Open Access: HEFCE, REF2020 and the Threat to Academic Freedom

This is the text of a document prepared by Meera and me on Article Processing Charges as currently understood and the serious risks we think they pose to academic freedom and funding, broadly understood (previous discussed by several contributors to our open access series). It is also available as a pdf, and we encourage academics to think carefully about the issues foregrounded, and to act accordingly.

Applegarth Press


  • The Government is pushing academic publishing to a ‘pay-to-say’ model in order to achieve open access to publicly funded research
  • This ‘gold’ route to open access, which levies Article Processing Charges (as proposed in the Finch Report and taken up by RCUK and HEFCE) poses a major problem for academics in the UK:
    • It threatens academic freedom through pressures on institutions to distribute scarce APC resources and to judge work by standards other than peer review
    • It threatens research funding by diverting existing funds into paying for publications (and private journal profits) rather than into research
    • It increases academic inequality both across and within institutions, by linking prestige in research and publishing to the capacity to pay APCs, rather than to academic qualities
    • It threatens academic control of research outputs by allowing for commercial uses without author consent
  • In response, academics should:
    • Practice and lobby for ‘green’ open access of all post-peer reviewed work within journals and institutions
    • Lobby against proposed restrictions on REF2020 and against compliance pressure for ‘gold’ open access
    • Demand clear policies from Universities around open access funds
    • Ensure institutional resources are not unnecessarily spent on APCs
    • Protect the integrity of scholarly journals by rejecting the pressure for ‘pay-to-say’ publishing

Open Access: Rushing Implementation

Many academics have been ardent supporters of the open access principle (that peer-reviewed academic work should be freely available and easily accessible to anyone), and were excited when the Government made steps to advance it. However, it has become clear that the implementation of this policy via REF2020 will have very serious negative consequences for all academic authors and institutions, unless authors and institutions themselves start to take action and make their voices heard. It is critical that academics understand what is happening and lobby our pro-VCs of Research, our VCs and Universities UK to defend both academic freedom and open access.

The timescale for action and decision-making is now incredibly short. Several policies, including that of the Government and of RCUK were declared immediately with the release of the Finch Report, totally accepting its views without wider consultation. HEFCE is going to open and close a very quick consultation period early in 2013 in order to issue guidance ahead of REF2020. Some universities have been given until March 2013 to determine what to do with open access funds that they were given in November. And it was only on 29 November 2012 that the first indications from HEFCE were given as to their intentions, at the Academy of Social Sciences (ACSS) conference on Implementing Finch. The timetable for finalising the details of this complex policy is thus extremely short and does not allow for adequate discussion of its serious consequences. Despite this, academics can still play an important role in resisting the threats posed.

So, What is Happening?

In summary, academic journals are being moved from a ‘pay-to-read’ model to a ‘pay-to-say’ model.

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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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Open Access, Harvard Delight Edition

An extraordinary and delightful communiqué from Harvard on journal pricing has surfaced (early reactions here and here and here). It was actually issued almost a week back, but the Twitter hive mind (or my corner of it) appears only now to have noticed (h/t to JamieSW for that). The contents are pretty extraordinary, even too good to be true. The preamble is brutal about the current state of the journal system, observing that Harvard spent almost $3.75 million last year on bundled journal provision from some publishers (10% of all collection costs and 20% of all periodical costs for 2010); that “profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles”; that “[t]he Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds”; and that “[i]t is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive” (I’m guessing one provider at least is Elsevier).

Then some options-cum-recommendations for Faculty are laid out:

1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies.

2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.

3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning.

4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues.

5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations.

6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options.

7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals.

8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system.

9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public.

Note in particular point 3. Harvard is asking its academics to seriously consider resigning from major journals if substantive good-faith moves are not made towards open access or “sustainable subscription costs” (read: a major reversal of current practice). As previously suggested, only serious insurgencies within major centres of academic prestige will undo the private stranglehold on knowledge-in-common. On those grounds, I’m tempted to giddy excitement. The question, of course, is which other major institutions (and which serious academic figures) will have the solidarity and good sense to follow this example. As a rallying point, social sciences and social theory need some version of The Cost Of Knowledge manifesto that spans the entire issue of journals and knowledge production. At the very least, we now have a new rhetorical device: open access is good enough for Harvard: why isn’t it good enough for you?

