In the last two or three years, open access to academic journal articles has gone from being something that noisy idealists were unrealistically demanding to something that’s going to happen whether we like it or not – at least in the UK, and probably elsewhere as well. Not so long ago, I was in favour of it and doing what I could to put it into practice with regard to my own work. Now, it’s just another of those things that I must pragmatically accept, like the vice-chancellor’s high level appointments. I feel like a man with a beard in a country where shaving has just been banned.
And all this has made me reflect. On open access: what’s it for? What did its advocates (me, for example) think it was going to facilitate? And now that it’s become mainstream, does it look as if it’s going to facilitate that thing we had in mind, or something else entirely? Quite recently, it would have been almost dangerous to think in such terms, because people were getting so cross – perhaps inevitably, as the conversation was largely taking place online, and it’s been argued that social media disseminate anger more effectively than any other emotion (Fan et al, 2013). But now that there’s no point in anyone’s getting cross – now that it’s all happening anyway, regardless of who’s in the vanguard and who’s a bourgeois reactionary – perhaps it’s becoming possible to see things a little more clearly. I must admit that I backed the wrong team: I was a supporter of one kind of open access, but it looks as if the argument for the other has carried the day. And now that the arguing is by-the-by, it all feels so different. The more I look back, the more I realise that open access had been proposed as the solution to a range of problems some of which had very little to do with one another. The more I look forward, the more I realise that among those problems were some that might actually be exacerbated by the form of open access that has become official policy in the UK – and others that were never likely to be addressed by any form of open access (including the one in which I believed).
Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. As a sort of penance, I have chosen to think the issues through not in an academic journal article but in an essay on this blog. Not quite the use for which I originally intended the latter, but a symbolically apt use just the same.
1. Multiple problems and a single purported solution
That diverse ideological interests came together around the banner of open access can be seen from the fact that its highest profile advocates in the UK were two men who would otherwise appear to have an astonishing small amount in common: the deep-green Guardian journalist, George Monbiot, and the Conservative Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts. Monbiot entered the debate in typically gung-ho style:
Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a ‘keep out’ sign on the gates.
You might resent [Rupert] Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.
Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.
The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws. Let’s throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us.
Those unfamiliar with Monbiot’s unique brand of leftwing populist hyperbole may be forgiven for finding the screed as a whole to seem faintly deranged. Some of it is simply wrong (in the UK, perpetual copyright was abolished in the 18th century, and journal articles fall out of copyright just as fast or slow as other kinds of text), and some is at best misleading (people employed by academic institutions generally contribute to academic journals without additional pay from the journal publisher, but the academic publishing industry’s actual labourers receive a wage). However, it is important to acknowledge the source of Monbiot’s colourfully expressed outrage, i.e. his frustration that when he reports the content of scientific research articles, his readers are unable to verify for themselves that he is not lying. This may seem like paranoia, but for years, Monbiot has been caught up in what is essentially a flamewar with the climate change denial community. That is, I suspect, why the obvious retort to his claims of a ‘knowledge monopoly’ – i.e. that scientific knowledge is available from many other sources than academic journal articles, including sources better suited to the non-academic reader (a point to which I shall return in section 3, below) – did not appear to occur to him: the people with whom he has been arguing have access to such sources of knowledge, and yet persist in their belief that man-made carbon dioxide has no impact on climate. Monbiot perhaps imagines that because the research articles are the real thing, of which every other piece of writing or speech on climate science – every report, every book, every press conference – is a mere reflection, he could end the climate debate ostensively if only they were available for all to see: ‘Here it is – here! The evidence that you claim does not exist.’ It must be said that such a gesture would be unlikely to have much impact on the controversy, since the deniers are conspiracy theorists who declare the entire edifice of climate science to be fraudulent. However, Monbiot’s position is no less understandable for all that, and I must confess to some sympathy.
Willetts’s concern is with the same phenomenon – i.e. the paywall that stands between those outside the academic system and the journals for which those inside the system generally prefer to write – although he comes at it from a different angle. For him, the problem is that paid access to journal articles may reduce the economic benefit of the investment that his government department makes in academic research by limiting the number of people with direct access to the written outputs:
Every year, the government spends almost £5bn on science and research. Yet the results of that research are generally behind paywalls that individuals and small companies cannot afford, even though they have paid for the research through their taxes. Short journal articles typically cost more than £20 apiece to access.
If the anecdotes are to be believed, there is substantial avoidance, with student interns accessing information for their employers and people signing up for cheap evening courses solely to get access to a library’s journals.
Just as Monbiot equates academic journal articles with ‘knowledge’, Willetts equates them with ‘results’. And just like Monbiot, he probably has in mind very specific kinds of academic journal article: it is not easy to imagine student interns being required to access the latest Jane Austen scholarship for their employers, nor small companies protesting that they cannot afford the new issue of Medium Ævum. Willetts’s case again resembles Monbiot’s in its failure to consider that there may be other, and potentially better, ways of communicating the fruits of research to the public than by removing financial barriers to the reading of texts written for an audience not of members of the public but of researchers. And as with Monbiot, there is a virtually total lack of evidence that demand for academic articles is stifled by price: ‘anecdotes’ are – it must be said – a singularly unsound support for a major change in policy; like Monbiot, Willetts states the cost of access to an individual article as if it were self-evidently a cause of trouble.
It is a different set of concerns that perturbs the historian Robert Darnton, who became an open access advocate after becoming aware of ‘a problem that now pervades the academic world’, i.e. that ‘the escalation in the price of periodicals forces libraries to cut back on their purchase of monographs’ and ‘the [resulting] drop in the demand for monographs makes university presses reduce their publication of them’ (2010, parag. 9). Darnton writes as follows:
When this problem first dawned on me as chairman of Princeton’s library committee in the 1980s, the price of journals had already increased far more than the inflation rate; and the disparity has continued until today. In 1974 the average cost of a subscription to a journal was $54.86. In 2009, it came to $2 031 for a US title and $4 753 for a non-US title, an increase greater than ten times that of inflation. Between 1986 and 2005, the prices for institutional subscriptions to journals rose 302 percent, while the consumer price index went up by 68 percent. Faced with this disparity, libraries have had to adjust the proportions of their acquisitions budgets. As a rule, they used to spend about half of their funds on serials and half on monographs. By 2000, many libraries were spending three quarters of their budget on serials. Some had nearly stopped buying monographs altogether or had eliminated them in certain fields.
The problem Darnton highlights here is quite different to those which trouble Monbiot and Willetts, since it is internal to the academy: publishing houses upon which scholars used to depend for the dissemination of serious research now concentrate increasingly on un-scholarly titles that appeal to a ‘broader public’, because sales to research libraries have now fallen so low that financial returns are ‘not enough in most cases to cover production costs’, which appears to have had a particular impact on early career academics who need to bring out monographs in order to be promoted to tenured positions (parag. 11; note that tenure does not exist in the UK). Essentially, Darnton wants the material currently published in scholarly journals to be made available for free so that university libraries can get back to spending more of their money on scholarly books. In other words, his concern is not to increase public access to scholarly publications, but to lower the cost of scholarly access to one particular kind of scholarly publication, in order that production of another kind of scholarly publication may be ramped up. Moreover, he takes it as a given that much scholarly writing will be by definition without interest to members of the ‘broader public’, publishing for whom apparently excludes the sort of publishing of which he wishes to see more.
Each of the above writers makes valid points (in his own way, even Monbiot). However, it is unclear that a form of open access could be a sufficient (or even a necessary) condition for the solution of any of the very different problems to which the three have presented it as the answer. One of the forms of open access which Darnton advocates consists in the creation and use of repositories for research writing: databases, typically run by university libraries, into which ‘pre-prints’ (basically, manuscripts) of journal articles may be uploaded for free download by anyone with access to the internet. This has recently become known as ‘green’ open access. For reasons that I shall come to in section 2, I always considered it to be a good idea. However, in itself, it represents a further drain on university budgets (since repositories are not free to run), so it is hard to see how it can facilitate increased expenditure on monographs, unless libraries adopt the policy that where journal articles are available from repositories, journal subscriptions should be cancelled. But such a policy would clearly be unsustainable: journals would close, and the supply of journal articles for upload would dry up. That is presumably why Darnton has advocated more strongly for what is now known as ‘gold’ open access, which keeps journals open by moving the burden of payment from the reader to the writer. Yet as far as the junior scholars for whom Darnton has so much sympathy are concerned, this simply amounts to giving with one hand while taking with the other: it may make it easier for them to publish monographs, but it will certainly make it harder for them to publish journal articles, unless they are wealthy enough to pay for this themselves. Many of them, of course, can barely afford to eat.
Willetts and Monbiot are concerned – as already noted – with the financial barriers to accessing research findings, where these are presented in the form of published academic journal articles: the ‘versions of record’ produced by the scholarly publishing industry, and not the pre-publication versions uploaded to repositories of various kinds. Thus, Willetts has thrown his political weight behind the ‘gold’ form of open access (see section 5, below), effectively ending all argument over whether open access would be adopted in the UK, or what form it would take. But now that the argument is over, it’s perhaps worth noting that the cost of ‘gold’ open access is likely to be very high indeed – already by 2005, the National Institutes of Health in the US were paying over $30 million to support publication of research they had funded (R. Anderson 2011, parag. 13) – and that, as already observed, these two non-academics appear to have in mind very specific forms of research (in Monbiot’s case, research that has bearing on particular aspects of public policy; in Willetts’s, research that has direct commercial application), such that they provide no convincing reasons for opening access to other forms of research. Moreover, it should be recognised that a system already exists by which the findings of publicly funded research could be – and, theoretically, already are – made available to the public free of charge.
This system works as follows. When academics apply for research funding in the UK, they are currently required to submit a ‘non-technical summary’ intended for publication on relevant research council website in the event that funding is awarded; moreover, recipients of funding are required, once their period of funding is complete, to submit a report of findings that could also be published to the web. If sufficiently detailed and easy to understand, such reports would in many ways be preferable to journal articles from the point of view of most non-academics: project findings are often distributed between several journal articles, some of which may take a long time to appear and all of which will be bulked out by expositions of theory and methodology that will be vital from the point of view of academic readers but irrelevant and confusing to readers who simply want information on what has been discovered.
Although the system I describe has been in place for years, it is barely functional at present. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council or EPSRC, i.e. the organisation most likely to fund research of the kind in which Willetts and Monbiot take an interest, has a web page through which one may find details of currently and previously funded studies, but at present it is impossible to search for details of projects finishing between 2010 and 2013 because these dates do not appear in the relevant drop down menu (EPSRC ?-2013a), and – to make matters worse – the data fields entitled ‘Key Findings’, ‘Potential use in non-academic contexts’, and ‘Impacts’ appear to be without information in every single case: see, to take a completely random example, the page for the ‘Solution crystallisation induced by electric field’ project at the University of Bradford, which ran from October 2000 to March 2002 (EPSRC ?-2013b). Matters are even worse when it comes to research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council or AHRC, which provides a similar but still less informative website: see, to take another completely random example, the page on the ‘Speaking in the House of Commons, 1756-1806’ project at Queen Mary, University of London, which ran from September to December 2003 but whose automatically-generated page is furnished with almost no further details whatsoever, not even the name of the project leader (AHRC ?-2013). Motivating the research councils to improve (or even simply fix) their already-existing websites would appear to be a cheap, straightforward, and undramatic way of achieving both Monbiot and Willetts’s goals, in contrast to the radical and potentially very disruptive solution that was unveiled this spring (see section 5, below).
That no-one has even suggested this simple solution suggests that these web pages are unused, which is in turn perhaps indicative of an almost complete lack of interest in academic research on the part of those who do not currently have access to it through journal subscriptions. That is a problem indeed, but for reasons I shall discuss in section 3 (and which will already be apparent to anyone who has attempted to read an academic journal in a subject in which he or she does not have at the very least an undergraduate degree), it is unlikely that open access to scholarly publications will have a significant impact on it. First, however, it is important to consider the current system from the point of view of its academic participants.
2. Academic access
Once it became clear that Willetts was signing up to the open access movement, alarm bells were sounded in certain quarters of the British academic system. What, for example, if it were to be decreed that only open access publications would count for the Research Excellence Framework or REF (a bureaucratic exercise designed to give Britain’s elitist higher education system the appearance of meritocracy)? In many humanities and social science subjects, journal articles are less important than single-authored monographs, but no-one had ever proposed a credible means of making these open access. A further problem was the sheer injustice of potentially having to give up on publishing in all closed-access journals because of the excessive prices charged by some – especially when journal costs vary considerably between disciplines. In a joint statement issued last year, several organisations representing humanities scholars protested that ‘our journals are relatively expensive to produce and cheap to buy’ (Learned Societies in the Humanities, 2012, p. 1). Although these organisations could certainly be accused of speaking from direct self-interest – many learned societies link membership to (discounted) journal subscriptions, such that they might find it difficult to cover their (actually quite modest) operating costs if their associated journals became open access – this argument is no less valid for all that. The enormous average prices cited by Darnton (quoted above) are skewed upwards by a minority of spectacularly expensive titles, all in STEM fields (i.e. areas of research falling under the umbrella categories of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). For years there have existed entirely free online journals that charge no subscription fee at all, and in non-STEM fields, most commercial journals are available for far lower sums than their STEM counterparts – a point to which Darnton draws attention when he asks ‘[w]hat physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3 368), and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)?’ (2010, parag. 15) It’s too late now, but perhaps there’s still some value in pointing out that at least one problem to which open access has been presented as the solution has applied only to certain sectors of the journal publishing industry.
