scholarly publication’ (emphasis added), but I would say that the public interest is served no better by ‘gold’ than by ‘green’ open access to academic journal articles. Moreover, when compared to ‘gold’ open access, ‘green’ open access has the advantage of not preventing those without institutional support (including members of the public, adjuncts, career academics at ‘teaching-focused’ institutions, etc) from publishing on an equal footing with funded researchers.

      In the long term, though, we have to get beyond all of this and look at the really deep problems that open access doesn’t solve: problems such as poor public communication of knowledge, under-funding of libraries, and ‘signal distortion’ in the marketplace within which academic journal subscription fees (and now also article processing charges) are set and paid (see Rick Anderson 2013a in the references list above).

      • So I wouldn’t say that ‘neither scholars nor the public have any interest in open access to scholarly publication’ (emphasis added), but I would say that the public interest is served no better by ‘gold’ than by ‘green’ open access to academic journal articles.

        Thank you for your generous response.

        I’m almost entirely ignorant of the economic situation of UK academia, being neither British nor affiliated with academia, but I can only agree with you that an outsider like me is mostly indifferent to ‘green’ vs. ‘gold’ open access. So long as scholarly research is 1) findable via a web search, and 2) downloadable without payment of deterring fees, I don’t much care what goes on on the production side of things. Where I bristle is at any assertion that A) the public can’t make use of scholarly research in its current form–a position I (may have) read into your third point–and that B) the system of emailing the author for a copy of a paper one can’t download is an adequate way of dealing with barriers to access (a position I’ve read elsewhere, but not here).

        I do like your point about the conflation of many practices–and, I’d argue, many goals–under a single term. My own research needs are best met (in my estimation) by free access to scholarly publications. I’d vastly prefer access to the raw notes used to create those publications (despite their shortcomings) over the kind of ‘non-technical summary’ you describe. However, I’m sure that my own needs–which I will insist are valid and representative of at least some members of the public–are not universal.

        • Thanks for another really thought-provoking comment. You know, I think we’re getting at a very important aspect of what might be called ‘beyond open access’ – which covers the various issues that Steve Fuller was suggesting that the consumerist orientation of the OA debate is distracting us from (see Fuller 2012 in the above list). Since we’re in the mood for establishing distinctions, something I’d want to emphasise is that you’re what I was referring to in the essay above as an ‘independent scholar’ (in a conference paper I gave in 2011, I used the term ‘citizen scholar’). To use your terms, this is why your needs are ‘not universal’, but are nonetheless absolutely ‘valid’.

          And this brings me to another important distinction, which is the distinction between the different sides of what I was ambiguously calling ‘public communication of knowledge’.

          One side is public education, i.e. helping non-experts to gain some level of understanding of what researchers have discovered – and with the example of quantum physics, I wanted to emphasise that we’re all non-experts with regard to most fields of knowledge. This is the kind of thing that the BBC does well, and that my employing institution does both through its BBC collaborations and through the OpenLearn website (sorry for my UK-centrism!). The discussion of e.g. Through the Language Glass and Freakonomics above was an approach to this: I think it can only be done well through collaboration with people outside academia (which can include people in the commercial publishing industry), but that it’s very important that academic contributions come from academics speaking as representatives of research communities. The temptation is always for them to speak as gurus.

          Another side is harder to name: it’s what has been rather clumsily bureaucratised in the UK under the heading of ‘impact’. It means identifying the transferable knowledge – ‘findings’ – arising from research and getting it into a form where people from outside the research community that produced the knowledge can make use of it. To judge by David Willetts’s public statements, it was concern with this that motivated his conversion to the OA cause. But I think he was led astray there by the people he went to for advice (to judge by the results, I suspect there was over-representation of heavily-funded researchers who wanted a policy they could comply with whilst changing their publication practices as little as possible): if you are (say) a manufacturer wanting to develop an industrial technique based on a new theoretical breakthrough, what you need is probably not the published version of an academic article. In fact, it may not even be an article at all: it’s more likely to be a report giving findings, levels of certainty, risks, possible applications etc. This is the kind of thing that I think might best be communicated through the (broken) research council websites mentioned above. I’ve been thinking about it a lot with regard to a project that I’m currently planning. There are so many things wrong with the ‘impact’ agenda (e.g. the requirement that every project have ‘impact’, that ‘impact’ be demonstrated to have occurred within a certain timeframe, etc). But where a project has implications that people may be able to make use of, I think there’s a responsibility to try to think about how you could help them to do that. In many ways, the mandate for ‘gold’ open access embodies an avoidance of this issue (‘The published version of the article’s online – what more do you want?’).

