Some Thoughts on the Finch Report

20 07 2012

I used to support the move to Open Access academic publishing. Now I suspect that the particular form of Open Access that has been selected will be worse than the existing model of scholarly publishing.

As readers of this blog will known, the British government is currently considering whether to shift the regime for academic publishing from pay-to-view to pay-to-publish. The Open Access movement, which launched the so-called Academic Spring earlier this year, has been very critical of the existing model, which involves putting articles based on taxpayer-funded research behind a paywall.

Defenders of the status quo point out that it costs money to run a quality academic journal and someone needs to pay for it.  In June, a report by Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University, advocated something called the “gold Open Access” model: academics, or rather their employers, would pay academic journals a fee to publish their articles, which would then be freely available online. Four days ago, the relevant minister in the British government announced that he supported the Finch Report proposal and that academic publishing in the UK would switch to the gold Open Access model within two years.

The Finch Report has been controversial, particularly with so-called Early Career Researchers (i.e., PhD students and newly minted PhDs who may not have an employer willing to pay for their papers to be published). Right now, it doesn’t cost a researcher anything to publish a paper they have written. Changing to pay-to-publish model will likely disadvantage younger researchers, not to mention researchers at universities where the research budgets are small. Three days ago, Mark Carrigan, a PhD student and blogger at LSE wrote:

I fear that academic publishing could come to resemble the perilous landscape that PhDs and ECRs are only too familiar with at present. The competition for postdoctoral funding is ever increasing, leading to continual inflation of the things you need on your CV to stand a chance, yet without funding it’s very difficult to actually achieve these prerequisites. Or in other words: the best way to get postdoctoral funding is to already have it. Could we see something similar happening with publications? If authors are dependent on their institutions and/or funding bodies to pay the substantial fees required under gold open access then those who already have a job and funding will find it easier to publish and thereby increase their chances of getting another job and more funding. Much as the post doctoral funding climate creates virtuous cycles, so too will the publishing climate, as a whole swathe of early career academics will find themselves untroubled by article processing charges. From their perspective, open access of this form will be great: it doesn’t pose problems and it means their research is freely available. On the other hand, what of those who find themselves excluded? If your funding is patchy or non-existent how can you compete? Is it even going to be possible to be an independent researcher in any meaningful sense?   

Carrigan raises an important issue. One of the goals of the Open Access movement is to increase the diffusion of academic knowledge. That’s great and bring us closer to the Enlightenment ideal of a republic of letters. However, I feel that the gold Open Access model of publishing will favour academic incumbents (i.e., older, well-established full professors) over new entrants. That’s totally anti-competitive. It’s bad for young researchers and even worse for consumers of knowledge.

We wouldn’t accept a regulation that was designed to prevent, say, a new supermarket chain from opening stores in the UK because we believe that competition benefits the consumer. We also need to encourage competition in the marketplace of ideas. Any policy that may prevent young researchers from publishing research is a terrible idea, especially if it prevents the publication of ideas that challenge the orthodoxies of older academics. I remember reading somewhere that most innovation in the field of mathematics is done by researchers under the age of thirty.  Of course, there are instances of older academics who develop radical and innovative ideas, but  it seems plausible to think that most of the radical, breakthrough innovations will be done by younger scholars, especially in academic disciplines that involve radical as opposed to incremental innovation. (History is an incremental innovation field). As Carrigan points out, academics under the age of thirty are those most likely to be disadvantaged by the proposed Gold Open Access scheme.

Here is something else that hasn’t been discussed enough: how can one country shift the regime for the global academic publishing industry? Is the UK coordinating the shift in its policy with the other major academic research countries?   The problem is that many academic journals are a bit like BP, Shell, and Unilever, companies of uncertain. For instance, many English-language journals are published by Kluwer, the Dutch-incorporated company whose practices helped to trigger the academic spring. Cambridge Journals and Oxford Journals publish many journals that are edited by scholars based in universities in the United States.

Consider two journals from my own fields of research. I’ve selected these two journals more or less at random to illustrate a broader phenomenon.

Enterprise and Society, a business history journal, is published by a division of Oxford University Press. Its editor is based at Rutgers University in Pennsylvania.   The three associate editors are based at universities in the United States, Britain, and Italy. The editorial board is very multinational.  The postal address for book reviews is in Illinois, but the website appears to be hosted in the United Kingdom. The nationality of the Journal of Global History, which is published by Cambridge University Press, is equally hard to ascertain. Two of the three editors are based at US universities, although the journal is formally associated with the London School of Economics.

My point is that the shift to Open Access needs to be coordinated among the major research-producing nations. If it isn’t, there will be major problems. Any move to force research-active academics in the UK to pay to publish articles from their personal funds constitutes a tax on academic salaries. As such, it will likely accelerate the brain drain from British to US universities.

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One response

21 07 2012
David Zylberberg

In all of this discussion, I am struck that the only point at which public-money is discussed is in funding the research that is only available behind a paywall. Most of the money received for access to that published research comes from institutional subscriptions from university libraries. In Canada and most other countries (the US private universities as an obvious exception) university library budgets also come out of public funds. In effect, it is actually research funded by public dollars, edited by people on salary at public universities, with public money paying for subscriptions, that is not accessible to most of the public.
I expect the key to any good model of open-access publishing needs to account for the money spent on subscriptions from university library budgets. Open-access journals would not be charging universities subscriptions and would save considerable money from library budgets. If provincial governments and funding bodies could combine some of the money currently used to subsidize journal publishing on that end and use it to run the journals themselves, there is no good reason why open-access publishing that did not charge authors, while retaining peer-review and copy-editing could not exist.

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