Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What open access evangelists often miss about the task at hand

Posted 12 Oct 2015 / 4

info-designIf you look at who I am as an academic, you would think that I should be among the most ardent supporters of Open Access publishing. After all, the proliferation of open access would solve a lot of problems for me. As a scientist who teaches at a school of art, design, and architecture, access to the scientific literature is an issue. Our academic library does as good a job as it can to provide its faculty and students with academic journal resources, including many in the sciences. But like so many other small, financially-challenged educational institutions, Pratt Institute just cannot afford to subscribe to the full collection of academic journals that would provide our campus community with a complete library. We are one of the many shades of the academically disenfranchised, those who are at least partially locked out by the subscription-based model of academic publishing. My students can’t get access to the full academic literature and I can’t get access to the full academic literature. It is a problem, and this problem would be seemingly solved if the entire academic literature suddenly was made open access.

Recently a possible “solution” to the open access problem was brought to my attention by this tweet:

Which refers to this thread by influential blogger/writer Cory Doctorow:

It is a bit hard to follow Doctorow’s long-form argument on the short-form medium of Twitter, so I will try to fairly summarize it here. Basically Doctorow suggests that we capitalize on the fact that many universities have maintained intellectual property (IP) policies that give them ownership of their faculty’s academic output. If you are an academic, I encourage you to look into your institution’s IP policy: it is often a bit scary what they claim to own by virtue of giving you an academic home. Putting aside where the line between “professor’s IP” and “university’s IP” ought to be, what Doctorow claims is that many universities have the legal right to claim published academic journal publications as their own intellectual property. As such, academics have been “giving away” their work to subscription-based journal publishers under false pretenses: the academics don’t actually own their IP, so they cannot assign copyright (and therefore the right to charge subscription fees for access) to publishers. Doctorow would have a large university that is home to many prominent published professors sue the subscription-based publishers for an unholy amount of damages and then “settle” for having all past journal publications made open access. Of course this would break the business model of the subscription-based publishers and put them out of business immediately; that’s the big idea of the plan, and how it would make open access publishing the only game in town.

I cannot assess the feasibility of this plan, either from a legal perspective (Would the legal standing of a university allow it to successfully sue publishers in the suggested manner?) or a practical perspective (Would any university see bringing such a suit as being in its best interest?). But immediately I could see that such a plan would have unintended consequences that would not be so great for people in my situation.

I responded to David Soergel‘s excited tweet about Doctorow’s “plan” with the following concern:

Soergel was not at all convinced by my argument, tweeting back:

I tried in my response to bring out the downside of Doctorow’s plan:

Damn phone (plus poor proofreading on my part) changed “publish” to “punish”, but Soergel still figured out what I was saying:

Realizing that I was not going to get too far debating on Twitter — where single words like “nonsense” and “obviously” stand in for actual explanation and information sharing — I decided to write this post.

Why am I not enthusiastic about lining up at the university gates, torch in hand alongside Soergel and Doctorow, to demand that some brave educational institution sue the subscription-based academic publishers out of existence? Well, the brief answer is that I am not convinced that simply eliminating subscription-based publishers would make the world of academic publishing a better place.

To understand my concerns, you need to look beyond my obvious interest in open access publishing as a consumer of the academic literature and understand my position as a potential producer of academic literature. It’s this side of the publishing ecosystem that the open access evangelists often do not consider, especially from the perspective of marginalized academics.

When I go to submit my academic work to a journal, of course I would like to submit it to an open access journal. But I have a little problem: as an academic at a teaching-focused, non-research institution, I am a lot less likely to have grant funding to support my research, including page charges. Including requests for funding to cover page charges — which make open access publishing possible — is quickly becoming standard for researchers who frequently get government and other grants. To these very successful academics, especially in the sciences, the budget for page charges is just a tiny fraction of the overall grant, which I imagine makes these charges seem “minor”. But for those of us who do not have funding for our work, page charges represent an additional barrier to publishing.

As my post on where to publish in ecology & evolution without funding for page charges (which could use a good updating… take advantage of the CC-BY-SA copyright on this site somebody!) makes clear, there’s a nearly-direct correlation between lacking page charges and being a closed (in other words, subscription-based) journal. That places marginalized academics in a really uncomfortable place: the very journals that we cannot access through our academic libraries are the most economically-viable place for us to publish. That’s lame, but that is the reality. So there is a defensible reason to “support” closed journals: for many of us, subscription-based journals are the only place where we can publish our scholarship.

Now I know that some of you may be saying to yourself at this point but the open access journals have a solution to this problem, because academics without funding can ask to have page charges waived. While in principle this is true — but not always — in practice it is often not true. Sure, on occasion a submitted article can be both good enough to get into the open access journal and one of the few that get published without page charges. But competition to be in open access journals has made them more selective, and based on their business model they can only publish a small percentage of articles that don’t pay. This reality emerges from a simple fact: even electronically, publishing costs money. This post on Dynamic Ecology does a good job of explaining the economics of publishing, emphasizing that someone has to pay for publishing.

