The Best Things In Life Are Free?: Open Access Publishing and Academic Precarity

The fifth post this week on open access and its impact on IR (amongst other social sciences) from previous guest poster Nathan Coombs (follow the blue underlines for the first, second, thirdfourth and sixth posts). Nathan is completing a PhD in politics and philosophy in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is co-founder and co-editor of the transdisciplinary, open-access journal, the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies. He has a book forthcoming in 2013: The British Ideology. Images by Pablo.

When my colleagues and I established the open-access journal, the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies in 2009, to us open-access publishing meant placing an academic journal online which would be free for both our contributors and our readers. We took inspiration from open-access journals in critical philosophy such as Parrhesia and Cosmos and History, the efforts of the Open Humanities Press, and the Australian book publisher Re.Press, who make PDFs of their releases available online simultaneously with their distribution to bookstores.

Since this time, however, the term open-access seems to have become increasingly polyvalent. As discussed in contributions to this series of reflections by Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring, open-access publishing is now endorsed by government and publishers. Yet the price of this move into the mainstream has unfortunately been a watering down of the term. In the ‘gold’ open-access publishing scheme proposed by the Finch report, for instance, universal access to academic publications is secured, but only by preserving the existing journal subscription system and by introducing Article Processing Charges (APCs) for authors.

Whether these pseudo open-access schemes will prove to be unstable transitional forms or lasting models only time will tell. In any event, for my contribution I want to focus on open-access in its fully fledged form: ‘full open-access’ we will call it. The model of full open-access, as operated by the JCGS, does not permit any persistent role for the private (profit motivated) sector within academic journal publishing. Full open-access journals are housed on independent or University affiliated websites, freely available to everyone in the world within an internet connection, and provide a free anonymous peer-review service for contributors.

Let us imagine a world where academic journal publishing turned over completely to this approach. Journal subscription fees would be swept away. Academics would take control over their publishing arrangements. The profits of corporate publishers would dwindle to zero. An enticing scenario for anyone exasperated with the current status quo.

As with all things that sound too good to be true, though, caution is required. If private publishers were entirely cut out of the process, and academic publishing endogenised within the University sector, then who would do the work currently assumed by the publishers (copy editing, marketing, etc.), and how would it be paid for? It seems overly idealistic to presume that moving academic publishing from the corporate sector to the University sector would mean that the profits currently extracted by publishers would be automatically redistributed in some equitable way amongst academics. Rather, in thinking through the consequences of a major shift towards full open-access, in order to anticipate its effects it is necessary to embed this change in a structural analysis of the political economy of higher education more broadly.

This is where I believe the issue of precarity comes in. For whilst open-access has become a cause célèbre within the University sector, rousing the efforts of radical groupings such as OccupyIR as well as the bold gestures of ivy-league institutional activism, a more daunting issue which it intersects is that of the no-pay/underpaid shadow economy propping up the University system in the United States and Great Britain. My worry is that academic publishing could be brought in-house within the University sector in such a way so that the work currently taken on by salaried employees of corporate publishers, such as copy-editing, marketing, general administration and so on, could be passed along as an ‘opportunity’ for graduate students to show ‘good will’ and fill up their CVs (gratis, of course!)

It is therefore essential, in my opinion, to link the debate about open-access with that of other problems imminent to contemporary University life. It is no use demonising corporate publishers and valorising the academy when variations of the same market pressures afflict both institutions. Vice chancellors award themselves percentage pay rises year on year not dissimilar to that seen on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. And indeed, despite the outcry over the extensive and growing use of interns in industry, the University sector is in fact deeply implicated in the trend to prop-up its activities with the use of low/no-pay workers on the promise of the golden ticket towards full time employment.

Advocates of full open-access should be particularly attentive to the latter problem, since the contribution of graduate teaching assistants and those on sessional teaching contracts towards the vital tasks of University life has become an entrenched fact of life within our profession. For example, Michael Bérubé, President of the Modern Language Association, reports the figure of 1 million adjuncts in the United States out of a total of 1.5 million University academic staff. Furthermore, the growth in the number of PhDs relative to the static, or even shrinking market for full time academic hires, is in part due to a growing reliance on casualised labour. The widespread use of graduate teaching assistants in the US and UK, whose show of ‘good will’ provided by working for years as low paid teaching assistants is predicated upon the notion that it is an ‘apprenticeship’ which will ultimately lead to a full-time academic position, looks like a deal struck in bad faith. On aggregate, statistics show that there is increasing over-production of PhD graduates relative to the size of the academic job market supposed to absorb them.

What is the relevance of noting these structural conditions for the universal adoption of open-access? My fear is that unless concerns about precarious labour are taken on board in the push for full open-access, then an expectation that publishing tasks fall under the ‘good will’ component of academic life will govern how the shift is implemented. Under this scenario, graduate students would likely bear the brunt of the transformation, as they take on voluntary journal work in order to compete with one another in the tightening University job market. In the context in which academia is increasingly relying upon underpaid labour to perform its vital functions, open-access heralds the danger of simply transferring yet another dimension of academic life into this grey zone of ‘good will’ contributions.

Of course, it might be countered that present academic publishing arrangements already draw upon free academic labour to support its activities. The problem with this argument is that most of this is sophisticated editorial work undertaken by established academics with secure academic positions. If the laborious tasks of copy-editing, promotion, marketing, etc. are shifted to University departments – i.e. those aspects of the production process not reliant upon academic prestige – they could be much more easily passed down to graduate students than can editorial responsibilities. Consequently, we need to be careful that in pressing for full open-access we also challenge the expectation that the work we take back from publishers does not become a ‘good will’ requirement thrown on the shoulders of graduate students. Full open-access should not become just one more unpaid opportunity for graduates to get a foot in the door of the University sector. As part of pushing for full open-access, we need to insist upon having publishing work acknowledged as a crucial part of University life that should be fairly remunerated – the savings from bringing journal work in-house used to pay University staff working on these publications.

For advocates of full open-access, it is inadequate to rest on our laurels with the prospect of depriving major publishers of their exorbitant profits. Instead, we need to see open-access in terms of how we can use this issue to open up a number of equally, if not more serious, issues blighting academic life. These issues will not go away if we ignore them for being too challenging. If we ignore them, they will just ensure that the transition to open-access becomes a hollow victory for those at the bottom rungs of the University career ladder.

6 thoughts on “The Best Things In Life Are Free?: Open Access Publishing and Academic Precarity

  1. First, great posts. My colleagues, friends, and allies have been talking of thinking about them.

    Does open-access still not leave in place the entrepreneurial arms race that divides academics and creates competitors of everyone, the intellectual war of all, where we literally internalize the civil war displaced to academic affairs? Great, publish the work, create a community of interested readers…but how is it motorized, what does it do, and what actions/outcomes does the work pollinate? I don’t mean to be fuzzy and abstract; the bibliometric research-intensity game is a fucking trap.


  2. How much is known about the profits of commercial academic publishers? How do such companies distribute resources according to their own assessments of the value of particular publications? Are the profits made on some journals leading to real support – e.g. by copy-editors provided by the publisher – for other journals that are academically valuable but inherently unprofitable? How much value to commercial publishers provide in terms of long-term archiving and access?


    • Hi Peter. It’s hard to get concrete answers (partly because companies don’t advertise the profits they make from publicly-provided goods) but the figures I’ve seen and discussed range from 20-40%, which is huge compared to most periodicals. As for value-added this is also debatable, but it seems unlikely that whatever is offered is better than might be achieved through institutional repositories or reimagined university presses.


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