18 July 2012

Open access: impoverishing academia?

We all love to hate the big publishers that are bankrupting our libraries (is it true that UK universities only spent 2.7% of their budgets on libraries? something's wrong there).  But not all publishers are exploitative - many University publishers run as not-for-profit corporations. And publishers don't retain all the profits of journals. Far from it. 

I've been associated with two journals which have completely different models:  the learned society model and the collective ownership model. In both these models, the publishers have a contract to publish the journal, which usually guarantees them a % of the profits, the rest is passed on to the learned society or collective group of academics.

Learned societies, which rely on these not-inconsiderable sums to run conferences and support their administrative overheads, would also suffer under the proposed Gold Open Access business model.  A journal which publishes 20-40 articles in a year would have a maximum income of £40 000 - £80 000, if authors paid £2000 to publish with them (some are arguing this amount would be much lower). That may be plenty for a publisher that owns and runs hundreds of journals.    But it will be a blow to the learned society, which relies on their income for many good purposes - usually using it to subsidize conferences, and sometimes to provide honoraria for editors and book review editors. 

In particular, collectively owned African studies journals such as those started in the 1970s have used the 'windfall' profits of publishing to sponsor travel of African academics to attend conferences and present papers, or send their members to attend conferences and workshops.  

These journals also tend to have extremely reasonable subscriptions, which are set at cost for members, or even subsidized.  If they lose subscription income from libraries  then small grants that have sustained annual conferences and one-off workshops may disappear, along with the ability of learned societies to administer their membership and represent their interests.  Academia will be poorer, because these journals will pay the price for the rapacious behaviour of Elsevier and a few other 'big' publishers. 

The Finch report, rather condescendingly, tells learned societies to 'diversity their income' as if they've not been doing this for years? Yet more additional burdens for the academic community to shoulder, as we struggle to in search of an elusive work-life balance. 


Ross Mounce said...

Why are conferences subsidized in the first place?

Is it so academics who are members of that particular society can have a cheap jolly at the expense of the taxpayer (the 1000's of library subscriptions paid to the society for the journal, from around the world)?

I've been to many such conferences, and I'm constantly surprised at how cheap it is for me. Too cheap tbh - I'm clearly not paying the full cost of the event.

The tone of your post makes it sound like such subsidies are charitable but I think you need to critically examine that a bit more. Are all these services and subsidies that learned societies provide (only) for their members, really charitable? I'd argue providing access to academic works via Open Access is definitely a good charitable pursuit. These other activities like generous conference subsidies for members are less charitable IMO.

Perhaps it is time for learned societies to look once again at the ethics of their expenditure, rather than moaning about the potential loss of income that Open Access will cause.

Sara Dorman said...

Well, it may be cheap for you, but in my field, subventions to conferences are targeted at bringing speakers from developing countries, and at helping PhD students attend through travel grants. This broadens access, rather than restricting it to those like you who can afford to attend.

Unknown said...

That fortunate cross-subsidy happens sometimes does not seem like a reasonable argument for allowing the continued lock-up of our knowledge.

And with the ridiculous overspending on old-fashioned toll-access publishers going away (hopefully), there should be money to fund conferences still. How about making a society with the explicit (and honest) goal of sponsoring conferences?

Sara Dorman said...

Great ideas Anders, but I still think there are other ways of 'unlocking' publications other than giving into publishers' lobbying for APCs. I have yet to meet anyone who has been lobbying for OA who supports 'gold OA'. If the informed people who've been campaigning for this for years don't support it, why are so many people now suddenly saying it's a great idea?

Unknown said...

Hi Sara,

I can't speak for others than myself.

I too think that "green" OA is the more efficient way of changing the outdated landscape of toll-access publishers.

I find that "gold" OA is a slightly more expensive route to the end-goal of not having our research-output locked away artificially.

So, "gold" OA may be the second best option, but to me it is still much, much better than status-quo.