Why Open Access will Stifle Innovation

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It is curious that the UK government department promoting Business, Innovation and Skills should be so committed to a policy that might almost be designed to achieve the opposite effect.

The most important thing to recognize about Open Access is that it is open for readers but not for authors. Readers get content free while authors have to pay to publish it. In practice, this means the creation of institutional funds and processes for determining which authors, or content, will be subsidized and which will not. Pious words have been duly pronounced about how this will not compromise academic freedom but there is no way in which the policy can be implemented without this effect. No responsible university can accept an open-ended commitment to pay for every paper that its faculty produces, which is the only way in which academic freedom can be guaranteed. There must be a fixed pot, which implies procedures for determining the size of the pot and how it will be allocated.

Unfortunately, academic freedom is often equated with faculty self-indulgence. The possibilities of abuse, however, are the corollary of its role in maintaining universities as centres for innovation and discovery, whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences or the humanities. As the great sociologist of science, Robert Merton, recognized more than half a century ago, innovation is delinquency’s first cousin. A society that eliminates deviance is also one that eliminates innovation. A society that eliminates innovation spaces is one that is going nowhere in evolutionary terms. The present publication ecology reflects this. My university library may have a limited range of subscriptions but I can send my work anywhere that seems appropriate, have it reviewed and, if approved, published. My innovative voice does not require prior institutional approval. In future, I may be able to access anything that is published, but what is published will be determined by a conservative filtering process. Some might call this censorship, which implies a will to silence diverse voices. It is, however, better understood as the necessary but unintended consequence of implementing Open Access.

Let us start from the size of pot that each UK university will create to fund Open Access. This is being explicitly linked to the REF process, which only considers a limited number of outputs in a given time period. As a rational manager, why would I divert funds from other activities to support publication beyond what is required to meet REF expectations? Historically, these have been approximately one journal paper per year, so I would start with that, perhaps adding a percentage for uncertainty about future REFs and allowing some room for individuals to upgrade early-cycle publications. The consequences: since 1974, I have published 105 papers in refereed journals, about 2.75 papers per year. It is hard to see a managerial logic for funding more than 1.5 papers per year, which would mean that about half of my papers would never have been supported. Unless I had invested £8-10K from my own pocket, their contribution to scholarship would never have happened.

How would the lucky papers have been selected? As Henry Mintzberg, the noted organization studies scholar, has observed, public organizations, like UK universities, tend to respond to uncertainty by becoming more conservative. REF planning offers a good example, where decisions have been increasingly centralized, with faculty corralled by institutional research strategies based on current funding opportunities, available metrics and risk management theories. The vetting committees that will be created to implement Open Access are doomed to the same conservatism, to approving the papers that look like everyone else’s, that add safe increments to knowledge and that tick the boxes of the REF process.

The problem is, as FA Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, central planners are necessarily less well-informed about what is cutting-edge than the people who are actually working there. Emphasizing today’s funding opportunities potentially destroys capacity that will be relevant to tomorrow’s – the internal diversity of a university is a powerful risk-sharing device. Publication metrics look back rather than forward: it is notable that, of my 20 most cited outputs, only one is in a top-decile sociology journal, although that is, no doubt what many universities would expect me to target. Copying successful competitors does not reduce risk: the command and control organizations of the American auto industry just proved equally vulnerable to the more agile structures created by their Japanese competitors. This is not to say that pushing rationing decisions down to discipline or department level would necessarily give better results: immediate colleagues are notoriously the most resistant to innovation. It is to say that any rationing process will necessarily silence a lot of innovative thinking, which will then be lost as options for science, scholarship and society.

Our research may be freely available – will any of it be worth reading?

Next time: Why Open Access is good for neo-Nazis.

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is 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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