Let’s take a ‘closed’ journal that I’ve published in relatively frequently: Language and Literature (I mean the one currently published by SAGE; it is the namesake of an unrelated journal that used to be published by Trinity University). An annual subscription to this journal currently costs £50 for an individual or £489 (plus VAT) for an institution. For this, one receives over four hundred pages per year of closely-set text, mostly consisting of original research articles, wherein each article has been worked on not only by its author or authors but by an editor, at least two peer reviewers, a freelance copy editor, and a number of production staff directly employed by the publisher (I say nothing of printing, warehousing, distribution, server space, website maintenance, etc). Moreover, the subscriber receives not only the paper and electronic copies of this journal’s new issues, but electronic access to its full history of issues, dating back for over two decades, which is, in the case of institutional subscriptions, multiplied across hundreds or – in some cases, such as that of my own employer – hundreds of thousands of students and staff with library privileges. And this is, I should emphasise, a ‘good’ journal. It is ranked 44th out of 144 linguistics journals by Thomson Reuters (where simply to be ranked is already a measure of influence), and, within its particular subfield of linguistics (i.e. the linguistic analysis of literature), it is the leading journal. Apologies for my chauvinism: I am aware that there are literary linguists who might wish to make a case for the leaderliness of Style – for individuals, $45 per annum, plus postage for those outside the US; for institutions, $129, with the same postage requirement – or for Journal of Literary Semantics – for individuals, €49 per annum for the online edition; for institutions, €147 plus VAT – or for Literary and Linguistic Computing – for individuals, about £77 per annum; for institutions, £213 plus VAT. Some of these journals include more issues per year than others, some are more widely cited, and their pricing structures are more complex than I have suggested – concessionary subscriptions are available, for example, and most of the individual subscription rates also include society membership fees – but the general point can, I think, be accepted, to whit that we are not talking about the astronomical figures sometimes quoted in support of open access. Keeping up with academic research requires the reading of more than one journal, of course, and the cost of a large number of such subscriptions would quickly mount up – but that is what libraries are for. Moreover, electronic subscriptions are also sold in heavily discounted bundles that have brought the average cost of electronic access to journals from several top academic publishers to less than £200 per year at my employing institution: an order of magnitude less than the staggering cross-disciplinary averages quoted by Darnton (above). These bundles are, it should be noted, tremendously expensive overall, because hundreds of journals are involved. But the number of journals available is not something that publishers can be blamed for. Academics never seem to tire of launching new journals, and successful journals tend progressively to increase their annual number of issues as more and more good-quality articles are submitted. And this in turn appears to be happening because of an increase in the amount of research being done that in turn requires to be published at a rate that outstrips library budgets: business analyst Claudio Aspesi points out that in 2005, global university and research funding was growing at a rate of 5-8% per year, but library funding was only growing at a rate of 1-3% per year (interviewed in Poynder 2011, parag. 40).
If you do not have access to an adequately funded library, then that is a problem – but it is a different problem from the apparent over-pricing of some academic journals, and requires a different solution. And if you have access to what would seem to be an adequately funded library, but cannot obtain the reasonably priced journal you need because the funds have all been soaked up by overpriced journals, that’s again a problem, but it’s hardly the fault of the reasonably priced journal, its academic editors and contributors, its editorial staff, or even (in many cases) its publisher (since not every organisation that publishes a cheap journal also publishes a very expensive one). Lastly, if the journals you need are reasonably priced but you can’t get hold of them all because there are so darned many journals everybody needs that no library can cope, then we may need to think about why we’re putting so little money into libraries, but we shouldn’t automatically blame the publishers for manufacturing – at our own request – more products than the institutions we have tasked with supporting academic publishing (i.e. libraries) can afford to buy. I do not mean to seem heartless towards those groups which find themselves excluded by the market. But it is clear that the financial case for open access has at times been stated in a way that makes the current situation difficult to understand, and, as I shall argue in section 5 (below), it is possible that certain forms of open access policy may result in no less problematic forms of exclusion for the same groups.
It should also be acknowledged that academia has long had ways of dealing with lack of access, imperfect though they are. One is the inter-library loan system: if I want to read a book or journal article that is not held by ‘my’ library, I can request a copy of it from another library. It used also to be the case that the author of a journal article would receive a few dozen ‘offprints’ of his or her article for distribution to those who requested them. I received fifty paper copies of my 2006 article, for example – but that was in the days before the five or six people who currently know who I am had heard of me, so I got no requests. This tradition has largely disappeared, but in its place we have the new phenomenon of the research repository, whose usage was recently re-branded as ‘green’ open access. There are (multi-)disciplinary repositories such as arXiv (formerly the LANL Preprint Archive): an open-access repository to which thousands of pre-publication copies of academic papers in many STEM fields are uploaded every month. arXiv has been open since the 1990s, and was the repository from which I accessed the first study referenced in this blog article (i.e. Fan et al, 2013): of necessity because it has yet to be published in the journal to which it was submitted. And there are also institutional repositories, into which academics and research students based at the institutions in question may (and sometimes, more controversially, must) deposit research articles and PhD theses for free access to all who want them. Harvard University, where Darnton is a professor, was one of the first to adopt this approach. My employing institution was another early adopter, and (as hinted above) I have gladly played my part: all my journal articles, and much of the rest of my research writing, are available from Open Research Online, the institutional repository of the Open University. For reasons I shan’t go into here, arranging this has been something of a pain in the neck (especially at times when the uploaded copies have unaccountably vanished or been arbitrarily deleted), but I did it just the same because I wanted to ensure that my work could be read by as many as possible of those who could make use of it. Those familiar with how academia works may discern an element of self-interest on my part. When I advise colleagues to upload their articles to the repository, it is on the grounds that they may benefit from it by increasing awareness of their work among other academics, and not on the grounds that the public is crying out for access to their research publications. This is not because I attach no value to public education, but because I consider the cause of public education to be served but poorly (if at all) by free access to academic journal articles (a point to which I shall return in the next section). Making research publications available for free may slightly expand their potential academic audience, but is in itself unlikely to broaden their audience beyond academia. What led me to this conclusion?
Because I don’t want pre-publication copies of my work floating around on the internet (referencing such versions is problematic, and even though I work in disciplines that ignore citation metrics, unquotable articles are less useful to their potential users than quotable ones are), what I have uploaded to ‘my’ institutional repository are electronic copies of the actual published articles, which means that the would-be reader cannot simply click on a button for a download, but must submit a request (by filling out a web form) that I in turn must approve (by clicking a button) – this being legally equivalent to said reader’s phoning me up and asking for an off-print, which I subsequently choose to drop in the post. This in turn has had the interesting side effect of keeping me informed as to who is getting the free copies. Somewhat predictably, it turns out to be the same sorts of people to whom an academic of a previous generation would have been mailing off-prints: postgraduate students, other academics, and the very occasional independent scholar. There has been just one exception to this pattern: a short, co-authored methodological critique of a sloppy piece of educational research that had bearing on a controversial government policy (Bragg et al, 2011). Thanks to topicality – and promotion by the lead author – this was initially requested mostly by members of the public, although more recent requests have been from the expected audience. Now, it might be argued that other people are put off by the need to submit a request. But on the face of it, it seems quite unlikely that a person unwilling to make the effort to fill out such a short form (it has only five compulsory fields, one of which is a dropdown menu and one of which is a CAPTCHA challenge) will be willing to plough through several thousand words of densely-written academic prose, unleavened even by the sort of weak humour in which an academic blogger may indulge from time to time.
