Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Open Access a threat to academic freedom?

It is no secret to people following my academic writings or this blog for that matter: I am no great fan of Open Access. Its low barriers to market entry have led to a proliferation of dodgy OA outfits that by now easily outnumber the decent OA publishers, and there is no end in sight.  Beall's List of Predatory Publishers flags the magnitude of the problem at hand. Budding academics and those not quite competitive enough to actually get published in decent journals fall prey to their money making schemes in breathtaking numbers. There's more to be said about the business as well as academic flaws of current OA business models, but that isn't the topic of this blog entry.

Recently humanities scholars have woken up to the threat that OA causes to their academic freedom to publish, or so they claim. At the heart of their complaint is this: A whole bunch of research funders insist that the research they fund must be published in an OA journal. Several problems with this: It is probably fair to say that there are only a handful - if that many - decent OA humanities journals out there, and they likely are not in medieval history. If scholars in those disciplines whose work is publicly funded were forced to publish in whatever OA 'journal' (aka webserver) exists in their discipline they would effectively be forced to publish in a location where - really - they would not want to be seen dead. Subscription based journals - often needed to fund academic society activities, something conveniently forgotten in the rush to the economic bottom pit that is OA - would see their submission base diminished as funded academics would no longer be able to choose them as their preferred outlets.

Truth be told, most humanities published research these days isn't funded research to begin with. This is the reason why OA hasn't taken off in our neck of the woods. However, many of us are working in public universities, our salaries are fully or partially funded by taxpayer $$. Forcing us to submit to OA outlets the moment we get our hands on the meagre research funds that are out there for us, would have detrimental consequences for our ability to communicate our findings to colleagues, because they would have to look for our work in the dodgiest of places. It would likely have a deleterious effect on the places (specialist journals with often low circulation) where we discuss and advance our research. It would also likely destroy the viability of some academic societies. Subscription based journal publisher now frequently offer OA options, proposing fairly high fees (>3000$ isn't unusual) to those with spare cash. I must say that I like this idea a lot, because it keeps established loci of academic conversations alive and kicking. I am not so sure what this means in the long-term for the viability of their subscription business model though. Say, if you would make 50% of content in a given volume OA, why should any librarian continue paying the full subscription fee for a journal that's available half-way to anyone who isn't a subscriber. There are undoubtedly challenges ahead, suffice it to say though that I like these latter developments both as an author as an editor.

Some universities have begun to offer funding to humanities researchers who have no external research funding but want to submit to OA publications. Obviously this is only sustainable if dramatic cut-backs at the subscription journals front happen, or if you work for a bank (Harvard, Princeton, Oxbride, etc). Humanities scholars are well-advised to monitor carefully what's happening in their research publishing domains as governments and research funders have decided to revolutionise the way we communicate our research fundings to each other, whether we like it or not. I do think there's a potential threat to our academic freedom to publish in a location of our choosing, but it doesn't seem to be as dramatic as some academics make it to be. After all, there ARE other ways to communicate your work to the world and your colleagues, for instance via social networking, blogging, repositories such as SSRN, academia.edu, university based OA repositories and so on and so forth. Of course, should you need an actual academic job, you'll find that these sorts of outlets are not going to get you one... Incidentally, at least for the humanities this is true also for pretty much any OA (online only) publication you chose to go for.

Post scriptum: As an aside, it seems university libraries have been at the forefront of pushing for OA. Makes one wonder, in time of diminishing library funds, whether that's a classic example of having your cake and eating it. Be that as it may, it turns out, the same libraries have also been busy robbing students of their copyright to their own research theses stored on library servers. Remakable times!


  1. I agree that requirements to publish in open access journals are premature.

    But it really requires almost nothing to start you own journal. All you need is a university willing to host it and someone who has mastered the basics of HTML or latex or something similar - and willing to commit the time. All those medievalists who are worried should just start their own journals.

  2. I think a big part of the requirements from the funding agencies is to put pressure on the journals to open up, and most of the requirements can be satisfied by archiving the articles that get published, which many, many journals now accommodate. I think that dressing this up as an affront to academic freedom is perhaps a bit dramatic; the point really is to have your research read, cited, and acknowledged. If that is based on where you publish it, then this just demonstrates that we have a system with a well-established proxy for quality, an issue that is related to Impact Factor and all its flaws, etc etc.


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