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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Lisa Jardine and Open Access
Today's Point of View on the nascent culture of data sharing amongst astronomers in the latter half of the seventeenth century was quite well done. For Lisa Jardine, Newton may have been a bit of a bastard in his unwillingness to share credit, but it's Flamsteed's unwillingness to share data that makes him the real villain of the piece. There was nothing super-new here, but it was a nicely-crafted 10-minute piece, right up until the last couple of sentences, when Jardine sought to draw a modern parallel:

There is some anxiety currently in the academic community, especially in the humanities, over Government insistence that publicly-funded research must in future be Open Access. I declare myself to be a strong advocate for collaboration and sharing of data in all fields of intellectual endeavour.


Well, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't an advocate for collaboration and the sharing of data (perhaps it's more common in science), but this seems a very lopsided way of putting the case for Open Access - as if Open Access and free data sharing were the same thing, and the main obstacle in its path were the dog-in-a-manger attitude of humanities academics.

Now, don't get me wrong - Open Access is there to address a real problem. Academic publishers charge a bomb for their journals, meaning that most people can't read them unless they have access to a university library. Why shouldn't the public be able to get at publicly-funded research, after all?

Why indeed? From where I'm standing it seems that the academic publishers are a bit of cartel. They have some costs, of course - for materials, design, production, distribution, etc., but their copy is provided free by academics, and their main quality control mechanism - i.e. peer review - is also provided free, also by academics. So, one approach might be to try to get academic publishers to lower their prices. But those publishers are mostly international companies, and the government has a way of throwing its hands up whenever asked to make an international company do anything at all.

Instead, it's moving to Open Access, which sounds lovely, but is more accurately described as a move from a pay-to-read to a pay-to-publish model. In other words, under Government proposals anyone who wants to publish in a journal will now have to pay for the privilege, or get their institution to do so.

We're not talking a nominal sum, either. When I published my article "Critiqing Calypso" recently, I was given the option of publishing Open Access, but it would have cost me £2,000 - and that, I believe, is at the lower end of the scale. So I declined, and accordingly to read it at the official site will cost you £29.95 / $39.95 / €34.95. Alternatively, you can read an unofficial version for nothing here (because I do believe in actual open access). Yes, this is allowed under the terms of my contract with Springer - the free version has not been set by them - but it means that there are now two slightly different versions of the article out there, which can't be good.

As yet, my institution doesn't have a fund to pay Open Access fees. Perhaps it will, once the system's up and running - I believe they're considering it - but as you've probably gathered, there's not a lot of spare cash around in universities at the moment. It's inevitable that the universities with the most money - Oxbridge, obviously, but also other Russell Group universities such as Professor Jardine's own UCL - will have far more resources to fund academic publication than post-'92 institutions such as my own. Ironically, the result of Open Access may well be that research, far from being easier to access, doesn't get published at all in peer-reviewed journals - not because it lacks academic quality but because the researchers can't afford the fees. (Individual researchers working outside institutions, and researchers working in less affluent countries, will be in an even more parlous situation.) Of course, research can still be put out on the web, but that's not going to count for much when the REF (or whatever it's called next time) comes around. Open Access, which looks on the face of it like an egalitarian and democratic move, may in effect serve only to shore up the privileges of the already-rich. (This is, after all, the Russell Group's raison d'être - and I commend them for finding such a clever Trojan stalking horse on this occasion.)

What we really need, if we can't get reasonably-priced academic journals (seems unlikely) and we can't get properly-resourced Open Access (seems even less likely), is a workers' cooperative: a not-for-profit, peer-reviewed forum, web-based and low cost, that will operate on a genuine open access basis. I'd suggest this could be operated as a charity (hey, Eton manages it), or else funded through low contributions by authors that reflect the actual costs of running such a site - in which case, I would be surprised if that £2,000 figure didn't come down to something more like £20. The problem would then be a) to get academics to want to publish in it, which in itself would depend on b) getting the REF (or equivalent) to recognize its bona fides - a chicken-and-egg task, but perhaps one the Government should get behind?
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On the other hand, the universities would no longer have to pay to buy journals, so they can re-direct the funds and sack some librarians?

There ought in theory to be some savings on journal subs, it's true. In practice, it's not clear how much of that money will find its way into funding pay-to-publish - but more importantly, the point about the new system favouring rich universities stands, because of course they currently have far larger budgets for journal subscriptions. We are used to libraries having limited budgets, and on that putting a cap on how many journals we can afford to subscribe to; under Open Access that situation gets turned on its head, and we will have limited publishing budgets instead - and if your institution exceeds theirs, then sorry, you can't publish in Nature or PMLA or whatever, no matter how good your research.

The real question we need to ask is why Universities turned away from open access to *their libraries*. When I was a student any one could go and read at most university libraries. This is no longer the case.

If the public fund the universities, they should have access to the libraries. A much cheaper solution.

It's a good question, but I think it's becoming less relevant thanks to the migration to online access. I don't know about your university, but at mine very few current journals sit on the shelf any longer. The university can't afford paper copies and subscriptions to JSTOR, Literature Online, Project Muse, EEBO and the other databases out there, so they've given a hostage to fortune and are now wholly reliant on access to those databases. Anyone wandering in (or trying remote access) would need a login and password, which under the terms of their licence the university would not be able to give them. This is of course the very problem that Open Access is meant to solve.