That requests for articles uploaded to an institutional repository should primarily come from people who already (for the most part) have access to the same articles through the inter-library loan system is not surprising. That system is – as I know from experience – somewhat slow and bureaucratic (until recently, for example, I had to fill out a hardcopy form in order to request an electronic copy of an article), not to mention expensive (though the costs are generally hidden from the end users), and a recent survey suggests that academics in general try to avoid it:
Freely available materials are seen to be having a real impact on access. Academic libraries’ collections are most likely to be seen as an important source for providing journal articles and books for research and teaching purposes, but following closely in second place are freely available materials online. When an item is not held in the library collection, the highest share of respondents report that they look for a freely available version online, while the second highest share gives up, both of which outrank using the library’s inter-lending or document supply service.
Note that this concerns perceived impact on access not for the public, but for professional scholars. As the survey findings show, there are many among the latter group for whom even the effort of a Google search is too much. But by this point, we’re in quite different territory from that outlined by Willetts, Monbiot, and Darnton, with all forms of open access appearing to be frustrated by the existence of a substantial number of academics who can’t be bothered even to look for free copies online.
Bearing all of this in mind, it is hard to see any particular need for an ‘academic spring’: the name by which the most recent phase of the open access movement was, somewhat offensively, referred by some journalists (the implication being that boycotting Elsevier is somehow akin to risking one’s life protesting against a military dictatorship in the Middle East). Completely free journals already existed, albeit that many of them were and are of comparatively low status. There were at least two viable systems whereby people could access articles published in closed journals to which they lacked direct access, namely repositories and (for those lucky enough to be placed within participating institutions) the inter-library loan system. In some subject areas, especially in the humanities and social sciences, all journals were relatively cheap, while many subject areas served by high cost journals were also covered by the best established pre-print repository, i.e. arXiv. Not everyone can afford a ‘cheap’ journal, but, in our capitalist world, that is the case for all commodities – including internet access, without which neither ‘gold’ nor ‘green’ open access is worth a damn.
3. Public access and public education
But what of the non-academic audience? Alice Bell, a researcher in science and technology policy, has been somewhat equivocal in her support for open access, which she distinguishes from ‘meaningful open access’, i.e. actual public engagement. She wrote as follows in Times Higher Education:
If we are going to have meaningful open access, then, for a start, we are going to need to write more clearly. Maybe open access will be a step towards this. I suspect researchers’ writing will improve if they know that a more diverse and larger group of people might read their work.
Perhaps the current revolt by academics over publishing will lead to another one from the new non-academic audiences who, frustrated by how bad many papers are, will bug us to be better.
There is much to agree with in Bell’s argument, but on one point she is unclear and possibly mistaken. Bell seems very confident in her judgement that ‘many papers’ are ‘bad’, but leaves us to guess at what her evaluative criteria might have been. Is a paper bad by definition if a non-academic reader is ‘frustrated’ by it? What seems ‘clearly’ written to a member of one’s own discipline may be incomprehensible to an outsider to that discipline, whether a member of the general public or a researcher in another discipline. This point was well made by the medical publisher, Kent Anderson, in his response to Monbiot:
Let’s assume everyone with a beating heart is interested in cardiology topics. Let’s search PubMed for a paper on ‘cardiac’. Let’s take the first one we find. Let’s read the conclusion from the abstract:
Intrathoracic herniation of the liver (‘liver-up’) is associated with predominant left heart hypoplasia in left diaphragmatic hernia but not right fetal diaphragmatic hernia. Our observations indicate that this difference may result from different ductus venosus streaming sites in these conditions.
Let’s assume I can read the whole paper. Like 99.9% of the population, I’m not going to know what to make of it. It’s for specialists, or better, subspecialists (cardiologists who specialise in neonates, I suppose)….
There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me
What Anderson means is that no matter how cheaply scientific journal articles are priced, they will not become usable by non-specialists like himself. But it is important to recognise that this is not because those papers are, to use Bell’s above-quoted term, ‘bad’. The use of terms such as ‘hypoplasia’ and ‘ductus venosus’ in a context such as the above is not symptomatic of bad writing. To translate a research article from its technical register into everyday English would (depending on the approach taken) make it more ambiguous or more verbose, and thus (in either case) worse from the perspective of its primary audience, i.e. researchers working in the same field or subfield as the article’s author(s). Bell acknowledges this as follows: ‘I should stress that I don’t think we should lose expert-to-expert communication. Jargon can be a good thing. We need spaces where we don’t have to constantly stop and explain ourselves and can just run with an idea.’ (2012, parag. 11) Consider the following finding from a recent survey of UK academics:
Virtually all respondents indicated that it is very important to them that their research reaches academics in their own subdiscipline or field of research, about 4 out of 5 identified academics in their broader discipline as an important audience, and over half ranked ‘professionals in my field outside academia’ as a very important audience. Beyond these core audiences, a relatively small share of respondents identified the general public as a key audience, and scientists were especially unlikely to do so.
Before anyone begins to berate the survey respondents for adopting such an attitude, it’s important to ask why researchers should consider the general public to be a ‘key audience’. It is tempting to regard that question as intrinsically elitist, but it is not. To return to Kent Anderson’s above-quoted example, the principal aim of a neonatal cardiology researcher is not to educate the public about his or her subfield but to advance it, where advancement means communicating each new discovery as efficiently as possible to the worldwide audience of other neonatal cardiology researchers. This is not to suggest that communicating such discoveries to people outside that audience is unnecessary – in particular, the knowledge that is produced must reach the notice of practising cardiologists – but it is to suggest that these two goals are separate, and that they might not necessarily be best served in the same publications, nor even by the same writers. Readers experienced in academic writing may wish to reflect on the difference between, on the one hand, preparing a journal article or research monograph, and, on the other, producing educational materials, whether for ‘open’ publication or for the undergraduate textbook market, which is almost completely separate from the market for research monographs and is served on the basis of entirely different business models. Open access is one thing; expecting researchers qua researchers to take up the task of public education by radically changing the manner in which they communicate among themselves is quite another.
This is not to deny that there are genuine experts who are also great public educators; rather, it is to acknowledge that when they are communicating with the public, they are acting not as researchers but in a quite different capacity. Naturally, this involves different institutional structures and different paths to publication (see, e.g. Brienza, 2011 on peer-reviewed publication as credentialing journalistic engagement). For example, I learnt a great deal from Brian Cox and Jeff Foreshaw’s The quantum universe (2012 ), but that was precisely because it was not a research publication but a work of popular science. A research publication in quantum physics would have been entirely useless to me, whether or not I could access it for free (thanks to ‘my’ library, I probably could: but why would I want to?). I’ve also enjoyed books written by experts from fields closer to my own but written for a general audience, most recently Guy Deutscher’s Through the language glass (2011 ). These publications, it should be noted, are by no means open access, being products of an industry whose core business is the creation and management of intellectual property. They came into being through what the great Allen Lane (the entrepreneur, not the imprint that he founded) established as the prototypical mode for 20th century textual production in English, i.e. hardback publication at a relatively high price point followed by paperback publication under a different imprint and at a relatively low price point after a delay of six months or so: Through the language glass was first published in hardback by Heinemann and then a year later in paperback by Arrow Books, and The quantum universe was first published in hardback by Penguin under the Allen Lane imprint, and then the following year as a Penguin paperback. These books are also available in electronic editions, but those too are products of the commercial publishing industry. They were neither posted to an academic blog, nor uploaded to a repository. They retail, it should be noted, at a somewhat lower price point than typical scholarly publications. However, that is not because Arrow Books and Penguin are more ‘socialist’ organisations than Elsevier (to lapse for a moment into Monbiot’s loaded terminology), but because their potential market is much larger and economies of scale apply. The existence of the larger market enables more money to be spent on marketing (for many academic presses, ‘marketing’ consists of no more than listing a title in a catalogue and mailing out a scant handful of copies to the reviews editors of scholarly journals) and facilitates these books’ appearance on the shelves of general interest bookshops – not because the manager of (say) the local branch of Waterstones necessarily has a commitment to disseminating scientific knowledge (although in practice, that is not unlikely to be the case), but because members of the public are likely to pick them up and buy them, contributing not only to the dividend paid to Waterstones shareholders, but also to the local branch balance sheet, permitting the branch to stay open and the staff to be paid. The irony is that if the text of those books had been published not through the commercial system, but by being uploaded to a ‘free’ website such as this one, far fewer people would have read that text, because far fewer people would have had a stake in ensuring that it would reach an audience: as Casey Brienza observes, ‘the number of people who might learn from research results is always going to be greater than the number likely to actually seek out what has been written up.’ (2012b, p. 168)
The enterprise of communicating knowledge to the public does not, of course, have to take place through a profit-making framework, but taking it seriously necessarily requires the involvement of non-academics whose time must be paid for. Cox, for example, has worked extensively with the BBC: a public-service broadcaster whose educational programming has included some quite exceptional productions across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. We can’t all do that, of course: it’s fairly unlikely that the BBC will ever seriously consider making a series of television programmes on one of my areas of expertise, for example, and even if it did, it would never dream of putting an Open University lecturer in front of a camera (except, perhaps, if the only alternative was a teaching assistant from the University of Hull). But I don’t suppose I’m unusual among academics in having spoken several times on the radio: and on each occasion that I did so, I took the opportunity to state my position carefully, to correct misconceptions, and to communicate some of the enthusiasm I feel for each of the subjects that I teach and research. It was a small, small contribution – but could I credibly argue that it was not commensurate with my status within my field? And the truth is that I did not have time to make a bigger contribution, because my job is not public education but teaching and research.
There are, it should be noted, problems with public communication of this sort, especially when the star professor begins to speak from the peculiar kind of authority that comes with celebrity, but here the problem is often that of growing distance between the celebrity expert and the systems of systems of scholarly communication within which his or her expertise was originally produced and credentialed. This point is well brought out in Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung’s critique of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s work following the success of the bestselling Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner, 2005):
In the original Freakonomics, much of whose content appeared originally in columns for the New York Times Magazine… Levitt did the research, Dubner trusted Levitt, the Times trusted Dubner, and we the readers trusted the Times’s endorsement. In SuperFreakonomics and the authors’ blog… Levitt trusts brilliant stars such as [Nathan] Myhrvold or [Emily] Oster, Dubner trusts Levitt, and we the readers trust the Freakonomics brand….
A solid collaboration requires each side to check and balance the other side…. The most controversial statements are the most likely to be mistaken; if such assertions go unchallenged, you will have little more than a series of press releases linked by gung-ho commentary and eye-popping headlines. Hiring a meticulous editor who can evaluate the technical arguments is another way to avoid embarrassing mistakes.
…The constraints of producing continuous content for a blog or website and meeting publisher’s deadlines may have adverse effects on accuracy. The strongest parts of the original Freakonomics book revolved around Levitt’s own peer-reviewed research. In contrast, the Freakonomics blog features the work of Levitt’s friends, and SuperFreakonomics relies heavily on anecdotes, gee-whiz technology reporting, and work by Levitt’s friends and colleagues.
There are good reasons, then, for seeing the public communication of knowledge as separate from but to a great extent dependent on scholarly publication. Time spent publishing through scholarly channels is not time wasted, frustrating though it may sometimes seem (especially when waiting months for a peer reviewer’s report) – and nor is it a tedious apprenticeship to be left behind once Penguin and the BBC begin to see one as a viable proposition. It is, rather, time spent ensuring that what one may someday have a chance to communicate to the public will actually be worth communicating. And in the indefinitely extended meantime, of course, one may respond to occasional questions from the media (if and when they arrive), propose articles for general interest periodicals such as newspapers (in case an editor’s short of material), and even write a blog (because – who knows? – it’s always possible that someone might be Googling one’s research area).
4. Producers and consumers in the academic publishing economy
The sociologist and philosopher, Steve Fuller argues that the open access movement is nothing more than a form of academic consumerism in that its aim has only been to ‘mak[e] research cheaper to access by those who already possess the skills to do so but are held back by such “artificial” barriers as publishers’ paywalls.’ (Fuller, 2012, parag. 1) Fuller’s concern appears – like Bell’s (see above) – to be the movement’s lack of interest in promoting public communication of knowledge (even while it has sometimes used the desirability of such communication as an argument for open access). But there is another sense in which the open access movement is consumerist, i.e. that it has typically ignored production issues and failed to give serious consideration to the academic publishing industry, to the contribution it makes, and to the likely results if it were to be starved of income. This point is obscured by focus (as in Monbiot’s article) on academics as producers. Such focus misconstrues the relationship that professional academics have with the publishers of academic journals. They are not the journal publishing industry’s unpaid labourers, although it is easy to see why Monbiot – a professional journalist employed by a newspaper – might see it that way, drawing a mistaken analogy between their position and his. Academics are in fact the consumers of a service carried out by the actual labourers of the academic publishing industry, i.e. the staff and freelancers employed by publishers and distributors: copy-editors, designers, warehouse staff, etc. That is the economic reality of the academic communications system, on which the authors and readers of academic journal articles (essentially a single group) rely. Academic editors and peer reviewers are in a slightly different position, although it should be recognised that the service they provide in vetting and improving other academics’ work is a service not to the publisher but to the academic community. These points are not much talked about, but they are tacitly accepted, and I would suggest that this is why there has been no outcry against the pay-to-say system now being mandated in the UK (see section 5, below). Academics don’t produce journals, they produce knowledge – but the manner in which they produce knowledge relies upon services that publishers provide.
