Open Access – but not for authors

Open Access to academic journal papers is a hot button issue. The UK government is in favour, along with major UK research funders and organizations representing university librarians and senior management. The European Commission supports the idea and some US stakeholders have also backed it. A bunch of idealistic scientists are promoting the cause. The principle sounds unquestionable: all citizens everywhere get free online access to reports on research, much of which has been carried out with public funding. Who could object except wicked multinational publishing corporations with paywalls around knowledge? Information wants to be free.

As so often, however, the enthusiasm for a free good obscures the economic and social costs of producing it. Opening access for readers will reduce access for authors – and that may be a cost we should be reluctant to accept.

Only wonks like me will be following the minutes of the Finch Working Party, which has been reviewing Open Access in the UK and is shortly to report. Their preferred strategy is to create central publication support funds within universities by top-slicing research grants and QR, together with savings from the present journal subscription model. The working party does not, though, consider the organizational consequences and their implications.

Imagine you are an author in a UK university in 2020, particularly one from a humanities or social science discipline that does not rely on external grants. How will you get funded to publish your papers? First question: have all the savings to the library budget gone into the fund or have they been used to buy more espresso machines and sofas? Second question: where is the fund held and who decides who gets to use it? From this, further questions flow: when the money runs out, who sets priorities? Is the money under academic control or directed by research support offices? Is it controlled centrally or devolved to faculties or departments? How is its use linked to the performance management of academics?

Open Access requires the installation of a parallel set of gatekeepers to publication, who are less likely to be knowledgeable about the merits of a paper than journal referees and who will refer to institutional objectives rather than the advancement of scholarship. The risks are obvious: inter-discipline resource conflict, corruption, bias and the denial of a voice to new ideas or work that may be important but outside the corporate strategy. There is a fair prospect of a significant number of academics having to pay from their own pockets, because the central fund is exhausted or blocked to them, in order to meet performance targets. (This says nothing, of course, about the position of independent scholars, like myself, without institutional resources to fund access – an interest that I should note but which is not central to the case.)

When these concerns are mentioned in conversation, many colleagues have the flip response that there is too much published anyway and they can’t keep up with it! This is essentially the working party’s line: The Group noted that a publication fund of that kind would give universities a degree of control over what was published, which might be helpful in incentivising quality over quantity (Minutes 22/02/2012). Perhaps it is not surprising that a group of senior university managers should value institutional control over what gets published, although there is no reason to suppose that this would necessarily enhance quality. What it will inevitably do is reduce diversity, as colleagues concede, once they think about what it would mean to navigate their own papers through a second review process where papers would be judged less on their scholarly contribution than on their conformity with a departmental orthodoxy or a corporate plan.

The early British sociologist, Herbert Spencer, may now be deeply unfashionable. He was, however, one of the first to see the problems of what he called ‘militant societies’, where innovation, novelty and diversity were strangled by command and control systems that not only imposed conformity but consumed an increasing share of resources in unproductive regulatory efforts. In the long term, he thought, such societies would lose out to ‘industrial societies’, which were more loosely coupled and relied on mutual self-interest rather than regulation for their co-ordination. Spencer’s arguments have been elaborated and refined by subsequent generations and are reflected, if not always acknowledged, in much contemporary work in innovation studies. Innovation is anarchic, disruptive and irritating to central planners. Without such spaces, however, institutions, and societies, rot from within. The present publishing model may not be perfect but it is an evolved solution to the challenge of scientific innovation.

Open Access is a seductive clarion. It sounds like a call to freedom but, in practice, is likely to be a recipe for a further contraction of innovation spaces within UK universities, and any others that are foolish enough to adopt it without a great deal of further thought.

Declaration of Interest: I am currently the editor of a journal published by a major international company on behalf of a learned society.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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idealistic scientist

You seem to be assuming – though curiously you never explicitly state this – that ‘open access’ means that the author has to pay the journal to publish her paper. This is by no means the case. There are various ways that the goal of open access can be achieved. One is that the author can put the paper on a preprint archive, such as arxiv which is widely used in physics. Another is simply for the author to put the draft paper on her web page. Another possibility is that a group of idealist and enthusiastic young sociologists –… Read more »

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