Why Open Access Makes Sense, and its Detractors Don’t

It has now been several months since Networked Researcher hosted its wonderful Open Access Unconference, and several weeks since the untimely death of Open Access Reformer Aaron Schwartz. Although my initial feelings about open access were very strong, I felt it proper to wait, and to reflect critically, before weighing in on the OA debate.

When I first entered university,  I was very confused by the concept of published research. I had, like many, believed academic authors were paid in the same manner as freelance journalists, per piece, or per word, by the publication in question; books, of course, would earn the same scale of royalties as popular fiction. Having attended university in the States, where relying on the library a key textbook was madness, academic publishing seemed a very lucrative side business. Little did I know.

When I began to prepare my first article for submission, I learned that although the publication of peer-reviewed articles was vital to your career, this work was done, essentially, gratis. Your university, I was told by my supervisor, paid you to research and publish as part of your salary. It was, as I understood it then, a product produced by the university by its employees, for prestige–a way to secure grants and student tuition–as well as the grand, humanitarian ideals associated with the furtherance of human knowledge. Fair enough, I supposed, so long as salaries were commensurate with the work. Little did I know.

It was only when I began my graduate studies that I finally understood the true cost of the current publication regime. I had, in many ways, been spoiled as an undergraduate, having easy access to a wide variety of hard-copy and electronic journals through my university, and even more through the American Antiquarian Society, the legal deposit library down the street from my flat. When my undergraduate access expired, before my graduate account was activated, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of paying for access to JSTOR and ProjectMuse.

Over the next few years, as I moved from department to department, I found myself constantly barred from some journal, some database, that I desperately needed. When I begged my librarians for subscriptions, I was politely informed just how much electronic subscriptions cost. As the only researcher in my department who needed this particular publication, how I could I ever justify such a recurring expense?

Journal publication must be an expensive endeavour; that was the only explanation. A few informal chats with journal editors, who all worked for free or for very small honorariums by their scholarly societies,  soon convinced me it was all a racket. Research was done gratis, as was authorship. Peer review was done gratis (without even the small perks available to STEM researchers, such as free colour pages for your own submissions). Editing was done for very little, if not for free, and certainly well below the market value of such efforts. The only process that seemed to genuinely ‘cost money’ was hard-copy production and distribution. Surely cutting out the middleman, and publishing electronically, was the obvious answer.

But there seemed to be a large amount of resistance to free electronic publication. Some of it came from expected, vested interests, such as Elsevier and JSTOR. Others objectors were more surprising, such as the presidents of scholarly societies and a large proportion of academic researchers. This gave me pause. Was there something I simply had not understood? Was I just a spiky, adolescent researcher with no concept of the difficulties Open Access faced. After a great deal of reflection, I must say no. I understood. They are wrong.

But rather than generalise (a cardinal sin in academic writing), let me address what I have found to be the main arguments against moving towards electronic, open access publication of all scholarly research.

Scholarly Societies

The Argument:

Scholarly publications within society journals provides a centralized space for researchers within a specialism to share their research as well as develop a scholarly discourse. Moreover, the subscriptions support the societies other activities, such as meetings and early career support.

My Rebuttal:

I am an advocate of scholarly communities, especially as part of a development process from undergraduate to emeritus professor. However, what I find most valuable about these organisations is not their journal. In previous generations, when meetings and contact was more difficult, journals provided a single point of convergence, of conversation, for all members of a field, regardless of their ability to attend meetings or otherwise communicate with the wider community. This is no longer the case. On the one hand, the majority of researchers now use search or other facilities to obtain research from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary publications. My own collection of hard copy journals remains in remarkably pristine condition as I usually search the electronic archives of key publications rather than break the spine on my own copies.

However, I do find conferences, and meetings, very valuable experiences that I would not want to lose. I, therefore, think that rather than have journals subsidize meetings and grants, conference fees and institutional contributions should finance these grants and gatherings. When I organised workshops and conferences for the History Subject Centre, I relied on a small budget (less than £1000 for an event). This covered catering, travel expenses for speakers and some bursaries for postgraduates. Everything else was accomplished through the good will of academics (speakers) and institutions (venues and HEA subscriptions for the initial £1000).  Surely, this sort of good will and responsibility can make the much larger budget of a conference (where fees are typically paid by attendees) support the other activities of the society and allow its publications to be set free. It is much simpler, moreover, to obtain funding for conference attendance than for Gold Open Access publication.

