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.

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Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

It took at least 200 years for the novel to emerge as an expressive form after the invention of the printing press.

So said Bob Stein in an interesting roundtable on the digital university from back in April 2010. His point being that the radical transformations in human knowledge and communication practices wrought by the internet remain in their infancy. Our learning curves may be steeper but we haven’t yet begun to grapple with what the collapsing of old forms of social space means. We tweak and vary the models that we’re used to, but are generally cloistered in the paradigms of print.

When it comes to the university, and to the journal system, this has a particular resonance. Academics find themselves in a strange and contradictory position. They are highly valued for their research outputs in the sense that this is what determines their reputation and secures their jobs (although this is increasingly the value of the faux-market and the half-assed quality metric). This academic authority, won by publications, is also, to some extent, what makes students want to work with them and what makes them attractive as experts for government, media and civil society. They are also highly valued in a straight-forward economic sense by private publishing houses, who generate profit from the ability to sell on the product of their labour (books and articles) at virtually no direct remuneration, either for the authors or for those peer reviewers who guarantee a work’s intellectual quality. And yet all (OK, most) also agree that virtually nobody reads this work and that peer review is hugely time-consuming, despite being very complicated in its effects. When conjoined with the mass noise of information overload and the extension and commercialisation of higher education over the last decades, our practices of research, dissemination and quality control begin to take on a ludicrous hue. As Clifford Lynch nicely puts it, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”.

This is an attempt to explore in more detail what the potentialities and limits are for academic journals in the age of digital reproduction. Once we bracket out the sedimented control of current publishers, and think of the liveliness of intellectual exchange encountered through blogs and other social media, a certain hope bubbles up. Why not see opportunity here? Perhaps the time is indeed ripe for the rebirth of the university press, as Martin Weller argues:

the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we’ve always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

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