Death To Open Access! Long Live Open Access!

A few weeks ago at the Millennium conference, some of us got together to talk about open access and the political economy of knowledge (re)production in our little corner of academia (“us” being Colin Wight, David Mainwaring, Nivi Manchanda, Nathan Coombs, Meera and me). Over the remainder of this week, we’ll be posting those reflections here for your delectation because, some discussion notwithstanding, labourers in today’s university-factories need to get talking about these things, and fast.

Open Access appears to be here. The Finch Report has recommended it, the Government has endorsed it, and there even seem to be some monies newly available for it. The battle is won, and the age of unfettered academic-public intercourse is upon us. Well, not quite. Finch’s preference for Gold Open Access, in which journals continue to receive revenues and make profits and in which academics (or their institutions) pay a fee of several thousand pounds per article for the pleasure (the so called Article Processing Charge (APC) system, which will receive greater attention in later posts), is deeply problematic (well-reasoned explanations for why available from Stevan Harnad and Peter Coles (Telescoper), with more qualified views, even cautious support, from Stephen Curry and Repository Man). Also, the monies aren’t new, and have instead been extracted from existing research budgets (and what a complete and utter surprise that is).

This is all cause for serious concern, and relates closely to the kinds of arguments that are developed and deployed in favour of Open Access (or, to be more provincial about it, Open IR). There are three kinds of arguments for opening up the journal system, arguments from access, ethics and cost, and we are in danger of letting the first overwhelm the different, and better, cases made in the name of the second and third.

The first set of arguments has to do with the problem of access: that the journal system is broken because it creates barriers to the circulation of academic knowledge. The journal as usually conceived was an ingenious and appropriate method for collating and distributing knowledge in the 18th century, but is now redundant. And yet journals – with their pay walls – remain the only (or at least the principal) vector for success or employment in academic life. This is doubly problematic since the various metrics that journal comparisons and prestige enable themselves then become vectors of discipline and control, even in the face of the many, many reasoned objections to such measures.

Therefore, under this set of claims, journals should go open access because it will increase the reliability and applicability of human knowledge, particularly in medicine and the sciences. Moreover, that it is important for people to be able to access such knowledge even if they are not within the academy. More relevantly for IR, there is a sense that access will increase the quality of public debate. One can imagine how that might work in cases of war or controversies over government policy. If papers were as accessible as news sites, and if they were presented in a sufficiently clear way, their impact (to adopt a managerialist phrase of the moment) could be considerable.

One common reply to this point is that people outside of the academy aren’t much interested. This might be especially so for our more marginal or meta-theoretical debates. Well, maybe, but this neglects the great differences in scale between the two communities. Even a minuscule additional readership from the general public could increase the readership of academic work many times very, as well as overtime better linking academia to public debate. Moreover, this defence also seriously underestimates the numbers of intelligent, interested and concerned non-academics who might benefit from increased access: again, not huge numbers in an absolute sense, but considerable when conceived in relation to average academic readerships.

In any case, it has been on the point of access where most attention has been focused, although it is in some ways the weakest argument, partly because academics can already get round some of these issues (through blogs, institutional archiving, compulsory open access, as some research grants now require, and so on) and partly because it is inevitable and unproblematic that much work will be of interest overwhelmingly to other specialists.

Which brings us to a second set of arguments, around ethics, with two variants. The public good variant maintains that since universities are publicly funded, taxpayers and citizens should be able to access any work produced, and that this goes too for private universities, since the research has not been paid for by the journal fees but by the tuition fees of students. The academic labour variant of the ethical story focuses on the costs and returns to academics themselves, especially in a situation of increasing reliance on various private financial flows. After all, it is peer review that confers economic value on journals for publishers, but peer review itself is given for free, and none of the putative financial returns on journal publishing come from the coffers of those who profit from publishing academic work. In other words, journals are a way of creating private profit through voluntary – or part-publicly funded – labour.

Moreover, the increase in the number of journals and the low numbers of people who read/cite any given paper mean that, in Clifford Lynch’s words, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”. So in this view we should go open access because it is simply unjust for academic labour to be commodified in this way. Both the access and ethics arguments are correct in my view, although the objection may well be in the case of ethics that there is no point on dreaming of a ‘fair’ system for academics which means that readers (and therefore libraries) have to meet the additional costs of peer review and that ultimately all public spending has the character of many paying for products they receive no benefit from. The crux being that ethical considerations butt up against other – either through contrasting ethical arguments (rights or readers versus rights of producers) or more commonly claims about necessity and reality (there is no alternative worthy of the name).

Graphic from Nature

Which is why I think the most persuasive and actionable argument is that from cost. Academic libraries in the UK spend £200 million each year on journal access. That is 10% of all the research funding distributed by HEFCE. Elsevier (the big bad corporate monster of the open access story) runs an operating-profit margin of 34%, compared to an equivalent profit of somewhere under 5% for all periodical publishers in the UK. Some of the statistics I’ve seen on this show an increase in journal costs for research libraries of 7.6% a year from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s (these figures were discussed in earlier posts).

There is just no reasonable way to argue around the journal system as an efficient and cost-effective mechanism for academic knowledge. Moreover, the incentives of privatizing publishing may even be undermining journals as traditionally conceived, for example in encouraging a proliferation of new journals of uncertain quality to add to packages and in some of the minor scandals over manipulating citation data. The problem, in other words, is one of collective action. If academia could actually attend to its own systems of knowledge reproduction, and could act and collaborate in some way on it, we could move to a cheaper and more open model. Whether through reinvigorated university presses, Editorial teams constituted independently of private publishers, association-funded journals, or whatever other route, the basic claim here is that there are smarter ways to spend those hundreds of millions.

