Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Blog CLVII (157): Open Access--A Bad Idea

The book is an old piece of technology. This media format has been around in its basic format despite some changes to its production for over 500 years. A lot of people think the new digital mediums are going to change the industries associated with the book. In Blog LXXVIII (78): E-books: Just Say No I argued that new scholars should not invest their careers in these new media formats for a number of reasons and to stick to traditional media formats. E-books are simply too much of a fade.

A couple of essays that have appeared of late make different arguments that only confirm what I argued back then. Clifford A. Lynch, the executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argued in the electronic supplement to the magazine of the American Library Association that e-books have been a bad bet for these depositories. “Some major publishers severely constrain which titles and libraries have access to their e-titles; some are charging very high prices or renting books to libraries for a limited number of loans or a limited time period, or both.”

Joseph J. Esposito, a management consultant in the publishing industry has concluded that: “the ‘promise’ of e-books…has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world.” His assessment is simple and direct: “electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy.” Put another way, there has to be more to an undertaking than a new format. The medium is not the message.

Despite these sound conclusions, the academic journal community is now considering new venues, formats and models of doing business. The open-access movement wants to shift the costs of publication from the consumer or subscriber, to the producer, which is another way of saying the author. The “gold approach” requires articles to be made available on-line free of charge when they are published in print with the author pays a processing fee, for the costs of copyediting, formatting and other publishing task. This fee is significant; as much as $2,000. Another model, the “green approach,” makes a rough copy of a published article available at some type of public repository. In fact, several universities have are pushing policies that require their faculty members to make their published research available to the public.

At the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association, this issue was debate in a session. “I really believe open access is not a passing fad,” Mary Ellen K. Davis, executive director of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said during her presentation. “I believe open access is a durable feature of the landscape of scholarly communication.”

Robert A. Schneider, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of the American Historical Review, disagreed. He said there was nothing wrong with the subscription process. “It does work to some degree—arguably to a great degree.” He said the author processing fee is “not only broken, it’s wrong.”

Schneider is right. I think the open access debate reflects an American fascination with technology for its own sake. My little theory is that this focus had something to do with the founding of the United States taking place at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. New technologies, the founding of the new country, and its push westward all offered hope and promise for the future to the people of the new nation.

The problem is the open access movement idea of making authors pay for the right to get published is an approach to information dissemination that is more flawed than current formats. Developing a new approach that requires scholars to pay to have their research published puts even more burdens on new scholars who already stressed enough. The salaries an academic earns are not particular high compared to what their age cohorts in other professions like advertising, or accounting make. These fees could represent a significant portion of their income, assuming they have one. There are a lot of budding scholars that are working adjunct jobs that need publications to establish their credentials to open up employment opportunities and this economic requirement could easily turn into another barrier.

Open access takes the idea that everything on the internet should be free to an unhealthy extreme. In a capatalist society if people are in the business of producing information, then they need to be able to making a living and turn a profit at that effort. The newspaper industry has learned this lesson the hard way. If it is free on the internet, why buy the content on paper? The newspapers that are thriving at the moment are the ones that require subscriptions to access their content on-line like The Wall Street Journal and The Orange County Register. We should also face the fact that the internet is not free. Plenty of people make money from it; from firms like Apple and Dell that produce the machines that we use to get on-line to service providers like Cox and AT&T that charge people monthly fees for access to the digital world.

I should also note I see a little bureaucratic self interest in the open access movement.  It also strikes me that it is a way for librarians to get their libraries out from under budget constraints. If content producers have to pay for journal articles, then they can use their limited dollars for other projects.

What is a scholar to do about these large trends? Push back. Do not contribute content to this open access movement. Fight it when and where you can, be it administrative meetings or in conversations with the people that run the libraries.

It is only your future that is at stake. 


  1. Are these authors also paying for the research that they are conducting? No. Moving the cost of publication from consumption to production is not, in the first instance, meant to put the cost on the authors personal finances. Funders of research are encouraged to see the cost of publication as part of the cost of doing the research,

    Open Access is not anti-capitalist either. Some of the largest open access publishers are commercial, for-profit organisations (and profitable!). However, they make their money by charging directly for the production services that they offer, not by charging for access to the intellectual content, which they did not create.

    But fundamentally, open access does not take the view that everything on the internet should be free. It takes the view that having barriers to research information impedes further research, and restricts economic growth. And that can occur whilst still allowing the people in the process of distributing (not producing!) that information to make a living and turn a profit.

  2. With respect, anonymous, in much of the world in the humanities the researcher DOES pay a proportion of the cost of his/her research (I speak as an academic historian of 30 odd years experience). The problem with this whole Open Access thing is that it started as a science/STEM problem dealing mainly with Elsevier, who charge like the Light Brigade for subscriptions, and has been extended to the Humanities/Social Sciences where the models and behaviours are VERY different. I'll published on Open Access when my University pays the FULL cost of an archival research trip - which they've never done yet, and I know I speak for many others in the Anglosphere system.

    And I'll cop it sweet when chemistry students or engineering students are charged materials costs and lab time fees. Don't hold your breath.