I recently finished reading a long essay by Daniel Allington, a sociologist, linguist, and book historian living in the UK. He’s been following the debates about open access (OA) in the UK quite closely, and has written a well-informed piece detailing the hopes, limitations, and mandates associated with OA. The essay, entitled, “On open access, and why it’s not the answer,” brings a very careful analytical style to the proceedings, something that we encounter too infrequently, I believe.
His conclusion? OA is not the solution, partially because advocates can’t agree on the problem to be solved, partially because the economics of the OA solution shift financing but don’t solve the basic economic problems of science publishing, partially because OA seems far too disruptive for the purported benefits, and partially because the route to accessibility is only slightly dependent on economics but significantly dependent on expertise.
To give you an idea of what this essay is like, here is a brief excerpt about how Green OA and Gold OA appear to Allington:
One of the forms of open access . . . consists in the creation and use of repositories for research writing: databases, typically run by university libraries, into which ‘pre-prints’ (basically, manuscripts) of journal articles may be uploaded for free download by anyone with access to the internet. This has recently become known as ‘green’ open access. For reasons that I shall come to in section 2, I always considered it to be a good idea. However, in itself, it represents a further drain on university budgets (since repositories are not free to run), so it is hard to see how it can facilitate increased expenditure on monographs, unless libraries adopt the policy that where journal articles are available from repositories, journal subscriptions should be cancelled. But such a policy would clearly be unsustainable: journals would close, and the supply of journal articles for upload would dry up. That is presumably why Darnton has advocated more strongly for what is now known as ‘gold’ open access, which keeps journals open by moving the burden of payment from the reader to the writer. Yet as far as the junior scholars for whom Darnton has so much sympathy are concerned, this simply amounts to giving with one hand while taking with the other: it may make it easier for them to publish monographs, but it will certainly make it harder for them to publish journal articles, unless they are wealthy enough to pay for this themselves. Many of them, of course, can barely afford to eat.
Allington writes with clarity and panache, and voices some of the limitations of OA careful readers of this blog will likely have encountered before:
- Research reports hosted on public web sites are the best solution to the claim that taxpayers have a right to see the results of research they’ve supported; however, requirements for grant recipients to produce these reports are not enforced and the sites hosting what is written are far from comprehensive and difficult to use
- Most journals are affordable, and citing only extreme examples to drive the conversation isn’t fair
- OA advocates tend to conflate problems (e.g., library access with subscription prices with domain expertise with taxpayer status), which makes each problem harder to solve or address in a practical way
- Lack of access has always been a problem, and there are good solutions that are not as disruptive as OA, like authors emailing PDFs to interested people
- Making scientific content comprehensible for a lay audience takes a lot of time and effort, which goes well beyond mere access issues
- Price increases for libraries have been driven mainly by the amount of content being generated by scientists, raising the possibility that rather than price increases being too great, the real problem is that library budgets may be unrealistically low
- Solutions based on technology alone invite the possibility that a single, large, for-profit technology provider will replace a diverse mix of publishers, many of which are society-based or non-profit
- Gold OA will likely only work for academics at the richest institutions, creating closed access further upstream, a situation that may be harder to repair later and which may be more damaging to young academics than any subscription barriers could possibly be
One reason why these arguments may not be new to our readership is that four Scholarly Kitchen posts are cited by Allington.
Allington makes some other points that made me want to stand up and shout in recognition:
- The demonization of publishers has not helped the academic community, which needs publishers to give them the journals they rely on
- Authors are not producing work for publishers, but for other academics; publishers produce finished works for academics; portraying academics as “unpaid labor” for publishers gets the relationship wrong, as publishers are in fact paid labor for academics, who are the ultimate consumers
- Careers in publishing are getting harder, especially in editorial roles, which is leading to fewer young professionals pursuing these paths, bad news for the future of high-quality scientific communication
His assessment of Gold OA is particularly penetrating, as captured to some extent by this selection:
. . . it’s hard to see how this [Gold OA] will further the cause of public communication of knowledge, espoused by Bell and Fuller and given lip service at least by many open access advocates: the pay-to-say system was devised in order to permit elite academics to continue publishing in the manner to which they had become accustomed, they will be under no obligation to write in a manner more accessible to an audience of non-specialists, and their publishers will be paid in advance even if no-one ever so much as downloads the articles they turn out. Willetts will get what he wants, as will Monbiot, but, as noted above, what they want (i.e. the free online dissemination of research findings) could have been achieved by less disruptive means. Ironically, no money will be saved by the public purse unless the system is shrunk and less research is published.
There are important insights into academic attitudes on offer, as well, such as the ones in this passage about free content on his institutional repository:
Because I don’t want pre-publication copies of my work floating around on the internet (referencing such versions is problematic, and even though I work in disciplines that ignore citation metrics, unquotable articles are less useful to their potential users than quotable ones are), what I have uploaded to ‘my’ institutional repository are electronic copies of the actual published articles, which means that the would-be reader cannot simply click on a button for a download, but must submit a request (by filling out a web form) that I in turn must approve (by clicking a button) – this being legally equivalent to said reader’s phoning me up and asking for an off-print, which I subsequently choose to drop in the post. This in turn has had the interesting side effect of keeping me informed as to who is getting the free copies. Somewhat predictably, it turns out to be the same sorts of people to whom an academic of a previous generation would have been mailing off-prints: postgraduate students, other academics, and the very occasional independent scholar. . . . on the face of it, it seems quite unlikely that a person unwilling to make the effort to fill out such a short form (it has only five compulsory fields, one of which is a dropdown menu and one of which is a CAPTCHA challenge) will be willing to plough through several thousand words of densely-written academic prose, unleavened even by the sort of weak humour in which an academic blogger may indulge from time to time.
I’m going to stop quoting Allington with that. He has written a long, thoughtful essay about OA in the UK that merits careful reading and reflection. He’s well-informed, fair, and considered in his approach — things we should all aspire to.
The comments are worthwhile, as well, such as this selection from the first comment:
. . . my final thought is that recent things I have been hearing suggest that publishers are not anticipating huge changes to their income streams any time soon, which makes me wonder what the point is . . . except perhaps to further privilege the dominance of big funders/ research councils in setting the agenda and reinforcing such hierarchies within universities as well.
Statements like “this is the best thing I’ve ever read about open access” are consistently found in the comments. Let this post add to that praise. Well done, Daniel Allington.