          The third side relates to bringing people like yourself, i.e. experts from outside the various professional research communities, into the conversation, helping to ensure that your work is facilitated, acknowledged, built on, etc. I’d like to say, putting you on a level playing field with academics and industrial researchers – but of course, academics and industrial researchers are not on level playing fields, so that’s more of an ideal than a goal that one could actually plan to realise in practice.

          It strikes me from what you say that there’s something you probably want more than the articles that professional researchers write, which is the data behind those articles. In Britain, there’s something called the UK Data Archive, where many humanities and social science research projects deposit their data. It’s run by the University of Essex, and supported by various sources of funding. There are reasons why much of the data it holds shouldn’t be searchable via Google, and reasons why access to a lot of it must be controlled in some way. But improving take-up of this sort of resource, and making sure that it’s as useful and accessible as possible to those who need it even if they’re outside the university system, would be a very worthy use of public funds (much more worthy than subsidies for article processing charges). This sort of thing takes work. For example, the research project I was employed on as a postdoc wasn’t able to deposit its data because that hadn’t been planned into the project from the beginning: we didn’t have the right permissions, and we didn’t have the resources to get the data into a state where it could have been made public. There was a project I planned a couple of years ago that had a really involved strategy for all this, but (for unrelated reasons that I can’t really quarrel with) it didn’t get funded. As the saying goes, we live and learn.

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  8. A truly insightful and valuable take on a complicated series of issues! One aspect I didn’t see covered is that a key factor in current uk government support for OA is that it may remove a competitive advantage that established public universities have over new for-profit institutions: I.e. access to scholarly research – by changing the system in this way, New entrants get “free” access to a key selling point for students.

    • Thanks very much for your generous assessment of my essay! And you’re right, I hadn’t covered that at all: I had no idea that it might be part of the plan. I must say, though, that I’m not convinced that it’s a very well thought-through part. In my department, we start trying to get students to engage with academic journals (as opposed to reading edited versions of articles in readers or whatever) in the equivalent of the second year of undergraduate study: before that, there’s not much point, because of all the things beside price that exclude readers. And even then, a lot of structure and support is needed. I think that access to resources like Oxford Reference, SAGE Knowledge, and of course your Routledge Online is likely to mean much more to the average undergraduate than access to research publications. PhD students care about that sort of thing – but as far as I’m aware, the new for-profit institutions aren’t interested in attracting them. It seems to me that (whatever its ideological underpinning) extraordinarily little consideration has gone into the government’s OA policy.

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  10. As an advocate of OA from within scholarly publishing for a long time, I welcome this intelligent discussion of the OA debate as it is playing itself out in the UK. We need more discussions like this that get into the substantive details instead of just repeating the same old tired rhetoric. Allow me to add a few comments:
    1) In the U.S. the AAP (Association of American Publishers) has long advocated the position advanced here that the best way to serve the general public interest in accessing the results of government-funded research is to have the funding agencies post the required final reports immediately upon completion of the projects. The legislative framework for this approach already exists in the form of the America Competes Act.
    2) Green OA may be serviceable for many purposes, including assignments to students for classroom discussion, but only the Gold OA versions of record are suitable for use by scholars in quotation and citation in their own formal writings.
    3) The arguments for OA that rely on the benefits to the general public of access to the technical literature, especially in STEM fields, are weak and not based in much real data. As one who took a lot of math and science in high school and spent the first year in college as an engineering student, I could not understand the vast majority of what appears in these journals today—and I suspect that the number of former physics majors who are now chefs still interested in doing scientific research is vanishingly small!
    4) The problem of accessibility to subscription journals, at any rate, is being ameliorated in part by the inclusion of alumni in the institutional subscriptions of an increasing number of universities. Also, the largest aggregation of journals in the humanities and social sciences, Project Muse, has always included alumni within the scope of their institutional licenses.
    5) I’m not sure there is going to be a major problem for scholars in underdeveloped countries to publish in journals where APCs are used because many of those journals waive fees for scholars in these countries (just as many publishers have already been supplying free subscriptions to universities located in these same countries).
    6) It is dangerous, and intellectually irresponsible, to apply OA only to journals and not books because there should be no artificial “digital divide” between knowledge conveyed in journals and knowledge conveyed in books. More efforts need to be made to apply OA to monographs (as the Statement on Open Access that I drafted for the Association of American University Presses in 2007/8 argued). The launching of the new Amherst College Press to do OA monograph publishing in the humanities is a good step forward in the U.S., which generally lags behind Australia, Canada, and Europe in applying OA to monographs, for reasons having more to do with the habits and expectations of leaders in higher education than with the desires of press directors themselves.