Subscription-based publishing is paid for by the larger (in other words, more economically privileged) educational institutions. It is pretty weird, but when I publish in most closed journals, students, alumni, and other donors from some other university are paying to have my scholarship put into “print”; they also are the only ones who get to read it. I would be the first to point out that this is odd, and not ideal. But what is the alternative? Well, in my eyes the alternative would be to gain some other funding source to support the publication of my work. I imagine that the students/alumni/donors that make rich universities rich are not going to turn around and say “sure, we will keep paying into the system but now everyone can have access to the journals we support”: part of the point of funding your favorite educational institution is to give it an exclusive edge on other institutions! Otherwise wouldn’t you just volunteer to pay more taxes, or give money to an open access publisher? (Many are non-profits, so this is not such a bad idea, but I am not sure that this National Public Radio model is going to fully fund all academic publishing).

The problem with the Doctorow plan for making all publishing open access is that in the absence of securing some other funding source it would seriously decrease the number of open avenues for future academic publishing. Basically a lot of the articles that are published in subscription journals — especially the for-profit ones — would no longer be published, because the funding for a large segment of our current publishing would suddenly disappear. For this reason it is not so “obvious” that we have the infrastructure to maintain the current rate of academic publishing solely on an open access model. Before we just find a tricky and clever way to knock off the closed publishers, we have to have a viable plan for replacing closed publishing with more open publishing.

I think that there is a hidden — and perhaps subconscious — elitism that pervades much of the open access movement. Is it possible that I am the first person to notice that a certain segment of more-marginalized academic publication would be threatened by the elimination of subscription-funded publication? I doubt it! I think that many who advocate for nothing but open access right now would be fine with this segment of academic publishing disappearing. After all, if these academics who currently publish in closed journals cannot get funding for page charges, what they publish must not be all that valuable, right? In answer to that question I say: hold on there snooty. To assume that the only good academic work is fundable academic work is to ignore the diversity of ways that different academics operate. And wasn’t one of the ideas behind open access to increase diversity by increasing access? Simply chopping off a large limb of the academic publishing tree reduces access to the production of academic literature in the name of increasing access to the consumption of academic literature. I sure hope that the open access movement amounts to more than a bunch of elites trying to increase the number of people consuming their work!

Celebrity “activists” like Doctorow trade in these sorts of easy, pseudo-radical solutions: it sounds good — and terribly bad ass — until you actually think it through. I think that what Doctorow has proposed is nothing more than stunt, and I am sad to see anyone who really believes in open access fall for such a stunt. I am really thankful to those academics — including David Soergel — who are open access evangelists (that’s why I was watching the Open Science Twitter feed to begin with). But let our activism be substantial and real enough to tackle the actual problem we have: we need a new model for funding academic publishing. It is fine to despise the subscription-based publishers, especially those who profit off of the largely-unpaid work of academics. But we have to recognize that closed publishing exists because we have allowed terrible inequities to be perpetuated since well before there ever was a way to distribute open access articles on the web. I am old enough to remember when a “subscription” to an academic journal literally meant having the paper copy on the library shelves, and back then the problem of access was arguably worse… if you could not get into a big academic library, you had scarce prospects for accessing the academic literature.

Now the problem is how to pay for modern electronic publishing. We have shed the costs associated with turning trees into dusty tomes, but there are still a lot of costs associated with publishing, including some new costs (maintaining websites that distribute content being a big one). Sadly a lot of really valuable work by academic editors and reviewers still goes unpaid. What we really need is to ask our society at large to pony up more money to support academic publishing, but that kind of revolution is a whole lot less sexy than Doctorow’s solution, which he so cleverly compressed into just a small series of tweets. The actual work of realizing the open access revolution is going to take a whole lot more work.

What I have written above represents my current understanding of the academic publishing landscape, including the sphere of open access. I am no expert in academic publishing, I am just another academic with a particular perspective on why we have the current system that we do. As you can see, I have thought a lot about this issue, but I am open to seeing new perspectives. If there is something really critical about the present or future of academic publishing that I have missed, please let me know with a comment below.

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4 Comments to "What open access evangelists often miss about the task at hand"

Chris Jensen 13th October 2015 at 8:41 am

Via Twitter, I have already gotten some interesting feedback on my ideas from Gregor Kalinkat:

To which I responded:

And Kalinkat came back with:

I think that the fact that this one open access journal, PeerJ, has pushed down the cost of open access publishing so much is a really great proof of concept. I am really curious to learn more about their business model, in particular how this journal is so cheap in comparison with others. Where is all that extra money going for a journal like PLoS ONE?! Is it really possible that PeerJ is run in a way that is just fifteen times more efficient than PLoS ONE, or does an author lose something by publishing with this cheaper option? Anyone know?

