If 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:
— David Soergel (@loraxorg) October 11, 2015
Which refers to this thread by influential blogger/writer Cory Doctorow:
How to get every academic paper ever published into an open-access repository, in one easy step. #f2i
— Cory SPOOKTorow (@doctorow) October 10, 2015
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:
Hmmm… sounds great… until you wake up the next day and there are a whole lot fewer places to publish your work! https://t.co/zN3sXIihKl
— Christopher Jensen (@cxjjensen) October 12, 2015
Soergel was not at all convinced by my argument, tweeting back:
. @cxjjensen Nonsense. There are plenty of perfectly viable open-access journals, and no defensible reasons to support the closed ones.
— David Soergel (@loraxorg) October 12, 2015
I tried in my response to bring out the downside of Doctorow’s plan:
@loraxorg So you are saying we have the open access infrastructure to punish all valuable scholarship tomorrow? By only people with grants?
— Christopher Jensen (@cxjjensen) October 12, 2015
Damn phone (plus poor proofreading on my part) changed “publish” to “punish”, but Soergel still figured out what I was saying:
@cxjjensen oh you meant publish. Yes, we have the infrastructure to publish everything OA. Obviously.
— David Soergel (@loraxorg) October 12, 2015
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.A Major Post, Economic sustainability, Economics, Ethics, Grants & Funding, Higher Education, Periodicals, Public Policy, Publication, Science as a career, Social Media