We need to talk about Kevin, er, Open Access

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The American Historical Association recently came out with a cautious statement about open access to humanities scholarship. I concur with their concerns about the recommendations made in the Finch Report. That report, the fruits of a UK government task force that included government officials, scientists, and publishers, more or less argues two things: publicly-funded research results should be accessible to all and, in order to create a model to accomplish that, publishers’ expenses should be covered by authors and their proxies, not by readers and their proxies. It’s a great recipe for sustaining publishing corporations. It is not a particularly good way of making research accessible. After all, the publishers who make the highest profits got us into an unsustainable situation. Why should the solution be designed to keep their revenue streams flowing with public dollars?

That said, the open access movement is not about finding ways to sustain publishers, any more than all of our health care reform solutions depend on maintaining the revenues of insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations, and paying for whatever expensive tests doctors might have incentives to order. There are two distinct issues in play.

  • Too few people have access to research, and that diminishes our ability as human beings to use the fruits of scholarship to better ourselves.
  • The current system is more expensive than it needs to be.

A simple answer to a complex problem is to find lower-cost ways of making research more widely available. This is doable. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.

The trouble is that developing cheaper methods of providing research results to anyone who wants to see them means changing the way we do things, and that threatens publishers’ business models. Since authors and readers are accustomed to relying on publishers, that threatens them, too. Scholars know how to publish under the current system. Doing things differently is scary. Scholars also know how to get their hands on published research – as an exclusive member benefit of their scholarly society, from the library, or from friends who work at an institution with a bigger library. If they can’t get their hands on published research, some scholars may blame their institution’s administration for spending money on athletics instead of the library, or the library for failing to spend its money on the right things, or themselves for not finding work at a better-funded university. Others see the larger social issue and wonder how it can be fixed.

Finding new ways to publish work isn’t hard, technically. The tools are available and in many cases free, and most of the labor is already part of a gift economy. It’s far cheaper today to distribute research widely than it was in the days of print, though yes, it takes people, and universities are squeezed, so faculty and support staff have less time available for projects that support the public good rather than enhance their institutions’ reputation exclusively. But still, we could take the resources the current system is consuming and make most research free to all. Technically.

Much harder is changing the cultural practices that surround publishing, the ones that assign value to certain prestigious journals and university presses, and then assign value to scholars by proxy, relying on publishers to curate our faculties (a task university presses didn’t sign on for, I should add). Big publishers have built and propagated digital platforms that are populated by thousands of journals, and their investments were made based on subscriptions that have yielded handsome shareholder profits. They have every reason to want to sustain those revenues, one way or another. Scholarly societies, founded to advance their disciplines, often rely on their publishing programs to reward those who renew their membership dues and to generate income they count on from libraries. Many of them – and more all the time – have outsourced their publishing to large corporations that can put them into their big digital platforms, streamline the collection of fees, and provide revenue streams with relatively little hassle. (When you click on a link to join a non-profit society and it takes you to a for-profit publishing corporation, the tail is wagging the dog.)

The AHA is right to criticize the idea that we fund open access by shifting the same costs from the reader side to the author side. That may work for some publications in some disciplines. But it doesn’t begin to address inequity of access and costs we can’t sustain as they are currently. Those are the problems we need to solve if we believe research has social value, not just marketplace value.

But saying “we have to talk about open access” based on fear that governments may require authors to pay thousands of dollars to publish an article is a bit like saying “we have to talk about health care reform” because people are worried about death panels.

For some wise commentary on this issue see what librarian Micah Vandergrift and historian Dan Cohen have to say.

Barbara is a librarian who works at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota

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