Some Thoughts on Aaron Swartz, Open Access, and the Future of Historical Research

18 01 2013

I have blogged extensively about the Open Access movement in academic publishing. (See here, here, and here).

Essentially, advocates of the Open Access model believe that the articles published in academic journals should be placed online for everyone to read for free. Right now, most scholarly journals are available only to subscribers, which means that unless you have a university library card, you can’t log in to read an article that is of interest to you. (Some databases of journals, such as Jstor, allow non-subscribers to purchase access to an article. In the social sciences the price of access is normally between $20 and $40 per article.

Critics of the existing model argue that it slows down the dissemination of knowledge and is unfair to taxpayers who may wish to read the research outputs they have funded. (The creation of virtually all scholarly articles is funded by some government, somewhere). They also note that the profits of the companies that publish scholarly journals are unusually high.

Most advocates of Open Access have contented themselves with merely demanding change. There are, however, activists who have engaged in what they call civil disobedience and what others characterise as theft. Aaron Swartz was perhaps the best known of these activists. He downloaded a vast number of Jstor articles and then shared them with others. He was prosecuted for this crime. A few days ago, he committed suicide. His death at the age of 26 has been mourned by many advocates of Open Access, who blame US prosecutors for hounding him to his grave.  The district attorney responsible for the prosecution defended herself yesterday by saying that she had only sought a six-month prison term!

I don’t expect that the United States will adopt the Open Access model any time soon. It simply isn’t compatible with the strong property-rights orientation of American political culture. A country that doesn’t provide free-at-point-of-service healthcare to its citizens is unlikely to provide free scholarly articles, which are a bit more of a luxury. Keep in mind that the US has very strong laws governing copyright and it pressures other nations to conform.  Many people, including some libertarians, regard these laws as going too far in the direction of protecting creators but they are unlikely to change.  Requiring people to pay to “consume” an article by downloading a PDF fits with the  prevailing American way of thinking about the world.

More collectivist countries are, however, moving towards the Open Access model of scholarly publishing.  Case in point, the United Kingdom. Defenders of the status quo in academic publishing point out that it costs money to run a quality academic journal and someone needs to pay for it. This is a valid point.  In 2011, the British government asked  Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University, to investigate possible funding regimes. Her June 2012 report 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. In August 2012, 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.

Critics of the Finch Gold Open Access model immediately pointed out that this model would put an additional strain on university budgets. For instance, if the average social scientist at a British university publishes 1.5 articles every year and the journals charge, say, £1,500 to publish each article, the total impact will be huge. Where will this money come from?

The government appears to think that it would come from a proportionate reduction in university library budgets. Eventually, the Open Access model may possibly reduce the costs of journal subscriptions for university libraries. (Personally, I don’t think this will happen unless the United States also adopts the Open Access model). Eventually, that could free up some funds to transfer to the research budgets of universities, but that won’t happen in the short term.

Some universities may ask the academics to pay for publishing costs out of their personal finances. That simply isn’t going to fly, since it would represent a marked reduction in the salaries of the academics in question. In fact, it might accelerate the brain drain from British to overseas universities.

Moreover, young academics, such as PhD students do not have access to the research budgets that a tenure-track professor does. This means that if a PhD student wants to publish an article, they will have to defray the costs out of their own pocket. This puts PhD students in a difficult situation, for in today’s job market, simply having a PhD is not enough to land your first academic job. You need to have at least one peer-reviewed article under your belt.

As I said in August 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…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. 

The shift to Open Access has implications for all academic disciplines.  Today, the Institute of Historical Research in London is hosting a conference about what Open Access means for historians. See details here. (I’ve pasted the full programme below). I can’t attend (for one thing, the country is blanketed in a foot of snow) but I would be grateful if a reader could send me a summary of what was said there.

The Finch Report, open access and the historical community

1.30        Registration

1.50        Introduction and welcome

2.00        Panel One

Philip Carpenter (VP and Managing Director, Social Sciences and Humanities, Scientific, Technical, Medical and Scholarly, Wiley)
Simon Chaplin (Head of the Wellcome Library)
Caren Milloy (Head of Projects, JISC Collections)
Daniel Pearce (Commissioning Editor, Humanities and Social Science Journals, Cambridge University Press)

3.00        Panel Two

Nicola Miller (Royal Historical Society Vice-President for Research Policy)
Christopher Wickham (Publications Secretary, British Academy)
Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, University of London)

4.00        Tea/coffee

4.15        Roundtable discussion

Edward Acton (Vice-Chancellor, University of East Anglia)
Kimm Curran (History Lab Plus)
Michael Jubb (Executive Director, Research Information Network)
Mark Llewellyn (Director of Research, Arts and Humanities Research Council)
Peter Mandler (Incoming President, Royal Historical Society)

5.30         Close

Registration is required, but there is no charge for attendance.