Open Access: Is It Really “Open”?

15 Nov

Our fourth post this week on open access, IR and the ambiguities of the future, from Nivi Manchanda (following Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring and followed by Nathan Coombs and Meera). Nivi is a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and also currently Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, one of the very few student-run IR journals that consistently hosts material worth reading (apart from Millennium of course!). When not running the Cambridge Review, she studies Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan.

UPDATE (27 January): Nivi has now joined the Disordered collective on a more permanent basis and you can read more from her by clicking on her face in the sidebar.

The open access movement for academic journals is excellent in theory; not merely because of the need for an alternative to the clearly out-dated journal system that we currently have in place, but also to reclaim the internet as it were. In an ideal world, the internet would be the space for the unbridled circulation and dissemination for knowledge that the World Wide Web’s original architect had imagined it to be. In practice, however, ‘open’ access the way it is conceived in the Finch report (which is the the catalyst of, if not reason for, this conversation) is hardly ‘freely available’ and ‘non-proprietary’ research in the way the slightly misleading ‘open’ here might suggest.

For a student-run journal some of the many problems (delineated nicely by Pablo and Colin) with the ‘Gold’ OA system embodied in the Finch proposals become particularly acute. In the first instance, with regard to the benefits of the present system, in a field governed by citation indices and impact factors, there is something to be said about the legitimacy and credibility that a set-up with a renowned academic publisher provides. The other big advantage of having a publisher who is invested in the journal, especially for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (hereafter CRIA) and other student-run publications I would imagine, is the discipline they demand. Having a set publication schedule has been crucial for CRIA, not only for associate editors who are copy-editing in the middle of term but also for peer reviewers and authors who get nagging automated reminders every week from ScholarOne’s Manuscript Central, the web-based submission and peer review tool used by Taylor & Francis (Routledge). Finally, although an equivalent open source software exists, merely getting some training in the workings of Manuscript Central and of indeed access to it, has been a great asset for CRIA.

This is not to say, in any way, that the current journal system of pay walls and enormous publisher profits is not deeply flawed. It is, but so is the solution proposed: high Author Processing Charges (APCs) that would hit students and early career researchers disproportionately, to say nothing about those who are not affiliated with an academic institution. Academics are however, thinking about ways around this with mixed success. A great example would be the initiative taken by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has managed to persuade Cambridge University Press to launch a gold open access electronic journal – The Forum of Mathematics – with a print on demand option. To keep a check on what is being sent in, authors need to send in a reasonably long justification of why they are interested in publishing in the journal and what ‘cluster’ they want to submit their paper to. A ‘cluster’ is like a stream, for instance a theory or anthropology stream in IR – schematically speaking. There are of course nuances and overlaps that Gowers has meticulously devised a system for dealing with, and which could potentially be looked at as a model for a social science/IR journal. Each cluster has one editor and a few managing editors working on it who are experts in that particular field.

The great thing about the Forum of Mathematics, at least as of now, is that CUP has decided to waive all APCs for the first three years, making this free for some time, what is called a “diamond” or “platinum” publication (going by the slightly warped OA terminology). There is a chance that this could be extended for another couple of years, after which APCs will be levied, but at a fraction of the cost of many of the other big ‘gold’ publications.

There are two drawbacks to this set-up. The first, in the medium-long term, is the question of who pays. Could gold open access mean that academics from only wealthy institutions, or wealthy departments in institutions get their work published? Even if this is not the case, universities may start telling academics that they would only pay for the papers that are ‘highly citeable’ or needed for the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This would clearly be disastrous for a discipline like IR, which needs precisely to avoid the sort of pressures the REF puts on it. Given that IR as a discipline is predicated on a strange logic of exclusion to begin with, we may end up being complicit in a venture that brings about the demise of queer theory in international relations on the one hand, and a proliferation of sub-standard rational choice theory on the other, for instance. This is a prospect that is both scary and realistic.

The other big disadvantage, especially for a journal like CRIA, goes back to my earlier point about credibility. Tim Gowers is a field medallist (which is equivalent to a Nobel Prize in mathematics) and is currently the most-cited academic in his field. He has obviously got clout and resources that CRIA lacks. He also has the departmental and institutional backing that would be a lot more difficult for a student-run publication to garner. Moreover, the debate about Open Access has thus far revolved largely around the natural sciences; it is perhaps not overly pessimistic to assume that the barriers to achieve an equivalent to the Forum of Mathematics in the humanities or social sciences, would be considerably greater.

In the interim, of hopefully what is the run up to ‘true’ open access and not merely ‘gold’ or ‘green’, it is worth emphasising the real benefit of websites and portals that function as open access repositories such as We should also ensure that all publishers and journals give blanket permission for green OA (to upload pre-prints and sometimes peer-reviewed manuscripts as and when the author wishes), which is something that many publishers already do.

There are, however, other models already in place that we could look to. One is the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies. Another, not in terms of its scholarship or ethos, but in its organisation, is the Small Wars Journal. Nevertheless, the concerns, petty as they may sound, about journal hierarchies and impact factors remain, especially for PhD students and younger academics. To do away with those would require a complete overhaul of the academy, and not merely the journal system as it is currently fashioned.

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One Response to “Open Access: Is It Really “Open”?”


  1. Open Access: Is It Really “Open”? « The Disorder Of Things | Open is mightier | - November 19, 2012

    [...] The open access movement for academic journals is excellent in theory; not merely because of the need for an alternative to the clearly out-dated journal system that we currently have in place, but also to reclaim the internet as it were.  [...]

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