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.

David Willetts and the Global Intellectual Commons

3 05 2012

David Willetts, the UK’s Science Minister, had endorsed the open-access movement in academic publishing.  See here, here, and here. Indeed, he did so in a speech to the Publishers Association, the lobby group that represents some of the companies that are currently in the business of academic publishing. Willetts has enlisted the services of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who will help with the details of a system that will make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it. The theory is that taxpayers have a right to read the research their money has paid for.

One of the issues that Willetts is confronting is the free-rider problem: if one research-producing country, in this case the UK, makes academic research a public good by putting it on the internet for everyone to see, citizens of other countries will be able to take advantage of their generosity will continue to charge people in the UK to read their research.

Willetts said:

“There are clear trade-offs. If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost? If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?”

I understand why Willetts would say this, but I think that his concerns are misplaced. First, making it easier for foreigners to read and cite British research will increase the collective global impact factor of British academics. Second, Britain may build up goodwill in the world by putting its research online for free.  The BBC World Service and the BBC website add immensely to Britain’s soft power in the world. Third, showcasing academic research online would be great advertising for British universities, which crave the income that foreign students bring. (Higher education is one of Britain’s leading exports). Lastly and most importantly, the world of intellectual inquiry is not a zero-sum game. If, say, a British biologist puts some information online that helps a researcher in India to do something that contributes to the finding a cure for cancer, British taxypayers, at least those who have cancer, will benefit.

David Willetts also said

“Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the forefront of openresearch. The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.”

This is absolutely correct. The employees of Elsevier and the other much-vilified companies that publish academic research behind paywalls do add value beyond that supplied by the authors of articles on the unpaid volunteers who do peer review. For one thing, the copyediting done by these corporations makes research look more presentable.  It is entirely right and proper that these firms be compensated for this service. The question is whether they should be compensated via the people who read academic articles or by the taxpayer. The UK is a net exporter of academic research, which adds tens of millions to the UK’s current account each year.

What we have right now with the academic journals hidden behind Jstor and other paywalls is a tragedy of the anti-commons. I’ve always looked at the Academic Spring (and the whole issue of IP more generally) through the lens of the literature on the tragedy of the anti-commons. A great book on this issue is Michael Heller’s The Gridlock Economy  How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Live.

Collectively, we would all be better off if we turned this anti-commons into a global commons.  However, it is also fair that we compensate existing stakeholders, including the academic publishing industry, as we move from one regime to another. In fact, doing so is politically expedient, for without the promise of compensation, the stakeholders will fight hard to preserve the status quo.

One hopes that the Finch Working Group  comes up with a model that is both fair and efficient.

You can read more here.

A Few Thoughts on the Academic Spring

26 04 2012

Recently, there has been quite a lot of attention in the media and the blogosphere about the whole issue of open-access journals. The issue is this: academics in taxpayer-funded universities produce research in the form of articles that they publish in journals run by for-profit corporations. The said corporations then sell the research, which they got for free, for a princely sum. Journal subscriptions are expensive, which means that most taxpayers are unable to read the research they have paid for unless they are members of a university community.  The Economist magazine, which is hardly known for its left-wing views or hostility to the profit motive, recently denounced the whole academic publishing industry, noting that profit margins in it extremely high. Of course, they are high: most of the actual work (writing articles, editing journals, doing the peer-reviewing) is done by volunteers.

Faced with the escalating costs of journal subscriptions, which is eating a big hole in university library budgets, some academics are saying that they want to boycott this whole system and publish all future research in open-access journals. Open-access journals put articles online so that everybody can read them. No account, no fees, no passwords. The paywall is gone.

Tim Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician, sparked the current wave of protest against the academic publishing industry with a blog post in January in which he basically declared war on Elsevier, one of multinationals that publishes a stable of journals. Gowers said that he was going to boycott Elsevier journals and would refuse to publish in them or do peer-review.  Within 24 hours, another academic had set up a website, The Cost of Knowledge, so that academics could join the boycott. The movement against journal paywalls, which some have dubbed the Academic Spring, has gathered movement since then. Harvard University, the Wellcome Trust (which funds science), and the British government have endorsed the principle of open-access. For a round-up of recent developments, see here.

I’m broadly supportive of this movement. I also kinda like the thinking behind a proposal by Peter Coles, a theoretical astrophysicist who says only open-access research should count towards the Research Excellence Framework, or REF. The REF is a census of research worth that the British government uses to determine how much money to give to each university department for research. If a department has produced lots of books and articles and these articles are judged to be of first-class quality, then the government will give that department a fairly generous appropriation over the next few years. The elegant beauty of Coles’s proposal is that it would incentivise academics to put their best papers into open-access journals.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that we should adopt the ideas of the open-access movement. Consider the proposal by Peter Coles, who seems to think that research will only ever be presented in the form of articles. That may well be true in his field, but in history there is still a lot of weight attached to the monograph. A paper book can’t be free to the public, although I agree that academics should be encouraged to write books that will be sold at reasonable prices. (Full disclosure: I’m currently working on two books, a strictly academic one that will sell for a high price and a book with more popular appeal that will appear in paperback).

There is another problem with the Open-Access movement.  It isn’t free to run a journal, even an online journal that dispenses with the cost of ink and paper. Editors, copyeditors, programmers, etc., all need to be paid. This raises the question of who is going to pay for open-access journals.  Governments have provided a bit of funding for open-access scholarly publishing. For instance, the wonderful new open-access Journal of Historical Biography was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).  For more details of SSHRC’s grant program for open access journals, see here.

However, in an age of austerity in most of the research intensive nations (e.g., the US, the UK, etc), governments probably won’t be willing to fund the production costs associated with all the journals that might want to become open-access. Even in the best of times, national governments would be unwilling to pay much to support open-access scholarly journals, since academic journals, if they are in English, are produced for the benefit of readers throughout the world. No single-nation state has an incentive to make academic research a global public good, any more than New York City Hall would undertake to pay from street-lighting throughout the United States.  Moreover,  one can count on the academic publishing industry lobbying against government grants to open-access journals. “We can’t compete with taxpayer funded open-access journals. We pay taxes”.

This means that we will have recourse to the author-pays model, whereby the author of an article pays a fee to publish it. In most cases, it is the employer of the author who pays. Universities have a strong incentive to pay for the publication of articles written by their professors, as they have already invested so much in the production of the article in terms of the professor’s time, money for research costs, etc.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that all academic journals move to the open access model. This will mean that universities have to devote less money to library budgets and more money to faculty research budgets, the budgets within universities that right now support things like, say, a historian travelling to a distant archive or a scientist buying rats for an experiment.

Libraries, like all university departments, are very territorial, and will resist having their budgets cut so that funds can be transfer to another branch of the university. We can expect this to be the case even if the new regime, open access, will save money for universities overall.

I envision nasty bureaucratic infighting if open-access publishing ever becomes common in the scholarly world.  I’m not saying open-access is a bad principle, but a shift to it would have unintended consequences. University administrators need to start thinking about them now.

Moreover, some universities are clearly net producers of knowledge, whereas others are net consumers. There is a free-rider problem there that the open-access model can’t quite address.