Providers and Curators of Electronic Databases

The Argument:

Providing a robust and accessible collection of materials, available electronically throughout the world, through a simply authentication system, costs money.

My Rebuttal:

Although server fees are certainly a factor in the provision of electronic materials, a surprisingly large amount of money is lost through duplication. Individual databases, from publishers and repositories, duplicate core functionality as well as technical services. Although I am reluctant to tell these engineers that they are redundant (and thus increase unemployment) their services would surely be more useful in other growing fields, such as working with less technically competent academics attempting to engage with the digital humanities. Moreover, subscriptions by institutions and especially individuals are in no way representative to the actual costs associated with making these material available.

The ‘other’ Argument:  

Digitizing millions of pages of hard-copy publications, performing optical character recognition on each, and making this information available through a robust search facility, costs money.

My Rebuttal:

For publishers, this argument simply does not hold water. These resources are digitised as part of the production process (and easily replicated by any copy of Word or Adobe) and this does not require extensive outlays of capital. For repositories such as JSTOR, the argument is stronger. However, as JSTORs acquisitions shift from scanned hard-copies to documents that already exist in digital form, the rationale for inflated subscription rates diminishes. Moreover, have not the subscriptions of the past decades already compensated the initial costs of digitisation? Could institutions such as universities not receive reduced subscriptions costs in return for making using their own digitisation processes to complete the back catalogue?

Hard-copy Publishers

The Argument:

We are a dying industry. Give us your money!

My Rebuttal:

This is a tad simplistic, I grant you. But just because an industry is finding a shift in technological difficult does not necessarily require us to save it when doing so contradicts our (and our stakeholders) best interests. I love books, and there will always be a place for hard-copy publication. I just do not feel that scholarly journal publication is one of those places. Do we need to distribute hard copies? Are those locations that have the resources to obtain, store, and make these copies available not the same places that can afford internet access and basic computer terminals? With the growth of eReaders and tablets, when was the last time you chose a hard-copy publication of a article that was available electronically? Indeed, in developing countries, internet access is a far better use of limited resources than a curated collection of key journals.

(Early Career) Researchers

The Argument:

Promotion and recognition relies on publication within specific journal spaces, which, through their audience and established peer-review structure, validates research as being of a particular quality.

My Rebuttal:

Nonsense. I mean this one. Although there is certainly prestige attached to printing in selective journals, this does not mean it is a system worth maintaining. Should young scholars not be judged on their own merits, rather than if generalist journals (as most flagship journals are) deem their work relevant to their particular (and rather wide) audience? Should not niche, but very detailed and scholarly work, not be considered as worthwhile? Are committees so overburdened that they must rely on the judgement of others to determine worth and value? What would we tell our students about thinking for themselves? Reputation should be earned by the work, not simply by the stamp of approval of an editor and a small selection of (anonymous) peer reviewers.  I value the open comments and dialogues I have with my post-publication reviewers far more than the scribbled paragraphs I receive anonymously pre-publication.

The second point, often raised, is that journal publication prevents researchers from embarrassing themselves. In a recent response to the Open Access debate, Anthony Grafton apparently “compared the peer review process to P.G. Wodehouse’s character Jeeves—assuring that authors are not out “wearing their magenta socks”. Although I was not at this year’s AHA Annual Meeting, I have certainly heard similar sentiments elsewhere. Indeed, my own students are generally forbidden from using non-peer reviewed works in their scholarly endeavors. Am I courting disaster? No. As I said previously, these checks are done without the benefit of payment by an army of researchers whose main aim, it seems, is to further human knowledge and prevent magenta-sock-wearing. As for other forms of embarrassment, such as grammatical and typographical errors, these services are rarely provided by paid individuals, and certainly not by the publishers with whom I have worked. Indeed, publishing now often seems to be merely printing and (occasionally) promotion. If we do not want to be caught wearing magenta socks, we must simply be more diligent in our research and composition. Not too great a request I should think.

Funding bodies

The Argument:

Research must make an impact in your scholarly community and be validated as quality by appropriate (established) mechanisms.