Vis-a-vis my concerns above, I also have two other questions:

  1. How difficult is it to publish in PeerJ? Are they only looking for really high-impact studies? If so, scientists doing important-but-not-so-sexy work are still going to be heading to the closed journals.
  2. Can a journal like PeerJ really take all the “business” now exploited by the closed journals? I think that we need to acknowledge progress on realizing the universal open access dream, but that is not the same as being ready to pull off Doctorow’s subscription-based armageddon with no adverse consequences.
Gregor 13th October 2015 at 9:19 am

Hi Christopher,

thanks for posting our exchange here. I’ll quickly add a few thoughts on the points you raised; when comparing the price between PLOS and PeerJ you have to have several things in mind:

  1. PeerJ charges per author and the 99$ only allow you to publish one article per year.
  2. The average cost for first time publishing is around 450$ (because of avg numbers of co-authors) according to THE: although this number migth have changed a bit (there are “premium memberships” available where you pay a higher price and can publish more articles per year)
  3. Most importantly: PLOS ONE was installed during very different times which causes them to have more features of the traditional system. The overall business model of PLOS is to publish several very traditional journals (in the way that they are highly selective, but still OA) and PLOS ONE serves as a kind of cashcow to cross-subsidize these other Journals (e.g. PLOS Biology)


Charles Oppenheim 14th October 2015 at 3:34 am

As with so many commentators, you seem to assume “gold” OA (where one pays an article processing charge) is the only form of OA. There are many variations, but most important is the green OA, where material is placed in an OA repository before or after the item is published in a traditional journal, if it appears in a journal at all.

Having said that, I agree Doctorow’s idea is nonsense because if the Universities sue the publishers, the publishers can counter-sue the authors for having misled the publishers into thinking they were entitled to assign copyright to the publishers. Zero sum game there. A better way forward is FROM NOW ON for authors (or their employers if the contract says the University owns the IP) to refuse to assign copyright to the publishers, but simply grants them a licence to reproduce, and then implementing green OA.

This would lead to the demise of a lot of smaller journals, but would be compensated by the ready availability of materials on the Web for free. The larger publishers with the prestige journals would survive, but with reduced profits. Not a bad outcome in my view.

Chris Jensen 14th October 2015 at 8:29 am

Thanks for weighing in Charles! Seems like we agree on some principles. I know that Gold OA is not the only option, and you will notice that I have made all of my publications available here. ResearchGate is also emerging as an important platform for peer-to-peer dissemination of our publications. It is a great idea for academics to exercise whatever rights they have to distribute their work.

But I will point out that you are still considering the Open Access conundrum only from the consumer’s perspective. All of the “solutions” that we have been entertaining here solve the consumer’s problem (how do I get access to the academic literature?) but not the producer’s problem (how do I get my work published in a well-distributed, respected journal?).

I publish plenty of things on this site that I basically just want to have out there for people to consume, so of course it is always an option to put your work out for anyone to consume, either by posting it on one’s own website or by placing the work in a pre-print repository like arXiv. But on a number of levels this is not the same as having an article published in an established journal.

The first and most obvious benefit of having work published in an established journal is distribution. All journals, whether open or closed, provide authors with a platform that the vast majority of academics just can’t have on their own. I cannot tell you how many things I have published on my site that never get seen… and the things that are read are those that are picked up by some other form of distribution (Twitter, Facebook, being linked on other high-traffic websites). So by publishing my work in a journal, I increase my chances of having my work read (although I would be the first to admit that many if not most academic articles go to die when published in the academic literature).

The second and more important benefit of having work published in an established journal is credibility. Especially in the sciences, having one’s work peer-reviewed is critical to establishing its credibility. This is not just about external credibility: I like the failsafe that having my work peer-reviewed provides (maybe I am more error-prone than others, but pretty much every peer-reviewed article I have published was improved by referee suggestions). The editorial policies of journals, many of which are quite selective, also establish for others that “this is an article worth reading”. It is fine to say that everyone should publish everything on the web, but consumers of this literature will still be looking for filters to decide what is worth reading. And that is why producers of the academic literature want their work in academic journals.

As you point out, Open Access by legal fiat would “lead to the demise of a lot of smaller journals, but would be compensated by the ready availability of materials on the Web for free.” That would be great for consumers in the short run, but bad for many producers. Only consumers of the academic literature would be “compensated” in this scenario. And in the long run I am not so sure that simply having fewer articles published in editorially-curated peer-reviewed journals — the net effect of eliminating “smaller journals” — would be good for people who want to consume a diversity of perspectives in the academic literature.

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