18 July 2012

Gold open access: a pathway to two tier publishing?

Proposals to embrace open access and throw open the doors of academe have been met with great enthusiasm. 'Progressive' scholars (and everyone frustrated by paywalls and limited journal holdings) has jumped for joy.  But has too little thought has been given to some of the implications?

Given the past record of this (and previous) governments on Higher Education and Research kowtowing to big business, surely we should be a little more cautious, and not just think 'oooh, how nice, this time I agree with their policy'.  There's a catch in it.  Those of us in academic jobs in UK universities don't stand to lose much, but I don't think this is a win-win situation. There are likely to be losers as well - if we all just jump onto Gold Access without questioning its business model as closely as we question the Elsevier approach. 

In the recent Guardian piece, Universities and Science Minister David Willets, endorses the so-called ‘gold open access’ model, preferred by the large publishing conglomerates.  ‘Gold’ OA changes the business model from one where readers pay for access to the output of research, to one where scholars pay to publish work – anywhere from a few hundred pounds to £2000.  The ‘green open access model’ preferred by most of those who work in and advocate for open access, instead requires researchers to make their work available inrepositories – such as those most Universities are already establishing fordealing with the REF. 

Some large granting agencies, like the Wellcome Trust, already set aside funds for OA up front fees, being willing to pay to ensure that research they fund is as widely accessible as possible.  Other researchers may be able to include such amounts in research grants, or request support through their universities.  But for self-funded Phd students, independent scholars, and contract staff the implications are less clear – how will they find the money to publish in these ‘gold’ journals?  Will their fees be waived? If so, on what terms?  And who will decide? Will journals have annual quotas or budgets? 

But it is most telling that the Finch report and responses to it look only at the implications of OA for UK academia.  We assume that the rest of the world will be grateful to have access to all of our publications (and wish they’d reciprocate).  But what about scholars from developing countries who want to publish in OA journals?  Some area studies journals have already begun planning for this, with plans to waive fees, but will disciplinary journals follow suit?

Or do we risk establishing a two-tier publishing system?  Not the one we have at present where OA journals are too often seen as inferior new-comers, but one where some scholars can only afford to publish in ‘old-model’ journals, while the rest pay to publish in the ‘Gold’ band.

Given that UK university libraries struggle to pay journal subscriptions the widespread belief that scholars in developing countries can’t access journals published here is unsurprising. In reality, many publishers make their resources available free or heavily discounted although the range of options can be tricky to navigate – and it all depends on reliable electricity and internet access. But under the ‘Gold’ OA scheme, we could have the ultimate irony of African scholars able to read our research, but unable to publish their own alongside it. 

Open access is coming; the internet and our expectations of instant access to documents makes it inevitable, but in moving towards a global flow of research, we need to consider the losers, as well as the winners, and seek to avoid creating new divisions and hierarchies within academia. 


Joost Fontein said...

