On open access, and why it’s not the answer

0. Preamble

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.

(Monbiot 2011, parags. 2, 3, 5, 15)

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.

(Willetts 2013, parags. 2-3)

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.

(Darnton, 2010, parag. 10)

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.

(Housewright, Schonfeld, and Wulfson 2013, p. 91)

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.

(Bell, 2012, parags. 9-10)

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

(K. Anderson, 2011, parags. 7-12)

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.

(Housewright, Schonfeld, and Wulfson 2013, p. 91)

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 [2011]), 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 [2010]). 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.

(Gelman and Fung, 2012, p. 6)

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

(2012, parag. 2)

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.

(2013a, parag. 13)

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.

UK Parliament, 2013

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.


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Cohen, Dan (2009). ‘Introducing Digital Humanities Now’. 18 November. Accessed 16 October 2013. http://www.dancohen.org/2009/11/18/introducing-digital-humanities-now/

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Cohen, Dan (2010b). ‘Open access publishing and scholarly values’. 27 May. http://www.dancohen.org/2010/05/27/open-access-publishing-and-scholarly-values/

Cox, Brian and Foreshaw, Jeff (2012 [2011]). The quantum universe: everything that can happen does happen. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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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.

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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

Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J. (2005) Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. London: Allen Lane.

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

38 thoughts 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. “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.

        1. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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.)

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

      2. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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!!

          2. 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.

          3. 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.

          4. 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?

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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).

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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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