Some academics actively question the value of these services, suggesting – like Monbiot – that publishers’ relationship to the academy is parasitic. For example, Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America, asks ‘What value does the gap between [a finished manuscript] and the finished [i.e. published] product have? Isn’t it 95% done? What’s the last five percent for?’ (Cohen 2010a, parag. 2) Cohen is being deliberately provocative, of course, and I note that he has not ceased to publish through conventional channels, but he seems serious in his suggestion that the publisher’s contribution consists only of arbitrary ‘value triggers’ (parag. 12): not actual added value, but only psychological cues that prompt the reader to respond in a particular way. Throw them out, and ‘value will be perceived in any community-accepted process that narrows the seemingly limitless texts to read or websites to view.’ (parag. 13) Perhaps academic blogging and microblogging will fit the bill: forgetting our outmoded love of journals and even books, we can upload our work directly to the web, safe in the knowledge that, the better it is, the more our peers will tweet about it (see Cohen, 2009). As some readers of this article may be aware, I have benefited from such crowdsourced post-publication gatekeeping (and even from its institutionalisation via the website that Cohen established to keep track of it) in the past, so I suppose I ought to be in favour. I shan’t pretend that I’m not fascinated by Twitter, nor that it hasn’t been the medium through which I’ve discovered some great work and met some wonderful people. But I am yet to be convinced that social media can provide an adequate medium for the assessment of extended theoretical arguments or in-depth analyses of data, as opposed to strikingly-expressed position statements and technically-impressive visualisations. Moreover, it was editors and peer reviewers who taught me how to write, and – finishing a four-page peer reviewer’s report in the early hours of a September morning – I’m now very conscious of paying that favour forward. What makes the academic editing and peer reviewing of journal articles possible is the industry that produces the journals. We can change the means by which we fund that industry, or try to negotiate a different price for its services, and we can even (potentially) tear it down and replace it with another industry of our own design. But we cannot simply ignore it and use Twitter instead: not without abandoning traditions that have been built up over generations and that underpin the whole of what we currently think of as ‘scholarship’, and not, of course, without putting a single tech corporation in place of a multiplicity of publishers.
The above argument may seem pure conservatism to some. In a follow-up post, based around a 2009 survey of US academics’ attitudes to library-related issues (Schonfeld, 2010), Cohen (2010b) attacked his fellow scholars for their commitment to conventional publishing. Describing the survey results as ‘damning’ (parag. 12), Cohen insists that ‘every faculty member who looks at [them] should feel ashamed’ because they show that ‘[w]e professors care less about sharing our work… than with making sure we impress our colleagues.’ (parag. 13) But the factor to which respondents claimed to attach most weight in deciding whether to publish in a given journal was not, as Cohen suggests, whether the journal in question would ‘impress [their] colleagues’ – a phrase not to be found in the survey. What survey respondents attached greatest importance to was rather that ‘[t]he current issues of the journal are circulated widely, and are well read by scholars in [the respondents’] field[s]’ (Schonfeld, 2010, p. 34). They were thus expressing precisely the desire to share their work with as many people as possible (a journal should be ‘widely circulated’), albeit with the caveat that the most important people to share it with would be members of the respondents’ respective disciplines (a journal should be ‘well read by scholars in your field’). And I would suggest that there is nothing wrong with such a caveat. The primary audience of any piece of research writing (as opposed to public education) will almost always consist of members of some specific discipline or subdiscipline. As Bell (quoted above) puts it, researchers ‘need spaces where [they] don’t have to constantly stop and explain [them]selves’. Even if such spaces become freely accessible to all surfers of the net, they will not thereby magically become spaces for the public communication of academic knowledge because that is not their purpose and that purpose will still be required. Explication of research findings for non-specialist audiences has an important place, but that place is not in a scholarly journal, whose role is (a) to facilitate communication between specialists, (b) to exercise a degree of quality control on such communication, and (c) to provide credibility for this knowledge when communicating it to a wider audience (with the implicit or explicit claim: ‘through the process of editing and peer review, my fellow specialists have established the propositions I now express to you as reasonable’).
[Paragraph edited to correct misreading of Fyfe] Abandonment of the conventional journal publishing system has human consequences too. Paul Fyfe points out that ‘correctors, reading boys, editorial assistants, and copyeditors are losing their places’ because ‘the financial impact of new media upon old media, as well as coinciding economic downturns, have made the considerable costs of correction seem like an unnecessary burden’ such that ‘editorial positions of various kinds have been subject to significant cuts.’ (2012, pp. 263-264) From one point of view, this is no cause for regret, but only a promising stage on the way to the apparently desirable goal of ‘eliminat[ing] the editorial nitpicker entirely, displacing correction onto the reader or to autocorrecting functions of networks.’ (p. 266) Although academics collectively appear to be no better than other social groups in considering the welfare of those who depend upon them – Brienza has been perhaps unique in arguing that academics have an ethical responsibility to consider the fate of the thousands of people ‘who make a modest living supporting the publication of worthy research’ (2012b, p. 169) – the attitude Fyfe draws attention to is probably more closely associated with new media companies than with open access advocates. Few scholars I work with see professional editors only as ‘nitpicker[s]’; fewer still would delight in the prospect of their being laid off en masse. Some might even recognise that the deteriorating prospects for editorial staff in recent years have not been overwhelmingly dissimilar to those of what North Americans call ‘faculty’ – and that if they disappear as a category after having become unable to secure any sort of income at all without abandoning their careers – well, in these days of auto-grading and MOOCs, there but for the grace of God go we. A more typical (and indeed, responsible) attitude is thus expressed in the following statement by the philosopher, Gloria Orrigi:
we all know tacitly that we need a change, that the way in which academic work is done now is too sub-optimal to survive in the long run, but, of course, a lot of reflexion is still needed on alternative modes of peer-review and publishing that will assure in the future the same stability of content and editorial quality that is still assured by journals these days and that we terribly fear to lose
But the question remains of exactly what it is that ‘we all know’ the problem to be. If the above discussion has shown anything, it is surely that there is little consensus on this matter, and that perhaps the most emotive argument – that journal subscriptions exclude the public – holds little water. Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah, argues as follows:
the biggest problem I see with the existing scholarly communication marketplace is not the fact that faculty provide ‘free’ content to journal publishers and then ask their libraries to pay for the formally-published versions of those same articles. This is a natural consequence of the value-added services that the academy expects publishers to provide. The biggest problem is the fact that each participant in the system receives distorted and radically incomplete market responses to its inputs. There is virtually no competitive pressure on publishers to control journal prices; authors’ submission decisions have significant impacts on other players that the authors themselves never feel; librarians make selection decisions but do not experience directly any of the meaningful consequences of those decisions either; readers make requests of their libraries without regard to price, because they do not pay the bills.