    • Thank you, Sandy, for a very useful and informative contribution to this discussion. I have learnt so much from comments people have posted here. All your points were good, and I think that the sixth point in particular makes an excellent response to those who advocate for open access to journals in order to enable increased spending on closed access monographs. But I’d like to respond to your fifth point a little because I think it’s worth exploring the question of waivers, and of whether they can come to fulfil the same function that free subscriptions and other initiatives such as library access for alumni currently do in removing barriers to participation for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to pay.

      Providing developing world institutions with free access to journals that are already financially sustainable thanks to subscriptions from individuals and institutions elsewhere in the world has been possible through a combination of philanthropy and enlightened self-interest. But there’s an inherent paradox in the idea of waivers for hybrid journals, and in many subject areas, all the major journals that offer ‘gold’ OA offer it on a hybrid basis. (For those that haven’t heard this term before, a hybrid journal is one in which one may publish subscription-only articles for free or ‘gold’ open access articles for a fee.) If a fee waiver is available to an author, there will be no reason for him or her not to use it, and make his or her article open access at the publisher’s expense. Thus it’s quite possible that whether a given article in a hybrid journal appears as ‘gold’ open access will end up depending entirely on whether the author was considered eligible for a waiver. As for pure ‘gold’ OA journals, the situation could be even worse, thanks to the lack of subscription income with which to subsidise generosity towards those with limited access to funds: because waivers will have to be paid for through increased article processing charges for those who can pay them, the more waivers there are, the more waivers will be needed.

      And who will be in need of these waivers? Let’s run through a few possibilities. First, a professor based in a developing world institution. There’s a clear moral case here, and as you’ve noted, this is the sort of institution whose staff and students are currently likely to get access to ‘closed’ journals for free. No problems so far. But what about an adjunct based at an institution in a wealthy nation like the US? He or she clearly won’t be able to pay the fee out of his or her own pocket. Will the institution foot the bill? That seems unlikely: many in that position don’t even have photocopying rights. And this complicates matters. Can we conceive of an APC regime where waivers are available to all staff and students in developing world nations and also to contingent faculty in the developed world? I doubt it, but let’s go on. Here’s another possibility: what about a full department member in the UK who’s just been told that institutional funding for article processing charges won’t be available to him or her because his or her field has not been designated an ‘area of strategic importance’ by the board of pro-vice chancellors? (This is the kind of thing that happens in Britain; I don’t know how things work elsewhere.) Up until now, he or she has been able to put up with lack of institutional support because subscriptions were cheap and publication was free. But now it’s a choice between a second-rate route to publication and (say) foregoing a family holiday. Would a waiver be available? An APC regime that extended waivers even to people in that position would clearly be open to abuse: an institution could refuse to pay charges, knowing that the refusal alone would be sufficient to secure waivers for its staff.

      I just can’t see this being made to work. The trouble is that the number of researchers able to pay article processing charges for ‘open’ journals is going to be much lower than the number of researchers currently able to access ‘closed’ journals through institutional or individual subscriptions. When you jump from individual subscription fees as low as £50 to article processing charges of £800 or more (which is what I’m looking at with the journal I’ve published in most frequently: many APCs are far higher than that), there are bound to be more losers than winners.

  11. Daniel, this is an exceptionally fine piece and I feel very honored to have been cited in it. Thank you very much for this important contribution to the conversation around OA and scholarly communication generally.

    • Rick, I’m honoured to have you post a comment on my website! Whatever small virtue the above piece may have, it would have been far smaller if not for your thoughtful and informative essays at the Scholarly Kitchen.

  12. I’ll respond as a professor of publishing (at Canada’s only Master of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver). A very valuable post, Daniel, for sure: dispassionate and thorough.

