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.