I have been watching this with growing apprehension. One thing that particularly riles me is the way the move to OA has been dressed up and celebrated as something liberatory and emancipatory, an 'academic spring' as i think 'The Guardian' put it. This is dis-ingenious, and frankly bull - sh@t. It is nothing of the sort. Such attitudes ignore two things. Firstly this whole agenda is not driven by a desire for better and wider access to research and knowledge, it is being driven by the 'austerity' avalanche. it came about because some cleverdick in a civil admin job, looking for ways to cut gov budgets, realised governments were paying for research twice - by funding research and by funding libraries to pay for journal subscriptions. The thought then emerged that all research should be freely available, but of course someone has to pay for the printing, the copy editing, type setting, marketing, the formatting, the web hosting, the searchablity on line etc etc (afterall so so much of the academic production machine is already done for free - ie peer reviewing, editorial work etc etc). So then the conclusion is drawn that instead of reader's paying, it will be authors. Of course if you are fundned by the welcome trust you just build an extra 15 000 into a large grant for publication no problem. But what about the huge amount of research and reflection and writing that is done by scholars not on the basis of some big grant, but based rather on years or decades of experience and self funded research trips, and hours in archives etc etc. WIll these no longer be published? Suddenly the power of the purses of big funding machines, and the governments behind them, seems so big that they determine what gets published, what knwoledge exists out there. This it strikes me is profoundly anti-progressive, and not what academic publishing and research and knowledge production should be about at all. And i have not even begun to think about what unpaid scholars, phd students, and whole armies of scholars in developing countries will do - scholars who already face considerable hurdles accessing the wider knowledge networks, but often have far more important things to say than the kind of high profile, high funded, sound bite scholars that the very large funding agencies tend increasingly to fund. The end result is frightening. No doubt that there are some publishing companies who use their uniquely advantageous positioning to make and protect for themselves , extremely high profits, on the backs of over worked and under paid academics, constraining access to knowledge for the wider world. But these are only a few among a wide sector that in my experience is often far more concerned about issues of access and are actively looking for ways to make their journals accessible to under paid emrgent schoalrs and to institutions in the south. The highest charging journals could i suspect easily be persuaded to charge less, and indeed maybe they will begin to do so now, now that the writing is on the wall as demands for OA increase. Sara is right to say this happening already, and will continue to come - but don't be fooled that this the result of some emancipatory jesture, or that it will have some liberatory effect. It is not and it won't. It will entrench divisions and hierarchies and lower the quality and diversity of knowledge produced by academia in general. More l academic winter than spring, i guess.

Sara Dorman said...

Re-assuring that someone else is aware of these issues: http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-finch-report-and-its-implications.html

Amanda Sackur said...

Joost Fontein makes some interesting and very valid points. I would like to expand on one of them: that Willetts' model hands control over to larger corporations and grant-making bodies. Obviously this will disadvantage independent scholars, those from the global South and those in less 'sexy' subjects or institutions. It may also increase discrimination. Research has shown that women and ethnic-minority academics, even with an institutional base, are statistically less likely to get grants. If publication of grants depends on winning sufficient grant money to pay for publication this will further reduce the diversity of academic voices and, given the increasing use of very crude metrics in British universities, make it less likely that such people will be able to keep their jobs. Alternatively, of course, it could come from the pockets of academics themselves, a tax on work, but then that would favour (as the grant system already does) those at the top of the hierarchy. Although women are slowly gaining promotion, their chances are still much worse than men's and the number of black professors in British universitites would be a joke if it weren't so appalling.

Iryna Kuchma said...

Thank you for this post Sara! I would like to comment on the issue of scholarly resources availability in developing countries. There is a good paragraph about this in the The Electronic Publishing Trust for Development response to the UK Finch Report (epublishingtrust.net/ept-response-to-the-uk-finch-report) (which I fully support): “There is a myth circulated regarding developing country access problems – ‘There is no evidence of a lack of access’, ‘We have established the HINARI Research for Life programmes that solve the problem’. . . But our decade-long experience working with researchers in the South, and many of the stories collected for OA Week and which are available from our web site demolishes the first myth, while the problems with the HINARI programmes have been well documented – sudden withdrawal by publishers of journals, availability only from designated libraries, selection of journals by publishers rather than according to research needs and so on...”

Sara Dorman said...

Hi Iryna, you're right - the access is not great, although that quote seems to refer more to the science journals. with social science journals the problems often seem to be more with scholars being able to access them through their libraries/convincing the librarians to make the free subs available in the first place.

Jean-Claude Guédon said...

Gold open access includes the author-pay model, but is not limited by it. The majority of OA journals listed in DOAJ are gratis to the author and often free (i.e. can be re-used freely, etc.) by readers. The author-pay model is not optimal, even though PLoS does a good job in general.

The OA movement needs both a good green road, and a well-conceived gold road. A well-conceived, optimal, gold road is one where submission of articles are gratis and use of articles is libre.

Jean-Claude Guédon