    On November 1, I participated in a meeting of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and the Canadian Association of Learned Journals at which the libraries proposed a partnership in which they would underwrite global open access to an initial set of Canadian-published journals with the idea of expanding it to a larger set after the kinks were worked out. Opening remarks were offered by the President of our Social Science and Humanities Research Council and were made in the context of a just-announced intention to require that all research funded by our three funding councils be made publicly accessible within 12 months of initial publication. Start date: September 2013. This meeting follows two that the journal community convened in 2010 on the same topic with the journals suggesting that the two communities attempt to work out such a partnership. It resulted in no public action on the part of the libraries until now.

    As you state, there appears to be a global march towards open access. It is our view that it may increase overall costs rather than reduce them partly because Canada has a system for subsidizing the production of SSH journals by nonprofit entities, and many journals interpret nonprofit to mean low wages and zero dollars in the bank at the end of each year. We see the problem that OA may address solely to be overcharging by international STM journal publishers. Their profit levels and their spacious Frankfurt booths make the case that they overcharge.

    While I initiated the 2010 meetings as an OA advocate, my journal publishing colleagues and I are now hesitant to join in a partnership for a whole host of reasons, the main one being that if subscription-based journals leave the market, it would be extremely difficult and probably fraught with failure if they tried to re-enter that market. We are also resistant to author fees primarily because there is little money on the table to pay them and a high percentage of research published in Canadian SSH journals is derived from unfunded research activity by scholars. In the end, as you point out, we see no problem being solved. Canadian scholarly journals are perhaps the least expensive journals published in the developed world, partly because of our subsidy system.

    The phenomenon that you discuss of authors and readers being oblivious to the value added by publishers and the staffs is not a distinctive feature of scholarly publishing. It exists throughout all sectors of publishing. You might have extended your argument here to encompass the strategic planning that goes into positioning a title in the marketplace and maintaining that position. The general assumption of scholars is that Nature and Science have the position they have because they manage to attract the best articles. The notion that there is a publishing strategy behind the choices made in both selection and placement of each issue’s content is unacknowledged in favour of a general belief that rigorous peer review is the sole arbiter of what appears.

    My only slight disagreement with your analysis is your discussion of “readability” of normal journal articles by members of the public. You are certainly justified in bringing the point that many articles are meant for other experts forward, and I see the assumption that wholesale “making available” addresses public access meaningfully, if not completely, as flawed. True, making research meaningful is a time consuming enterprise and worthwhile. That said, by deft choice of examples, the position that “making available” significantly addresses public access can equally be argued. After all, there are many publics: a not insignificant one is government bureaucracies. In Canada, rarely do policy makers have any appreciable access to scholarly journals even on issues with which they are dealing on a daily basis. It also occurred to me while reading that section that what a member of the public might learn in being exposed to much SSH research is the nature of analysis and argumentation. Thus, I would take a middle road seeing some value in public access to both research articles themselves and recasting that content for broader audiences.

    I’ll close with two points one of which you address, but only obliquely. The nature of for-profit enterprise is to capture and maintain a market. The nature of the research enterprise, and roles of libraries and research funders does not privilege a decision-making process that pursues maximum return for minimum effort, a phrase that could be equally expressed as a cost-efficient exploitation of resources. The for-profit orientation introduces a determination to outperform competitors in every possible way and continuously. This can be positive and your hammer hits its nail in your discussion of the abnormal consumer structure which is inadequate to control the monopoly position publishers have in the distribution of the content they control.

    My final point is to recommend Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future in which he discusses how Silicon Valley undermined copyright in its desire to monetize access (and hence its own activities). If open access makes journal publication financially unfeasible for commercial publishers, they will retreat to meta publishing, adding value to inevitably underfunded mandated dissemination. Already Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, as well as the legal publishers are in that (expanding) business and, given the market structure, it is likely to be highly lucrative.

    • Thank you for posting such an extremely useful and informative comment, Rowland. I think I can agree with you on every point: including the one about a ‘middle road seeing some value in public access to… research articles themselves’ as well as ‘recasting that content for broader audiences’. This is one of the reasons why I still think that the practices currently referred to as ‘green’ open access are a good idea, even though there are problems that they don’t solve (and in fact there are versions of ‘green’ open access that could potentially cause further problems: a point that is not sufficiently explored in my essay above).

      Another good book to put alongside Lanier’s is Free Ride by Robert Levine. Sometimes I feel like quoting every single word.

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