Open Access done wrong

Some of the posts I have queued up from last year are now looking sort of irrelevant. I’m not sure this isn’t one of them, because as I will conclude the debate is now moving on, and because it represents a reply I wrote in May 2013 to a blog post written in February 2013 responding to various other documents and reports from earlier that year, but still, the debate is active, and I hope to catch up on it soon, and meanwhile my starting position might as well go on record, I guess? The basic position to which I seem to be developing is, the Anglophone world doesn’t know how to do open access, and until it does pursuing that agenda may serve some ugly outcomes.

Open Access seal

It’s a good graphic, but does it really tell us that this debate is going to be pursued solely by rational evaluation of outcomes?

The starting point for me here was a post at Historian on the Edge, here, itself expanding on a comment on a post at Modern Medieval where I also commented, so you can see where I was starting from there if you like. At that point Historian on the Edge had lately been locked down to allow comments only from Google accounts, and I didn’t want to get one just to chime in there, so I stubbed my draft comment here as a post and expected it to be up rather soon than this! The Historian on the Edge post had done a sharp job pointing out the damage that author-pays models of open access publishing might do to the careers of new or less established scholars, and pointed everybody to a then-recent open letter by the President of the Royal Historical Society on the issue which made some of the same points. (And that in turn links to many other documents including one from the American Historical Association also reckoning that the model looks bad for history, and which also seems canny to me.) Anyway, to his points I then wanted to add this:

“I’m glad to see this issue getting a higher profile, and even gladder to see the RHS actually doing something, even if it is essentially to look out for its own activities. All the same, I find it exasperating that what they call for is a ‘debate’, and a debate to be conducted almost entirely between ourselves. Surely the correct response is a stand against the idea, given that many of its qualities as proposed are so pernicious? Is there much to debate? (I think that in this respect the Open Access agenda is the cloth over the conjuror’s hand.) This has so far happened with almost all the government’s proposed reforms, but the appropriate response to this kind of thing is surely not, ‘Let’s all talk amongst ourselves about how we can compromise with the government,’ it’s ‘This is awful and it should not stand‘. The issue that should be making us all jump, as you correctly say, is: ‘Where’s the money going to come from for us to do this?’ The answer appears to be: ‘Why, from you yourselves! We will not be giving any extra money for this.’ Indeed, I can’t see any reply to that question that would make more sense than, ‘Since you will be buying far fewer expensive journals you can all cut your library’s subscription budgets and use it to fund self-publication!’ Firstly, and weakest, that’s unlikely to happen: the library budgets may be cut but the savings won’t make it to academics. Secondly, of course, what you also touch on, this assumes that we never need to read anything by people from countries who still publish with publishers, which is not how research works; perhaps Willetts & co. still think that all work worth reading on any academic field comes from the Empire? And, thirdly, peer review doesn’t like self-publication and I can’t see how it ever will. But is there any other way in which going to an APR model is actually going to be cheaper for institutions and, more especially, for those without institutional support for their work?

Open Access debate graphic

It’s great that there’s an international movement to make top-quality knowledge fully accessible, don’t get me wrong, but it will have to be answered nationally, not internationally

“I’m still not sure that this government actually has a higher education policy, and it gets clearer and clearer that the coalition aspect of it is preventing them actually forming policy, but if there is one, I think it might best be seen as privatisation by strangulation, by raising the costs of public funding so high that eventually universities decide to do without. Since the managerial class of most universities see size, turnover and income as more important than viability, however, that particular decision will be very far off for most of them. None of it looks as if they think it might be important to have expertise on things somewhere in the country.”

There are a lot of things there that I think I would now put differently, especially in the last paragraph and not least because of a lot of time spent debating such issues with the authors of a new and recent publication on these issues done for the British Academy (who have got involved at last) that I have yet to read fully.* When I have I hope to write more on this, but that delay means there’s time for exactly the kind of debate I was disparaging a year ago! I suppose the key issues I still see as worth pursuing in that comment are not so much about open access as about publishing and the academy, and they are these:

  1. Peer review costs a lot in terms of time but is terribly remunerated; we cannot easily make it more expensive but neither can we do without it. It seems to me that since the only part of the mechanism into which money systematically goes is the publishing industry, it is them we should be looking at to bear those costs.
  2. Academic research is an international operation, as are most of the biggest publishers interested in it, but its components are nationally funded and vulnerable to political concerns of an entirely uninterested kind, as we see here; the main agenda here is that the Tories would like to be paying a lot less government money for the university system they want, as far as I can see, rather than any clear ideas of what that system should be or how to achieve that.
  3. This is the issue it is not least because the UK academy has no adequate means of resistance or debate to such policies, since its representative bodies like Universities UK are too entrenched in competition for the increasingly limited public money there is to be able to band together to find alternative ways to support academic research, giving them neither interest nor ability to lobby the government with better ways to build excellence in intellectual endeavours.
  4. Given all these factors, I think that the current shift towards open access, while laudable in motivation and intent, is one of the forces that’s going to break the current model of the academy, academic careers and academic publication and I really think therefore that we should have some kind of alternatives ready before we give in to it!

On that last, I have more old thoughts to be updated which will follow in a couple of posts’ time. On the others though, I am very much open to debate. What are your thoughts?


* Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science (London 2014), following up on Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013).

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One response to “Open Access done wrong

  1. Pingback: Models for a public academy | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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