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. Continue reading