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The great Open Access swindle

October 22, 2012 in Featured, Ideas and musings, Open Access

This week is Open Access week, and we’ll be running a few pieces mulling over where Open Access has got to, and where it’s going. Here Martin Weller discusses some reservations…

The Cunning Thief, by Chocarne-Moreau. PD

Just to be clear from the outset, I am an advocate for open access, and long ago took a stance to only publish OA and to only review for OA. I’m not suggesting here that open access is itself a swindle, but rather that the current implementation, in particular commercial publishers adopting Gold OA, is problematic.

In my digital scholarship book, I made two pleas, the first was for open access publishing, and the second was for scholars to own the process of change. On this second point, the book ends thus:

“This is a period of transition for scholarship, as significant as any other in its history, from the founding of universities to the establishment of peer review and the scientific method. It is also a period that holds tension and even some paradoxes: it is both business as usual and yet a time of considerable change; individual scholars are being highly innovative and yet the overall picture is one of reluctance; technology is creating new opportunities while simultaneously generating new concerns and problems…. …For scholars it should not be a case of you see what goes, you see what stays, you see what comes, but rather you *determine* what goes, what stays and what comes.”

The open access element has proceeded faster than even I imagined when writing this back in 2010/2011. The Finch Report can be seen as the crowning achievement of the open access movement, in setting out a structure for all UK scholarly articles to be published as open access. But in rather typical “you academics are never happy” mode I’ve become increasingly unhappy about the route Open Access is taking. And the reason is that it fails to meet the second of my exhortations, in that it is a method being determined by the publishing industry and not by academics themselves.

The favoured route is that of Gold OA, under which authors pay publishers to have open access articles published, usually through research funds. This is good in that it means these research papers will be openly available to all, but bad from a digital scholarship perspective. And here’s why:

1) Ironically, openness may lead to elitism. If you need to pay to publish, then, particularly in cash-strapped times, it becomes something of a luxury. New researchers, or smaller universities won’t have these funds available. Many publishers have put in waivers for new researchers (PLoS are excellent at this), but there’s no guarantee of these, and after all, the commercial publishers are concerned with maximising profits. If there are enough paying customers around then it’s not in their interest to give out too many freebies. And it also means richer universities can flood journals with articles. Similarly those with research grants can publish, as this is where the funding will come from, and those without can’t. This will increase competition in an already ludicrously competitive research funding regime. You’re either in the boat or out of it will be the outcome. The Scholarly Kitchen blog has a good piece on OA increasing the so-called Matthew Effect. It would indeed be a strange irony if those of us who have been calling for open access because of a belief in wider access and a more democratic knowledge society end up creating a self-perpetuating elite.

2) It will create additional cost. Once the cost is shifted to research funders, then the author doesn’t really care about the price. There is no strong incentive to keep costs down or find alternative funding mechanisms. This is great news for publishers who must be rubbing their hands with glee. It is not only a licence to carry on as they were, but they have successfully fended off the threat of free publication and dissemination that the internet offers. Music industry moguls must be looking on with envy. The cost for publication is shifted to taxpayers (who ultimately fund research) or students (if it comes out of university money). The profits and benefits stay with the publishers. It takes some strained squinting to view this as a victory.

Steven Harnad argues again for Green OA, claiming that

“Publishers– whose primary concern is not with maximizing research usage and progress but with protecting their current revenue streams and modus operandi –are waiting for funders or institutions to pledge the money to pay Gold OA publishing fees. But research funds are scarce and institutional funds are heavily committed to journal subscriptions today. There is no extra money to pay for Gold OA fees”

3) It doesn’t promote change – in my book I also talked about how a digital, networked and open approach could change what we perceive as research, and that much of our interpretation of research was dictated by the output forms we have. So, for instance we could see smaller granularity of outputs, post review, different media formats, all beginning to change our concept of what research means. But Gold OA that reinforces the power of commercial publishers, simply maintains a status quo, and keeps the peer-reviewed 5000 word article as the primary focus of research that must be attained.

I’ve heard Stephen Downes say that as soon as any form of commercial enterprise touches education it ruins it (or words to that effect). I wouldn’t go that far, I think for instance that commercial companies often make a better job of software and technology than universities, but academic publishing is such an odd business that maybe it doesn’t make sense as a commercial enterprise. As David Wiley so nicely parodies in his trucker’s parable, there isn’t really another industry like it. Academics (paid by the taxpayer or students) provide free content, and then the same academics provide free services (editorship and peer-review) and then hand over rights and ownership to a commercial company, who provide a separate set of services, and then sell back the content to the same group of academics.

I know a few people who work in commercial publishing, and they are smart, good people who genuinely care about promoting knowledge and publishing as a practice. This is not a cry for such people to be out on the streets, but rather for their skills and experience to be employed by and for universities, the research communities and the taxpayer rather than for shareholders. In this business Downes’ contamination theory seems to hold, there is simply no space in the ecosystem for profit to exist, and when it does it corrupts the whole purpose of the enterprise, which is to share and disseminate knowledge.

Gold OA is not inherently detrimental. There are plenty of non-profit publishers who operate this model and they keep costs down to a minimum and have a generous fee waiver policy. They are, after all, not concerned with making a profit, and are concerned with knowledge dissemination. Other models exist also, including subsidised university presses, centralised publishing platforms, etc. The swindle is that there is no real incentive to explore these possibilities because the standard model has been reinforced through the manner in which OA has been implemented. As Tim O’Reilly comments “If we’re going to get science policy right, it’s really important for us to study the economic benefit of open access and not just accept the arguments of incumbents”.

[An earlier version of this post was originally posted on Martin Weller's blog]

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