Open Access Week

28 07 2013

There has been a lot of discussion in the historical blogosphere in the past week about the benefits and drawbacks of Open Access publishing. A few days ago, I published a post about what the sensation sparked by Ian Mosby’s article says about Open Access publishing. [For background: Mosby published an article in an academic journal that showed that Canadian government scientists in the 1940s deliberately withheld food from Native children so they could study the effect of malnutrition.] Mosby’s article received massive attention in the Canadian media and even sparked protests, such as this one in Winnipeg.

Now that’s research with impact!

As I pointed out in my post, Mosby’s article was published in a password-protected journal to which vanishingly few people have access, unless they are university employees or students. This meant that much of the public and media discussion of Mosby’s research was based on second- and third-hand accounts of what’s in the article. This situation perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with the current system of academic publishing. Open Access would certainly help to diffuse academic research and improve the quality of public debate. So Open Access is great in principle, but the move to Open Access raises the question is how we fund academic journals if everyone can read them online for free.  I’ve posted on this issue before, as I feel strongly that the proposed Open Access regime here in the UK is deeply flawed.

Christopher Moore and Chris Dummitt have had some interesting things to say about copyright law and Open Access. See here and here.

The American Historical Association appears to be going against the trend towards Open Access. Rather than encouraging PhD students to put their dissertations online, it has called for a lengthy embargo on PhD theses. See here. Needless to say, advocates of Open Access have condemned this move.  See here, here, and here. Personally, I think the best criticism of the AHA policy was from Eric Rauchway a historian who, like me, is somewhat interdisciplinary and pays attention to what is going on in political science and economics. Rauchway points out that political scientists and economists were amazed when they heard of the AHA’s move. In economics, people put ungated working papers online all the time, with no visible impact on their ability to publish the stuff later in journals.  .  We should listen to what he has to say.  The President of the AHA, legendary historian William Cronon, has published a defence of the new AHA policy. Cronon is obviously a great scholar, but on this issue I think that he is making a mistake.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the government has softened its commitment to Open Access.  Under the refined proposals, monographs will be exempted from the Open Access mandate. Moreover, the government has reduced the compliance rate for Open Access publishing that universities would be required to achieve from 80 per cent of all articles published by their faculty, which had been proposed in February, to just 70 per cent. According to the Times Higher Education supplement, This would be the average for all disciplines, with a higher figure (75 per cent) required for the sciences and lower figures for the social sciences (70 per cent) and humanities (60 per cent).

I’m not certain whether I understand how the word “average” is being used here. Are we talking about weighted averages for each university? I’m not certain how the government can know what the ratio of publications in each discipline area at each university is going to be in advance.

I was somewhat disturbed that the government is considering as an alternative to these targets a more capricious whim-based flexible regime whereby a  university could argue for exceptions to the open access requirement on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if a British academic  co-authors a paper with researchers in a country where universities are not subject to an open access mandate, the regulator could grant that academic an exemption allowing him or her to publish the research in an non-OA journal. That sounds like a recipe for confusion and a make work project for administrators both within universities and the government. In fact, I can imagine a whole new profession emerging out of this proposal—there would be people in each university tasked with liaising with their counterparts in Whitehall to discuss each article someone want to publish in a non-OA journal. .

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is the regulator for most of the UK’s universities, has just opened its consultation period for the discussion of its plans for an Open Access regime. No doubt the discussion of this important issue will continue.

Update: if you are a historian and wish to participate in a quick survey about Open Access publishing, click here.

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