Last time I mentioned that an upcoming session would be dedicated to Open Access (use title case and you signify the movement, or Movement), and session 6 was it. We had an excellent presentation from Martin Eve, who has written a book on the subject which, thanks to its being open access, you can read for free online.
As he said in his presentation, the trouble with allowing people to read your book for free online is that people will assume it’s rubbish. But as you look into how scholarly publishing – both journal and monograph – is financed, and the consequences those conventions have, it becomes clear that it is a subject worth questioning, at the very least.
The whole thing goes round in a big circle so it’s not always clear where to begin but let’s start with the academic researchers who write up and publish the results of their work. Such people tend to be employed by universities which, in Europe at least, are essentially state-funded. In fact, where the money comes from to make the research possible is not all that important because, under the conventional publishing model, anyone who wants to read that output has to pay to do so, whether they helped to fund it or not. In practice, university libraries spend large proportions of their budgets subscribing to packages of scholarly journals and purchasing print and ebook monographs from their corporate publishers for the use of their students and staff. One of the advantages of being a paid-up student is that you get online access to a wealth of scholarly material that is not available to other people.
So, count one: work that would benefit everyone is not freely available to everyone, even to those who contributed to making it happen. Count two: accessing it enriches corporate publishers (the largest publishing groups make substantial profits). As having an article accepted by a scholarly journal also tends to entail giving up the copyright on said article, researchers sometimes find that they cannot even access or reuse their own work in its final published form without paying to do so. Let’s call that count three.
It should also be stated that there is – to take UK higher education as an example – an overwhelming imperative to publish for any ‘research active’ university employee. Ratings and funding flow from having the greatest ‘impact’, which means research output that is read and cited in other works. Because of this, the body that allocates taxpayers’ money to such things HEFCE mandates that the results of its funding must be published open access. In practice this means a form of open access known as Green, by which the author is required to upload a pre-print (text before final formatting) to his/her institution’s repository (digital library).
Yes, you’ve guessed it – the publishing process otherwise works in the conventional way. The alternative to this is Gold open access, in which the publisher forgoes charging for access by instead charging for publication. Again, something that – rightly or wrongly – comes with an air of suspicion, especially in scholarly publishing. If you have to pay to publish something, is its merit for publication overlooked?
The debate continues, not least because for monographs, which constitute a greater proportion of scholarly output in the humanities, open access is less developed. There is also the fact that many scholars – not least because the funding system rewards it – want to publish in the most exclusive journals, which have little motive to adopt any form of open access.
Assumptions and prejudices need to change for open access and its benefits to become conventional. Publishers certainly add value and those costs must be met. Fortunately, it looks like the movement towards making more information more available is, at least, on the right path.