Open Access, Canadian Style

3 03 2015

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been following the issue of Open Access academic publishing for quite some time. When the British government first mooted the possibility that all RCUK research would need to be published in Open Access format, I liked the idea. I then realised that the devil is in the details. Publishing an article in Open Access format means requires the author (or the author’s employer) to pay a fee that is typically around £1k to £2k. (When I published an article last year in a journal owned by Springer, a German firm, the fee was over €2,000). The requirement that an article has be published in Open Access to count for the next REF has been very controversial. I’ve covered this controversy in my blog posts on the Finch Report, Green Open Access, Gold Open Access, Open Access Week, etc. The key issue is that someone needs to pay for the costs of running journals and if people can read articles for free, it will be the authors and their employers who pay. Luckily, the minister in the UK government who was pushing the Open Access agenda, David Two-Brain Willetts, realised this and decided to set aside from money to be given to some British universities to cover article processing fees for their staff publications.  He made this change in response to criticism by Adrian Bailey MP who rightly pointed out that the rush to Open Access was going to cost universities more than anticipated.

I see from Ian Milligan’s blog that the Tri-Council research agency in Canada, which is equivalent to the RCUK, has decreed that funded research outputs there now need to be published Open Access. This story is of interest to me because I am part of collaborative grant funded by SSHRC, the social science research council in Canada.  I hope that the Canadian government has fully costed the impact of this move and has set aside funds so that it is revenue neutral for both academics and universities.  Let’s hope that the Canadian parliament has MPs who are as intelligent and far-sighted as Adrian Bailey. Unfortunately, Canadian parliaments typically have a lower level of human capital than their British equivalents.

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.

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.

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.