This suggests that the current system is flawed not because journals are overpriced but because – thanks to a profoundly broken form of what economists call the ‘price discovery’ process – we do not know what their price ought to be. The system has arguably been approaching crisis for some time. In 2011, Research Libraries UK was campaigning for fees to be cut by exactly 15%: apparently not on the grounds that journals were overpriced by exactly 15%, but on the grounds that 85% was all they could afford to pay (Poynder 2011, parag. 10). But what if the problem is not that prices are too high but that library budgets are – given the absolutely central role of journal articles to the academic system, and the ever-increasing volume of research – unrealistically low? Last year, the library of the richest university in the world protested that ‘[p]rices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices.’ (Harvard Library 2012, parag. 2) A shocking case of profiteering on the part of the publishers? I’m not so sure. The amount of content has been rising continuously – Poynder (2011, parag. 33) estimates an annual rise of 6-7% globally – so it’s not necessarily fair to make comparisons with e.g. the consumer price index on the implicit assumption that the same product is being purchased year on year. And whoever is at fault, ‘gold’ open access can only take the pressure off library budgets by moving the burden of supporting scholarly publication onto another part of the academic economy. For overall savings to be achieved, the actual volume of publication will have to fall, yet that is something few academics will welcome – unless, that is, they genuinely believe the difference between a submitted manuscript and a published work to be only 5%.
5. The exclusivity of the open
As already noted, the UK Minister for Science supports ‘gold’ open access; so too do the gods of the UK university system, the research councils who distribute funding on his behalf. Having influenced the debate by insisting on an exemption for books (which will not have to be made open access), scholarly organisations in the humanities appear to have acquiesced. So in a certain sense, the debate is over – at least in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The OA movement has won – hurrah! Or has it? Different forms of open access are likely to lead to different outcomes, and it is worth considering the possible consequences of the form of open access promoted by recent British policy.
The key point to recognise is that Willetts was concerned to promote open access to publicly-funded research in a way that would protect Britain’s publishing industry (see 2013, parag. 11). Open access is thus to be achieved not by ‘throw[ing] off’ the publishers, as in Monbiot’s (2011, parag. 15) call to arms, but by paying them off – where the costs involved ‘will be partly met by the research councils and also [by] institutions’ (Willets 2013, parag. 7). At least in the short term, this represents a victory for the commercial publishers, who will now be paid for publishing articles regardless of whether or not anybody wants to read them. As a Research Councils UK policy document explains, ‘[f]rom 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) Article processing charges are the new subscription fees, a financial barrier to publishing scholarly work that replaces the financial barrier to reading it. This means a transition from a pay-to-read to a pay-to-say model of journal financing: a model that some might characterise as ‘vanity publishing’, but which is customarily employed in many spheres, such as the production of public information leaflets, advertising, political pamphlets, and indeed most of the internet (including this blog). A privatised version of this ‘gold’ route to open access is advocated by Darnton, who announces that ‘Harvard now subsidises publishing fees for articles submitted to open-access journals, up to a yearly limit, for each professor’ (2010, parag. 24) – wonderful news for anyone who wants to read the work of Harvard professors, but not necessarily quite such good news for non-Harvard professors – and perhaps even Harvard non-professors – who would quite like to publish on an equal footing with such subsidised colossi: Darnton ‘envisages’ further subsidies for scholars less fortunate than himself (ibid.), but gives absolutely no hint as to how those subsidies might be financed.
There is no such lack of clarity in the UK, and it is to be expected that Willetts’s version of open access will have been welcomed both by publishers of currently closed journals, who will receive additional income for doing no more than they currently do, and by recipients of RCUK funding at institutions destined for block grants, who will be able to continue publishing in their favourite journals with the added bonus that the versions of record will be made fully open access, possibly leading to higher citation rates due to their availability to researchers at non-subscribing institutions without the inconvenient intermediation of research repositories and the inter-library loan system. What’s not to like?
Because major publishers such as Elsevier now retrospectively reduce their subscription costs in proportion to the amount of open access content they have been paid to carry, small amounts of money can be saved from library budgets (though that money is still being paid into the system elsewhere, a point I shall come to in a moment). More could be saved if libraries were to cut back on journal subscriptions on the grounds that the ‘best’ research – i.e. research supported by RCUK at institutions with historically high levels of RCUK funding, as well as research done by professors at fabulously wealthy institutions such as Harvard University – is now available for free – and while this would deprive researchers of access not only to the majority of articles currently published each year but also to electronic copies of articles written before the rise of ‘gold’ open access (where paper copies of ‘old’ journal issues have in many cases been dumped as a cost-cutting, space-saving measure), it has been advocated by Harvard University library, which encourages professors first to ‘[m]ake sure that all of [thei]r own papers are accessible’ (Harvard Library 2012, parag. 6), and then to ‘[s]ign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals’ (parag. 12).
So while we may conceivably see more monographs on the shelves of university libraries, this gain will have come only at the cost of reduced access to journal articles, except where those were authored by the academic system’s equivalent of the super-rich or where they were placed in ‘higher-use journals’ that simply could not be abandoned, whatever the price – and only because money that universities and funders would previously have earmarked for other purposes is now being diverted into subsidising open access publication. Moreover, it’s hard to see how this will further the cause of public communication of knowledge, espoused by Bell and Fuller and given lip service at least by many open access advocates: the pay-to-say system was devised in order to permit elite academics to continue publishing in the manner to which they had become accustomed, they will be under no obligation to write in a manner more accessible to an audience of non-specialists, and their publishers will be paid in advance even if no-one ever so much as downloads the articles they turn out. Willetts will get what he wants, as will Monbiot, but, as noted above, what they want (i.e. the free online dissemination of research findings) could have been achieved by less disruptive means. Ironically, no money will be saved by the public purse unless the system is shrunk and less research is published, as we see from the testimony of Dr Alicia Wise of Elsevier to the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee of the House of Commons:
Dr Wise: The way we operate our no-double dipping policy is that we modify our list prices two years in arrears to reflect the number of hybrid open-access articles that are published. For example, our 2013 prices reflect the 2011 uptake of our open-access publishing options.
Q18 Ann McKechin: Does that mean prices are going down in real terms or up?
Dr Wise: As open access increases, subscription prices will come down.
Q22 Ann McKechin: Right. So you believe that the price in total that universities are paying is likely to come down.
Dr Wise: No, the total cost of the system does not change depending on whether you have the point of payment on the author’s side or the reader’s side. The total costs of the system are the same but, as you see the majority of content published through open-access fees, you would see a counter-balancing decrease in subscription prices.