The Racial Empire of International Relations

Primarily, our action is based on national self-interest. In other words, it is patriotic. A certain limited number of persons are fond of decrying patriotism as a selfish virtue, and strive with all their feeble might to inculcate in its place a kind of milk-and-water cosmopolitanism. These good people are never men of robust character or imposing personality, and the plea itself is not worth considering. Some reformers may urge that in the ages’ distant future patriotism, like the habit of monogamous marriage, will become a needless and obsolete virtue; but just at present the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife. Love of country is an elemental virtue, like love of home, or like honesty or courage. No country will accomplish very much for the world at large unless it elevates itself. The useful member of a community is the man who first and foremost attends to his own rights and his own duties, and who therefore becomes better fitted to do his share in the common duties of all. The useful member of the brotherhood of nations is that nation which is most thoroughly saturated with the national idea, and which realizes most fully its rights as a nation and its duties to its own citizens.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Monroe Doctrine (1896)

Roosevelt’s imperial condescension is but one of the historical anecdotes mobilised in a recent paper by Robert Vitalis to trace the legacy of empire and race in the development of International Relations as a discipline. Although eschewing a direct critique of the contemporary field (since “the likelihood is small that self-identified specialists in international relations will seek out an account of the discipline’s past in a journal that has no standing in the field”), he nevertheless provides a wealth of historical detail on the complicity of scholarly ancestors in ‘colonial administration’ and its attendant euphemisms.

Take A. Lawrence Lowell, a political ‘scientist’ who went on become President of Harvard and used that lofty perch to impose a  dormitory colour bar for freshman in 1915 (and a man now also revealed as the convener of homophobic secret trials). A proponent of professionalised training for colonial administrators, Lowell also set legal arguments before Congress explaining that the requirements of the Constitution need not be upheld in those violently-acquired territories where the racial capacities of the indigenes fell short of proper statehood. And, like a rather more recent over-flattered Harvard globetrotter, he was particularly interested in the wisdom to be gleaned for such bold endeavours from British experiments

Or take the institutional delivery rooms of International Relations itself. At the first ever APSA conference in 1904, ‘Colonial Administration’ was designated one of the five fundamental branches of Politics. One prominent speaker that September was William Frank Willoughby, an APSA founder, its 10th President, and the author of Territories and Dependencies of the United States (1905). He crafted this work in a particularly applied setting (pay heed ye  assembled bridgers of theory and practice), serving as both Treasurer and Secretary of Puerto Rico from 1901-1907. It seems reasonable to assume that auto-ethnographic reflexivity did not feature heavily in his work. A decade later he became director of a new research body, soon re-christened as The Brookings Institution.

And what of our learned fora? Perhaps most symbolically of all, the debates over the proper governing of lesser peoples were carried out in the discipline’s first publication, The Journal of Race Development. It was founded in 1910 by G. Stanley Hall, who headed up a centre on the psychology of the races at Clark University, and who also pioneered the idea that the developmental stages of individual humans mirror the hierarchies of race, with children being to adults as savages are to the civilized. The twist being that in 1922 The Journal of Race Development became Foreign Affairs, still the go-to publication on global ‘administration’ (although this particular legacy is mysteriously absent from its current autobiography).

Several general themes emerge from the detail. First, far from positing states as the central actors of global politics, the comprador intellectuals of the early 20th century saw race, both within and without the United States, as the salient frontier. The earliest IR scholars all included American racial relations (to wit, the Southern ‘Negro problem’) within their disciplinary remit. In a racial supremacist twist on W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘colour line’ “the world’s biological boundaries mattered much more to theory-building than did territorial boundaries”.

Second, the centrality of race as a category was not a mere function of scientific ignorance. Continue reading