Missing the Point on Open Access
Blogging this week will be a bit patchy as I try to finish off a few Cardiff jobs before the big move to Sussex at the end of the week. However, I have got time today for a quick comment on an article I saw in yesterday’s Observer.
The piece tries argue that the government’s plans for Open Access, stemming from the Finch Report, amount to an “attack on academic freedoms”, a stance apparently held by a number of eminent historians (and others). The argument is that the Gold Open Access model preferred by RCUK will require the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) which could in some cases amount to thousands of pounds per article. Departmental budget holders (possibly administrators rather than academics) will then have to be involved in decisions about which papers can be funded and which can’t. This, it is argued, will mean that researchers will have much less freedom to publish when, where and what they like – the people holding the purse strings will have the final say.
A similar point was made by Mike Cruise in a strange article that appeared in the latest Astronomy and Geophysics (house organ of the Royal Astronomical Society):
Even in the UK it is not clear how the flow of funding for APCs will work. Will universities limit an academic’s publication rate or where he or she can publish? How and by whom will this funding be controlled? Academic freedom may, perversely, be curtailed as a result of open access.
So does Open Access pose a real threat to academic freedom? The answer is “yes”, but only if the Research Councils persist in forcing academics to pay the extortionate APCs demanded by academic publishers, out of all proportion to the real cost of publishing a paper on the internet, which is (at the very most) a few tens of pounds per article. Publishers want a much higher fee than this because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the “service” they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies. Any protests against open access should be directed to the real enemy, i.e. the profiteers.
The Finch Report was hi-jacked by the publishing lobby, with the result that RCUK has been persuaded to pour millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down a gold-plated drain. The model it recommends is absurd and clearly unsustainable. Low-cost repositories and community-based refereeing can deliver Green Open Access at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Gold Option, by cutting out the middle men.
All that’s needed to defend academic freedoms is to set up on-line subject-based repositories in much the same way as physicists and astronomers have set up the arXiv. In other words, the historians just need an archive. They should be comfortable with that idea. And as for refereeing, they can do that the way it will shortly be done in astronomy…
P.S. Astronomy & Geophysics have invited me to write a response to Mike Cruise’s article; my piece should appear in the April 2013 issue. Hopefully it won’t be behind a paywall.Follow @telescoper