It should, furthermore, be observed that the RCUK open access policy will necessarily result in a greater concentration of public funding among those institutions that already receive the most of it, by guaranteeing block grants to the institutions that have been most successful in grant capture. It will also create an instantly apparent distinction between, on the one hand, papers arising from RCUK-funded research carried out by academics working in institutions in receipt of open access block grants, and, on the other hand, all other research writing. Where write-ups of RCUK-funded research are published in journals or conference proceedings, they will have to be open access, with associated costs either being met through an RCUK block grant to the authors’ employing institutions (which means that articles arising from taxpayer-funded research will still be paid for twice by the taxpayer – although with the second payment now coming before publication rather than afterward) or, in the case of ‘research organisations that receive Research Council funding [but] are not in receipt of an RCUK OA block grant’, by the employing institution itself, with the promise of a policy review if this ‘caus[es] significant problems’ (RCUK 2013, p. 5; what might be considered a ‘significant’ problem is left ambiguous). Articles arising from unfunded research, on the other hand, will not have to be open access – and no funds appear to be available for making them so. Thus, they will be published either in those open access journals that levy no article processing charges, almost all of which are low-impact (i.e. little read by researchers), or in high impact journals without open access – or they will not be published at all: an increasingly likely outcome unless the aforementioned non-APC open access journals, generally run on a non-profit basis by academic institutions, can be massively expanded. Such expansion is, it should be noted, itself rather unlikely: as Rick Anderson (2013b) argues, there is simply too little spare capacity in the university system for it to undertake scholarly publishing on anything like the scale of today’s commercial publishers. Junior academics, staff and students of nonelite institutions, independent scholars, and of course (if we might broaden our focus out from the UK for a moment) researchers working in what Cohen calls ‘underprivileged nations’ (2010b, parag. 13) are disproportionately likely to be in the position of carrying out unfunded research without significant institutional support. Under the new policy, such poor unfortunates will be less likely to be deprived of access to the golden thoughts of elite intellectuals, but – when it comes to making their own voices heard – they may find themselves still more marginalised than they are at present. Increasing the ability of nonelite and developing world scholars to consume knowledge produced by Britain’s academic superstars will do nothing to challenge inequalities if their ability to participate in the production of knowledge is by the same token constrained.
Sheer lack of alternatives perhaps explains why an advocate of ‘gold’ open access who acknowledges that ‘for many scholars, [the] funding [necessary] to publish in “gold” open access journals published by for-profit entities… remains a distant dream’ (Priego 2013, parag. 7) must resort to moral exhortations: ‘It is up to the academics of today that will be the authorities of tomorrow to work towards new sets of rules. It is up to their elders to encourage and empower them.’ (parag. 11) When all else fails, one might as well demand niceness from the people who seem to be in charge. But if we believe in the existence of academic ‘elders’ as a group, then current British open access policy can be viewed as a stitch-up orchestrated by the most powerful amongst their number. In the UK, there is already an informal caste system among academics and universities, with those that have attracted less funding in the past being under continual threat of having their research activities curtailed. The form of open access now being rolled out will entrench that system. By enabling the work of the elite both to appear in high impact journals and to be fully open access, it will make such work more citable – reinforcing the illusion that it is ‘better’ and increasing the relative likelihood that its authors will receive future funding, especially in those disciplines that use citation metrics as a direct index of quality. Only in disciplines where books are valued above journal articles will we be (partially) insulated from this feedback loop.
As Brienza writes in a critique of a particularly influential piece of open access rhetoric, ‘[e]ven in a new media age, those who get heard are those with the disproportionate means to make themselves heard’ (2012a, p. 151). Thanks to an unexpected confluence of interests between academic publishers, government, and elite academics, open access, British style currently amounts to no more nor less than the handing of a publicly-funded megaphone to the UK’s most privileged scholars. Soon the whole internet will be able to hear them talking to one another.
I’ll bet it can’t wait.
With thanks to Casey Brienza for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
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, Kent (2011). ‘Uninformed, unhinged, and unfair — the Monbiot rant’. Scholarly Kitchen, 1 September. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/09/01/uninformed-unhinged-and-unfair-the-monbiot-rant/
Anderson, Rick (2011). ‘OA rhetoric, economics, and the definition of “research”’. Scholarly Kitchen, 7 September. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/09/07/oa-rhetoric-economics-and-the-definition-of-research/
Anderson, Rick (2013a). ‘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/
Anderson, Rick (2013b). ‘On the likelihood of academia “taking back” scholarly publishing’. Scholarly Kitchen, 27 June. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/06/27/on-the-likelihood-of-academia-taking-back-scholarly-publishing/
Bell, Alice (2012). ‘Wider open spaces: freely accessed papers are simply points in a constellation of scientific communication with the public, says Alice Bell’. Times Higher Education, 19 April. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/419684.article
Bragg, S., Allington, D., Simmons, K., and Jones, K. (2011). ‘Core values, education, and research: a response to Mark Pike’. Oxford Review of Education 37 (4): 561-565.
Brienza, Casey (2011). ‘Communication or credentialing? On the value of academic publishing’. Impact of Social Sciences, 5 May. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2011/05/05/communication-or-credentialing/
Cohen, Dan (2009). ‘Introducing Digital Humanities Now’. 18 November. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.dancohen.org/2009/11/18/introducing-digital-humanities-now/
Cohen, Dan (2010a). ‘The social contract of scholarly publishing’. 5 March. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.dancohen.org/2010/03/05/the-social-contract-of-scholarly-publishing/
Cohen, Dan (2010b). ‘Open access publishing and scholarly values’. 27 May. http://www.dancohen.org/2010/05/27/open-access-publishing-and-scholarly-values/
Darnton, Robert (2010). ‘The library: three jeremiads’. New York Review of Books, 23 December. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/dec/23/library-three-jeremiads/?pagination=false
EPSRC (?-2013a). ‘Grants on the web’. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/NGBOSearchGrants.aspx
EPSRC (?-2013b). ‘(R) Solution crystallization induced by electric field’. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/NGBOViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=GR/N17287/01
Fan, Rui, Zhao, Jichang, Chen, Yan, and Xu, Ke (2013). ‘Anger is more influential than joy: sentiment correlation in Weibo’. Preprint submitted to Elsevier, 10 September. Accessed 16 October 2013. Available online at http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2402.
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.
Harvard Library (2012). ‘Faculty advisory council memorandum on journal pricing: major periodical subscriptions cannot be sustained’. 17 April. Accessed 19 October. http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k77982&tabgroupid=icb.tabgroup143448
Housewright, Ross, Schonfeld, Roger C., Wulfson, Kate (2013). Ithaka S+R | Jisc | RLUK UK Survey of Academics 2012. 16 May. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/5209/1/UK_Survey_of_Academics_2012_FINAL.pdf
Learned Societies in the Humanities (2012). Learned societies in the humanities joint statement on open access. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.royalhistoricalsociety.org/LearnedSocietiesintheHumanitiesJointStatementonOpe.pdf
Monbiot, George (2011). ‘Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist: academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers’. Guardian, 29 August. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist
Orrigi, Gloria (2012). Comment on Fuller (2012). Sociological Imagination, 3 May. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/9953
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
Priego, Ernesto (2013). ‘The transition towards fairer access to research requires a wider transformation of academic culture’. Impact of Social Sciences, 18 October. Accessed 18 October 2013. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/10/18/towards-fairer-access-to-research/
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
Schonfeld, Roger C. (2010). ‘Historians in broader context: changing faculty attitudes and practices from the Ithaka S+R faculty survey’. Ithaka S+R. Accessed 27 September 2013. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/download/file/fid/604
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
Willetts, David (2013). ‘We cannot afford to keep research results locked away in ivory towers: opening up British research may seem obvious, writes science minister David Willetts. But it is not just inertia that blocks this’. Guardian, 9 April. Accessed 27 September 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/apr/09/open-access-scientific-publishing-peer-review-scientific-publishing