Yet it is the impact part of the open access case that has had most success. Most universities now have repositories and archives for pre-print texts published by their faculty and academics are getting a bit better at making use of those. Anyone on will also know that sites like that are really quite a good way of getting work out there, even if it does lead to confusions over which version of a paper is being worked with.

In policy terms ‘access’ also seems to be the key word. It was, for example, the orientating question for the recent Finch report. Other interventions, such as the quite extraordinary text issued by the Harvard Library in April, which put some of the costs on the table. They had spent almost $4 million in 2011 on journal provision and “the Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the university on grant and research funds”. And this is Harvard. Their call was basically for an academic boycott of pay-walled journals (a boycott by authors, reviewers and editors alike).

The problem here is of course that any such boycott would be fatal and untenable if taken up only by junior faculty – those both with most at stake in the future system and with the most to lose by not publishing in the pay-walled journals currently understood as prestigious. And here’s where some of the major problems come in if we accept and reproduce the ‘access’ arguments, but neglect the ‘ethics’ and ‘cost’ ones.

One of the main themes of the Finch report was to make new monies available to ensure open access, not because of any grand plan to reconstitute academic publishing wholesale (despite hyperbole to the contrary) but essentially to protect the private publishing side of the current model. In other words, academics would still give up their voluntary labour, and private companies would still reap the financial rewards, but the end products would be open access because universities would have paid even more for the materials through either paper-by-paper or block payments. This system is already emerging on a more voluntarist basis with journals offering ‘open access’ options where the author pays – at the rate of £1,500 per individual article for the Cambridge journals and in a similar ballpark for other publishers.

These new costs will be funded by research budgets with clearly unequal effects within and across national systems. Oxford University Press et al’s case against Delhi University over photocopies coursepacks being a contemporary case in point of how profit-protection translates into serious global educational inequalities. Under author pays and Article Processing Charge (APC) regimes, wealthy and prestigious universities would be able to pay for more of their produced work to be open access, which would drive attention and citations for those articles, further extending their relative lead, whilst poorer institutions would struggle, and perhaps be driven to less prestigious outlets maintain pay-walls. At least I think that is one plausible outcome.

The point is that if we’re interested in changing the journal system, we have to be attentive to the new sleight of hand (unsubtle as it is). For one, the relevant comparison is not between the current costs of the system and the plausible costs of any future one: is the current balance of access, quality and academic funding the best we can do with £200 million? I think the answer to that is fairly straight-forward. Moreover, it is the cost argument that is more likely to convince those who don’t much care about how much unpaid labour exists in the academy, and to free up funds for other activities. What stands in its way is less technological or logistical problems so much as a much too settled view of the role of academics in producing value for private companies.

There are of course many other questions to consider: the reorganisation of the university as a whole, the role of the state in mandating all this, the politics of austerity in the global North, the connection between new senses of materiality and technology and older ideas of knowledge and public good, the proliferation of published material and the pressures that drive it, but without some serious conversation about the role of private companies in extracting value from an academy under serious and sustained attack, we will go nowhere fast.


19 thoughts on “Death To Open Access! Long Live Open Access!

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      • I’m afraid I have to agree with Jeffrey here

        I’m a scientist. I like facts, not lengthy supposition. I like short sentences too.

        As I have commented elsewhere:

        The majority of ‘Gold’ Open Access journals require no upfront fee from the authors or funders (sometimes referred to as ‘Platinum OA’ not a term I endorse; an APC of £0 if you like).

        [ Solomon, D. J. and Björk, B.-C. 2012. A study of open access journals using article processing charges. J Am Soc Inf Sci Tec 63:1485-1495. ]

        The average APC of those journals that do charge an APC (excluding all the ‘free’ ones) was found to be just $906 ( ~ £571).

        The more established journals in STEM research (but not Humanities!) & often the ‘hybrid’ Open Access options tend be hugely expensive and cost £2000 and more but these can simply be avoided by publishing in other less expensive OA journals.

        You also neglect to mention that the Finch report allows Green OA which is another cheap route.

        I encourage you to do some more reading around the issues of Open Access.
        IMO it’s more of sociological problem (How to change academic behaviour) than a technological or financial one.


      • Well, hurrah for science! Look, the piece is about the different arguments advanced for OA. Not about whether to be for or against OA. I am for. Perhaps you can explain how funds already being moved from research budgets to APC budgets translate into low costs.

        Let us take the example of an average OA journal charging £571. My annual research budget (for all conferences, research travel, etc.) is £500. Current REF requirements mean that I have to produce four pieces in a five year cycle. Will the money for getting that material published come from magic new cash distributed by Government to universities in the midst of austerity? It seems unlikely to me. It will instead likely come from existing research budgets or from academic pay packets themselves.

        This is not about renouncing open access (I have argued forcefully for it before). It is about realising that the costly element here is publisher profit, and that until that is tackled, costs will continue to be levied. What Finch appears to do is to set the scene for that to be transferred onto academics rather than onto publishers.

        I also wrote: “What stands in its way is less technological or logistical problems so much as a much too settled view of the role of academics in producing value for private companies”. That seems to accord with your view, and also doesn’t happen to be a very long or complicated sentence. But maybe that too is a disciplinary difference.


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