Increasing Resistance to Open Access in the UK

22 09 2013

It is nice to see that policymakers in this country are finalizing realising that there are problems with the model of Open Access David Willetts, the Minister of Science and Universities, has championed.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, my attitude towards Open Access has changed over time. I’ve long been supportive of the general principle that academic research should be placed online, without a paywall, for everyone to read. When the so-called Academic Spring of 2011 began, I cheered it on because its proponents favoured Open Access. I still like the general idea of Open Access. As the recent case of Ian Mosby’s research on Residential Schools in Canada illustrates, Open Access research can benefit society.

However, the devil is in details and it wasn’t clear in 2011 precisely how Open Access journals would be funded. It takes money to run a journal, even one that doesn’t distribute print copies. Right now, consumers of knowledge pay for it (hence the paywalls). If you eliminate paywalls, you need to find another source of funding.

The UK government, which is run by busybodies who like to micromanage universities, decided to become involved the debate on Open Access rather than simply allowing university librarians, disciplinary associations, publishers, and faculty unions to sort it out amongst themselves. They commissioned a sociologist to write a report. At this point, I became alarmed by the direction the Open Access movement was taking in the UK. As I reported at the time, the “Finch Report” advocated so-called Gold Open Access. Gold Open Access involves the author and/or the author’s employer paying an “article processing fee” to publish each item. In return for paying this fee, the article would be placed online sans paywall the moment it is published. This model was designed to protect the interests of the companies that publish journals. Under the rival Green Open Access model, article stay behind a paywall for a  few years, then becomes Open Access after the journal has made money from subscription fees and paywalls.

In 2012, the minister responsible for British universities endorsed the Gold Open Access model. I reported this move on my blog. As a long-time fan of the television program Yes, Minister, I think it would have been very interesting to watch the discussions that led up to this announcement.

The apparent reasoning behind the move was that the Gold Open Access model would pay for itself: universities would have to pay an article processing charge each time one of their academics published an article, but they would save a fortune in journal subscription fees. As I pointed out at this time, this reasoning was flawed as academic scholarship and the publishing industry are highly international and the goal of eliminating journal subscription fees will only be accomplished if all of the research-producing nations agree to adopt Open Access at more or less the same time. If they don’t, UK universities will have the double burden of paying article processing charges for their own academics while still paying subscription fees to the American and other journals they require. In any case, the nationality of academic journals is hard to determine, as I pointed out in a blog post. The creators of the Finch Report appear to be under the impression that UK universities exist in some sort of closed system in which they only subscribe to British journals and their academics only publish in British journals. In my view, this belief is likely connected to the fact the author of the report, Janet Finch, has spent her entire academic career in UK universities and, judging from her CV, has published pretty much exclusively on British topics and with British publishers such as Allen and Unwin, Routledge, and Polity Press. This certainly isn’t to say she that is an inferior academic compared to be people who are more international or who are able to disseminate research via publishers based in countries not their own. However, this personal background likely influenced the thinking that went into the Finch Report.


I wrote in 2012 that:

“Some universities may ask their 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.”

Make no mistake: it would be a marked reduction in net pay. This week, I heard a representative of an academic publisher say that the article processing charge will be about £1,200 per item. For someone who publishes two articles a year, that’s a substantial reduction in take home pay.

The suicide of Aaron Swartz galvanized the Open Access movement by highlighting some of the problems with the existing paywall model of academic publishing. I blogged about the likely impact of his martyrdom. The University of California system generated a great deal of attention earlier this year when it announced that all of its academics would be required to publish in Open Access journals. However, when people took a closer look at this policy, they realised that there were so many loopholes in this requirement that this commitment to Open Access was essentially meaningless: UC academic authors will not be penalized in any way if they publish in non-Open Access journals. As an academic blogger observed at the time:

So basically the UC policy works like this. If the publisher allows it, then the article will be posted by the repository immediately. If there is a publisher-specified embargo period then it will be honored. If there is no such period then the article will not be posted by the repository. In short the UC repository is simply doing whatever the publisher allows. How this is a political victory for OA is beyond me. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that none of this is mentioned in the UC press release or the FAQ.

The University of California released an FAQ for concerned faculty worried about the Open Access policy.  Item 23 in the FAQ indicates that this Open Access policy is voluntary:

23. My publisher is offering me Open Access for $(absurd amount). Should I pay for this?

Not unless you want to. The policy gives you the right to make a version of the article available in the eScholarship repository without paying fees to anyone. Paying for this kind of open access (often called “hybrid” open access, because it makes a single article in a closed access journal openly available) will allow your article to be immediately available on the publisher’s site. You should however, verify that the license terms and availability of the article will be better than the rights you have already reserved under this policy.

Anyway, I am very pleased to see that a committee of British MPs have come to their senses are questioning the move to Open Access being championed by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government. The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which chaired by a Labour MP named Adrian Bailey was highly critical in a report it released earlier this month.  According to the Times Higher Education supplement:

According to the committee’s report, there is “a considerable volume of evidence” suggesting that the average article fees used in the Finch Report’s calculations was “very high”. There was a risk that, despite the report’s intentions, the figure was seen by publishers as a “benchmark”.

Article fees are unlikely to be driven down unless researchers are made more sensitive to them by allowing them to pay for article fees out of their own grants, the MPs add.

Their report also calls for the subscription prices that institutions pay to be made public. It says the non-disclosure agreements by which they are typically shrouded present a “significant obstacle” to efforts to drive the price down. If publishers do not respond to representations, the government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission, the committee says.

I’m glad to see that MPs from all parties are injecting a bit of common sense into this debate. It remains to be seen whether the government actually listens. I suspect that something dramatic will have to take place before the government reconsiders. Just as the suicide of Aaron Swartz energized the Open Access movement in the US, it may take the emigration of a prominent British academic to cause the British government to reconsider Gold Open Access.

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.

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.