The phrase “horns of a dilemma” describes someone faced with two equally unpleasant outcomes and forced to choose one. Step to left and risk evisceration from a charging bull; step the right and meet the same fate. There is no way to avoid harm with the exception of refusing to step into the ring in the first place.
In the last year, many research libraries have established open access publication funds to encourage authors to select this publication route for their papers. The justification for these funds has been that they “level the playing field” between reader-pays and author-pays publication models and therefore make the system more fair.
In this post, I’ll argue that these open access publication funds create a dilemma, where librarians are forced to choose between fiscal irresponsibility and conflict with academic freedom. Since academic freedom is sacrosanct, they will choose fiscal irresponsibility. The result will lead to a system in which institutions cannot contain expenditures and a publication model that costs much more than the system we have in place today.
There are essentially two different ways in which one can govern an open access publication fund: manage it, or leave it alone. The latter is essentially what libraries have done so far. Authors submit their publication bills to the fund and a librarian simply reimburses them. Similarly, one could get “pre-approval” (just like working with health insurance companies), and the library will take care of the rest. When there are sufficient funds in these accounts, everyone is happy–faculty get what they want, which is to publish as much as they want. As long as someone other than the author pays the bill, everything is copasetic.
But the problem is that there won’t be sufficient funds in these accounts for long. Authors will view these funds as a free lunch, and certainly much more appetizing than spending one’s own money paying those pesky page charges to non-profit society journals. In the institution-pays OA model, one can have his cake and eat it, only it will cost the institution more money to feed its authors.
A fund that has no oversight is wide open to abuse. With administrators paying the bills, there is no reason for publishers (especially the commercial ones) to moderate prices since authors are insulated from paying out of pocket. When someone else is paying the bill, it makes sense for authors to go for the publishers who offer the best services, irrespective of the costs. This is the left-horn of the dilemma: a future of commercial open-access publishing that is completely unable to contain costs. (We will forget the potential for gaming the system for a moment.)
Alright, you say, we clearly need to provide oversight of these funds. Let’s set up advisory committees to make sure that we allocate these funds fairly. Like the Research Information Network report on establishing author publication funds maintains, priorities need to be set and policies written to deal with rejection and appeal requests. While this advice sounds reasonable, I have yet to see such a policy, and it’s clear why none have been written:
- How do you tell a graduate student you won’t reimburse her publication costs because the fees were too high, and then ask her to resubmit her manuscript to a lower-priced journal?
- How do you tell an assistant professor putting together a tenure portfolio that the fund has run out of money for the current fiscal year and to please re-apply next year?
- How do you respond to an angry department head that you are denying publication charges to a start-up journal (of which he is the editor), because there is anecdotal evidence that the publisher is running a vanity press?
The answer is, you can’t! You can’t because all of these reasons run straight into the right horn of the dilemma. That right horn is called “academic freedom,” and faced between an attack on academic freedom and fiscal irresponsibility, any librarian (in fact, anyone who understands scholarship), will choose fiscal irresponsibility .
One way out of the dilemma is to transfer more funds that were destined to pay for books, databases, and journal subscriptions into the author publication fund. When the fund runs dry, transfer more money. The only limit on these funds is the ability of authors to publish.
But there is one other solution–refuse to step into the ring. Refuse to establish a fund when it is obvious that the two outcomes are worse than the current situation. Refuse to follow other libraries just because they have jumped into the ring.
Those who are already in the ring need to find an exit strategy while they still have a chance.
 The pay-to-read (aka subscription) model avoids conflicts with academic freedom. Authors are not limited by their institution as to where they publish their work, only that there is no guarantee that their institution will provide access to that work. Librarians make choices over which titles provide good value for their institution, and through their collective choices, have moderating effects on market prices. I see no way in a author publication fund model to exert market forces and still allow authors the freedom to decide where they publish their work.