My Rebuttal:

Much like the argument from researchers, I have heard some funding bodies raise concerns about open access journals (as opposed to Gold publication). They are, perhaps rightly, concerned that funded work will not be taking as seriously by those it is meant to impact if it does not have that seal of academic approval. They are almost certainly right, but this not a justification for continuing the current model. It is justification for changing the environment in which scholarly work is consumed.


I have made several points here today, many of which I expect will draw complaint. I encourage it. I would love nothing more than for these debates to continue, for our reasoning to be refined and our solutions made more robust. I have surely shown off my magenta socks, my ignorance, in some regards, but only because the processes and reasoning for continuing subscriptions is so often whispered and complaints so defensively dismissed. I therefore ask, beg you, my reader, to give me your reasons for the continuation of the subscription model and let us work together to see how these problems can be addressed.

I do not wish, as one friend advised me, to simply wait until the dinosaurs die off.

I believe fervently in the free dissemination of knowledge. I also demand accountability. In my ideal world all articles would be published in a single, free repository, the servers paid for through very modest subscriptions by public and charitable institutions, including governments, who maintain a vested interest in the furtherance of knowledge and research. Like Zotero, topics and themes would evolve organically as communities and individuals compile groups and links. Peer review would be done dynamically, and openly. I trust a criticism of a scholar whom is willing to risk their own reputation on that criticism far more than anonymous gatekeepers with little personal stake in getting it right. Good scholars almost always ask for pre-publication reviews from colleagues. This would not change. The reason a work becomes seminal, perhaps, would.


**Image courtesy of biblioteekje

5 thoughts on “Why Open Access Makes Sense, and its Detractors Don’t

  1. Katrina Navickas

    Great post, but you haven’t mentioned one of the main reasons why scholarly societies have opposed ‘gold OA’ = the proposed author publishing charge. The APC would discriminate against early career scholars, independent researchers, and cause an internal bidding war within universities with limited funds to pay for their researchers to submit to such journals. What would be your solution to this?

    • Thank you! I did not address Gold (perhaps foolishly) because I did not believe it should even be a suggestion on the table. Gold OA supports and privileges the same for-profit publishers that I am hoping to replace. Instead, scholarly societies and not-for-profit organisations should publish electronically via university infrastructures that already exists or, in an ideal future, a infrastructure mutually supported by a consortium of institutions. Free to publish, free to access, curated by responsible members of the academic community. The amount paid on subscriptions could easily be transferred to supporting these servers.

  2. Great post, Melodee. I just gave a paper at our yearly St Andrews outing to inform my departmental colleagues – as well as the faculty – about OA options beyond the ‘Fool’s Gold’ scheme that RCUK has just mandated. The range of reactions was vast both for and against, but what hovered over the proceedings was the resentment and frustration from virtually all of the tenured faculty with regards to the OA misinformation being fed to them by the media and even the university. They certainly don’t have time to research it themselves, and many don’t even understand that OA is established for the user by the content provider with no need for a predatory middle-man to take a cut. The journals are such an established part of the entire academic publishing cycle that no one who is already in it can see a way out. And the lynchpin of it all is the disgustingly-implemented REF. The point of my argument was that it all needs to start there. I know not a single member of faculty who likes any aspect of the current REF, and it in fact makes them categorically miserable and totally disheartened across the board. In the UK, I don’t think we can have the Open Access conversation without addressing making a change – whether forcefully or simply through abandonment – to the corrupt assessment system that continually cycles money between the government and the publishing industry at the expense of universities and their researchers.

    Getting back to your post, you mention that you really don’t want to have to wait for the dinosaurs to die off. That exact phrase was bouncing around the room last night, as much of the OA-fearers also don’t understand that this absolutely is a social movement as much as it is a research-implementation policy. If change is going to happen, people need to contribute from many angles and actually dedicate themselves to that change. Prestige is only measured by content, much to the chagrin of the longstanding journals. If they stop getting high-quality content, it’s only a matter of time until they stop being the ‘cool place’ where everyone wants to hang out.

    There was a good 45 minutes of grilling afterward, but it was very fulfilling to simply end the night by telling them that this change is already happening, and that it will change the current system eventually, and that the proof, incontrovertibly, would be in the proverbial pudding.

    By the bye, I see that you’re also an avid Evernote research hoarder, and I’ve got a massive notebook of OA content already pre-tagged if you have any desire to get a hold of it. In the spirit of Open Access, I’d be more than happy to share. 🙂

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