As far as access to books is concerned, then I agree entirely.

Edited at 2013-03-17 01:07 pm (UTC)

Last I checked -- but things may have changed; I'll ask -- at my school the library terminals don't require anything but a nominal login to use them. (Username: and password both the word public). And I think that's just to use the terminal; the library ip-address is always logged in to JSTOR.

Nature has always charged for publication; I think that's standard in the high profile science journals.

the library ip-address is always logged in to JSTOR

And anyone can come in off the street to use it? I'd be very surprised if the JSTOR licence allows that.

I didn't know that about Nature. So, people have to pay to publish in it, and they have to pay to buy it? That's a neat trick if you can get away with it. And I suppose, if you're Nature you can - no one's going to call it a vanity publication. (Same as no one calls Oxford a degree mill, even though it sells MAs for money - or certainly did until recently.)

As I say, things may have changed. But I am pretty sure that anyone can come in off the street and use it. Aaron Swartz didn't get into trouble for coming in off the street to download at MIT, but for violating the license through massive simultaneous downloads, which were forbidden.

Yes, I'm sure that's right. I do have a university login at the University of Washington, but I don't have to use it to access journal databases. But no one, whether they've got a login or not, can have remote access (okay, maybe faculty, not sure about that).

So I finally checked, and yes, anyone can come in off the street and use JSTOR. Many private colleges and universities don't permit open access to their facilities as we do, so this is perhaps a little anamolous. But 1) any university library which is a repository for the US government archive (and there are many) must
allow the public in on application to use that archive, which then gives it access to JSTOR too. 2) Public universities (as ethelmay suggests) must by law give access to the public, which funds them. Indeed state residents are entitled to borrowing privileges similar to those of the students (pupils, would you say?).

This all sounds very reasonable to me. I wish the situation were the same in the UK, but in my experience (which is admittedly far from comprehensive) it is not so.

I had no idea. Thank you for writing this.

> a not-for-profit, peer-reviewed forum, web-based and low cost, that will operate on a genuine open access basis

UChicago is doing something like that with First Monday: http://www.firstmonday.org/


Thanks for the link - that looks an interesting model!

Open access journals should be free to read on-line and free to publish in--the quite minimal costs to put everything on a server ought to be covered by the same sources that usually provide grants to academics--the government, universities, foundations, etc.

I'm not au fait with the financial practicalities of running a journal, but this seems very plausible to me, and a far better alternative than the kind of "Open Access" currently being considered.

If you have to pay 2000 (Euros, pounds or dollars), you might as well give it to Brill--or am i naive about how much they charge these days?

I don't know how much Brill charges, I'm afraid! I had particular reasons for publishing that article where I did, as it was a follow-up to an earlier one published in the same place.

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First, universities/faculties will now get to determine precisely what is and is not submitted for publication in academic journals. This cannot be healthy.

Very good point. It doesn't stop one publishing elsewhere, but it certainly allows the university to promote certain kinds of research, and potentially to use funding as a weapon to encourage or discourage particular lines of enquiry.

So, almost certainly, will recent research students who are seeking an academic career but do not yet have a post in a university.

I should have mentioned that. I expect that many institutions will set up a fund for current research students to publish - because, after all, it reflects well on their research environment, which is one of the things they're judged by. However, if you finish your PhD and don't manage to walk straight into a job, forget it.

As for the question of rankings - yes, this is where I see the Government having a role. It ultimately sets the terms of the REF, and the role that rankings play in it. (Nominally I think that panels aren't meant to consider provenance when assessing the quality of research, but does anyone believe that?) However, since the Russell Group already largely sets the terms of debate over the REF, ensuring that funding allocations are already skewed to their own institutions and likely to become more so, I don't see this problem being addressed in the foreseeable future.

I have just hit a problem where one of my students needed Article A to support his point. He'd been arguing with Article A already, using only the quotations from and summary of Article A that appeared in Article B. I told him he had to go directly to Article A, because it's not fair to debate an article he hasn't actually read. I told Student he could get the article from our university-subscribed databases.

However, as the student discovered (the day before the paper deadline, aargh), the databases contain Journal A from 2002 onward, but Article A was printed in 1992. It's too late to order the article from Interlibrary Loan. Wiley, the consortium that provides access to the journal, charges $35 to any member of the public who wants a twenty-four-hour period of access to the single article. $35, for a twenty-year-old twenty-page article, and it's not even downloadable. At the end of the twenty-four hours, the article ceases to exist! For a journal article for which the author and most of the editors were almost certainly not paid! Completely appalling and inappropriate. I had to tell the student that I'd let him write about the mediated article, this time.

That real open-access scheme you suggest must happen. The current system is unconscionable.

I've had very similar problems just in the last week, too. Our access ends at 1993, but the article my students need for an assignment dates from 1992. Luckily I was in time to order it up in good time, because a student alerted me, but it will still have cost the library extra - and this is for a journal we subscribe to!

As an amateur scholar who over time has tried to research a variety of subjects, I definitely feel the pain of Closed Access.

Absolutely. The problem Open Access was meant to address is a real problem, even if Open Access isn't a real solution.