The Great Open Access Swindle


In my digital scholarship book, I make two pleas, the first is for open access publishing, and the second is for scholars to own the process of change. I've never been great at a rousing finish, but 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 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, ie it is a method being determined by the publishing industry and not by academics themselves.

The favoured route is that of Gold OA – ie 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:

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 has a good piece of 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.

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"

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 begining 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 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.



  • AmSciForum

    Making peer-reviewed research freely accessible online to all users, not just those whose institutions can afford subscriptions, is not a swindle. It is a great benefit to research, researchers, and the public that funds the research.
    “Green” Open Access can be provided cost-free by authors self-archiving their peer-reviewed final drafts, free for all online, in their Open Access (OA) institutional repositories. Research institutions and funders worldwide accordingly need to mandate (require) Green OA.
    “Gold” OA can be provided by journals making their articles accessible online, free for all, but many charge the author a fee for this.
    It is not Gold OA nor the author fee for Gold OA that is a swindle either. It is “hybrid Gold OA,” which is when a subscription publisher continues to collect subscriptions, forbids or embargoes Green OA, but offers Gold OA for an extra author fee. This is double-paying for OA (via multi-institutional subscriptions plus an individual author fee), for individual articles only.
    And the worst of it is that in the UK the publisher lobby has recently managed to persuade the government, and hence the government research funders, to mandate Gold OA instead of Green OA (which is what the UK’s funders and institutions had formerly led the world in mandating since 2005). Although the wording of the new policy is unclear, it seems to state that researchers may only choose a journal that allows cost-free Green OA if the journal does not offer Gold OA; if it does offer Gold OA, UK researchers must pick and pay for Gold OA, out of scarce research funds.
    That is not just a swindle but a boondoggle by publishers and a colossal bungle by UK policy makers. It will fail in the UK, but it will take another 5 years to realize that. Meanwhile, even in failure, because it will encourage subscription publishers the world over to offer hybrid Gold OA at the same time as lengthening their Green OA embargoes to make sure UK authors need to pick and pay for the hybrid Gold option, it will impede the progress of Green OA mandates worldwide.
    The only antidote is a global hue and cry from researchers and the tax-paying public, and the adoption of Green OA mandates by funders and institutions worldwide.

  • Geoffstead

    Fascinating point of view. But what is the answer? Surely it must be to create a viable alternative to the commercial publishers, that still offers some of the channels to readership?
    Isn’t this what people like try to do?
    Set up as a not-for-profit by academics at Cambridge University, they seem to be “Green Plus”. In that they allow whatever model an academic wants, but try to seek funds from a diverse range of sources to keep afloat.
    I am no expert in the murky waters of Academic publishing, but surely this model (either by them, or others) is a good solution? By aggregating many authors, you can build the momentum to get free ebooks into libraries (not easy), or build a recognised brand.

  • mweller

    @AmSciForum – yes I take your point. A few people have interpreted my post as being completely anti-Gold OA, so I obviously didn’t explain it well. As I said obviously access to articles for everyone is a good thing and something I’ve been fighting for for many years. I’m not fundamentally opposed to Gold OA, but the elitism problem is very real. My main issue is with commercial companies in the mix. I think Gold OA is okay if we have non-profits like PLoS, who are very happy to waive the fee – as long as this is well known, then the issue is less problematic. But if you have to make a return for shareholders then why would companies promote the fee waiver?
    As you say hybrid Gold OA is really taking the mickey though.
    @Geoff – yes, I think not-for-profits are the key, or university presses, so some staff time is allocated to publishing activity and tech support from university funds (through libraries, or research councils). I think there are LOTS of models we could explore, which is why the Finch report is so disappointing as it just seeks to maintain the status quo but with added OA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *