Scarcity, technology and open access


In his recent post, Martin Eve argues that the convergence of technology and culture that partly enable open access also partly disable it, due to the incompatibility of (a) the scarcity-dependent prestige culture of academia and (b) the scarcity-eliminating virtues of technology.

What is missed in this analysis is a distinction between the two forms of scarcity in academic publishing that technology promises to eliminate:

  • supply-side scarcity, where limited publication options lead to good work going unpublished;
  • demand-side scarcity, where limited access to existing publications leads to published work going unread/unused.

Technology makes the means of production abundant, addressing supply-side scarcity, but it also makes the means of reproduction abundant, meaning material that is scarce in supply can benefit from maximal amplification.

The more radical and disruptive element of the open access movement would see merit in eliminating both forms of scarcity. I agree with Eve that such radicalism is not compatible with the academic-cultural need to base the conferring of prestige on an aspiring scholar’s ability to overcome the limitations of supply-side scarcity (though I also recognise his developing doubts about our ability to deal with this cultural issue at its source).

However, even if nobody were more able to publish their work in a purely open-access environment than they were in a sales-of-print environment, the maximal amplification effects of technology could still be brought to bear on this existing material. I therefore don’t agree that the incompatibility of radicalism and conservatism necessarily puts a brake on open access itself: there is no reason that addressing demand-side scarcity (as, for example, green open access does) should necessitate forever replicating the “symbolic economy” that actively limits capacity. Suber’s notion that we should move prestige to open access is important here. 

For the avoidance of doubt, I firmly believe that it is necessary to analyse the causes of supply-side scarcity and address any distortive effects; no good academic work should go unpublished, especially if ‘demand’ is such a large component of the decision (as Richard Fisher argues here). But I don’t believe that this a technological problem, nor do I believe it is an open access problem. Cultural reform in the academy can be supported by technological developments but it is rarely enabled by it; we need deeper and more radical solutions here. I believe it is important to keep making this distinction because it helps us address one of the most pernicious and persistent myths about open access: that the new technologies will lead to lower quality. Indeed, any conscious decision by a fledgling OA publisher to limit author entry in the name of ‘quality’ may only be trying to address this myth, and perhaps nothing more. 


Subscription publishers do not want my business.

Today I learned something very important and depressing about subscription-based academic publishing.

With the Wilsdon review of metrics happening, I’ve thought for a while that it’d be very useful to have access to the Springer journal Scientometrics. That way, I can learn more about the topic at hand and dig deeper into particular issues, both in the run-up to the report’s publication on 9 July, and afterwards as the review’s findings start to have real relevance to policy activities in my team. Of course, working for a government body means having absolutely zero subscription access to academic journals, so any access I get to scientific or scholarly literature has to happen via one of the following routes:

  1. gold open access articles
  2. manuscript postings (green open access)
  3. private sharing (emailing the author or asking around for a copy)
  4. personal purchases of subscription content

For Scientometrics, it’s got a bit tiring to be continually asking around for copies or checking Google Scholar for repository copies every time I want to read an article. I can’t afford to pay £29.95 every time I want to access interesting and relevant articles (such as the extremely germane “What do scientists think about the impact factor?” DOI 10.1007/s11192-012-0676-y). So, with a heavy heart, I thought I’d investigate a personal subscription to the journal.

From that article, I clicked on the Get Access link, and was presented with a choice: pay the £29.95 for a PDF of that one article, or: “Log in to your account to check if you already have access to this content.” I didn’t have a Springer account, but thought creating one might help me to get subscribed. Clicking on that link took me to the home page of SpringerLink, a portal for accessing Springer online journals. Via that page, I was able to create an account. There was seemingly no way to manage subscriptions from that page, so, armed with my new account, I went back to the article page, clicked on the Get Access link, and promptly got the same “Log in to your account” message. I was stuck in a loop.

I then realised I might be approaching this problem in the wrong way. I didn’t want access to that article; I wanted access to the whole journal. So, I visited the web page of the journal itself. Here, I was given that same option to Get Access, which seemed like it might be more promising. I clicked that link and was presented with the following message:

This content is preview-only. Log-in to access content for which you already have a license, or contact your librarian or administrator and ask them to speak to their Springer representative about our range of tailored licensing models.

I was logged in, of course. I can only assume that by telling me that I wasn’t logged in, Springer was telling me what I already knew: I didn’t have a subscription to that journal. And I don’t have a librarian. I do have an administrator, but I seriously doubt she has her own Springer representative. And anyway, this was supposed to be a personal subscription, and as such I’d rather be sorting it out myself.

So I clicked on the link to take me through to find my Springer representative. A page of different categories of sales contacts presented itself: academic sales contacts, corporate and health sales contacts, and other sales contacts. Not being an academic library or a corporate or health user, I’m definitely ‘other’. What’s under ‘other’? Government, or Agent Relations, or an invitation to try contacting their customer services department. 

Well, not being quite ready to resort to picking up the phone to the customer services people, I thought perhaps that Government link would be the one for me. That could be closest, right? On the linked page, I found the name of a person who, if contacted, might be able to provide me with information about setting up a government subscription to Scientometrics if my government were in northwest Europe. Hmm. Forgive me for being a doubting Thomas, but I didn’t think that would likely get me very far. 

Finally, I was destined to end up calling their “customer services department”. I clicked on that link and was faced with that disappointing, yet all-too-familiar, experience of the modern Web: “For questions about Library services at Springer, you can fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.”

It doesn’t end there, though it probably should have. It turns out that the journal Scientometrics is jointly published with Akadémiai Kiadó, a central European publisher. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I had a circuitous and fruitless experience on their website, too, picking through swathes of Hungarian and lorem ipsum placeholder text. I do, however, now have an account with Akadémiai Kiadó, though it doesn’t allow me to do useful things like subscribe to journals or access anything. I have, however, been promised an email with an account activation link in it, which, while it doesn’t appear to have arrived yet, might eventually turn up in my spam folder. But in truth, I have now given up trying to subscribe to Scientometrics. 

What’s the point of all of this?

Well, for one thing, it is not to pick on Springer. I had an almost identical experience with Wiley a few months back while trying to subscribe to JASIST, which was eventually solved by joining the association. Now, forgive the generalisation, but I never thought that it would be easier to join an academic subject association – particularly as a non-academic – than to pay to access the digital content of a company whose entire business model depends on selling access to said content.

If my experiences are the same as others’ in my situation, then this is a fundamentally stupid state of affairs for publishing and academia alike. If it is almost impossible for people to subscribe to subscription-based journals – even for honest and willing people like me who (a) are tired of going through the rigmarole of searching out free copies of articles, (b) might be willing to pay for a personal subscription, provided it’s easy to set up and not too expensive, and (c) are pretty savvy when it comes to using technology and the Web – then what hope can publishers and academics have of their work reaching a wider audience?

I despair.

What would be the implications of a ‘gold’ Open Access REF policy?

Earlier this year, HEFCE and its sister funding councils announced a new policy for Open Access (OA) in relation to the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a periodic exercise to assess the research undertaken by UK HE institutions, assessing the quality of research outputs (such as publications, performances, and software), the impact of this research on wider society, and the health of the research environment in institutions within which research takes place. Scores are given for each ‘unit of assessment’ (disciplinary area) submitted by an institution, and these scores drive research funding for that institution for the following years.

A lot of money flows to institutions as a result of this exercise. The big number is the £1.6bn per year that HEFCE allocates in quality-related research (QR) funding to English institutions, and further funding is provided to institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by their respective national HE funding bodies. The REF scores are also used to calculate how several hundred million pounds in research capital grants are allocated to institutions in England, and the scores are used by institutions and others for comparative analysis in league tables. It is safe to say that this exercise is a very big deal for institutions in the UK.

The policy for OA was introduced after an intensive, unique, two-staged, UK-wide consultation exercise, undertaken over a period of roughly 18 months. The consultation firstly sought views on how the REF might introduce a requirement that outputs submitted to the next REF (expected towards the end of this decade) be published or made available as OA. The overwhelming view was expressed that it would be inappropriate, as well as financially unviable, for the REF to expect authors and their institutions to make outputs available via the ‘gold’ route. The funding councils instead consulted on and implemented a policy that is much ‘greener’ in nature: a requirement that journal articles and conference papers be deposited in an institutional or subject repository and made available for read/download after any embargo had elapsed.

The academic and HEI community, being all too aware of the unresolved issues with gold OA, seemingly breathed a sigh of relief at that point. But the world has moved on somewhat since then. The Institute of Physics Publishing and the Royal Society of Chemistry have introduced mechanisms to deal with the costly issue of ‘double-dipping’ by offsetting institutions’ subscription payments by the amount paid in gold OA fees, and it is understood that other major publishers will be following suit soon. More recently, Nature Publishing Group converted its flagship OA journal Nature Communications into a fully OA title, and the Royal Society launched a new OA journal, Open Science. It is not just publishers that are driving progress towards: just a couple of weeks ago the William and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a very strict OA policy for its funded authors to follow: by 2017, all papers arising from Gates funding must be made available immediately on publication as OA with a CC BY licence. The OA world seemingly erupted in praise for Gates, the policy being feted as a victory for openness in research.

The purpose of this post is to re-examine the REF requirements in light of these developments. The REF policy encourages fast and free OA, but its minimum requirements allow restrictive copyright and long embargoes to be placed on research publications. Neither of these, in my view, can be considered to deliver true OA. And one can’t help noticing that some of those praising Gates for pushing things forward have also criticised the REF for not going far enough in freeing up research. Leaving aside the obvious point that the REF requirements will make the vast majority of UK research publications available for free in some form, which is a huge improvement on today’s situation and widely seen as a ‘game-changer’, it is worth revisiting whether the REF rules could, in fact, be tightened to require the immediate and liberal use and reuse of research publications as a condition of eligibility for assessment.

Immediate access

The REF rules say that papers must be made available in a repository within 12 months of publication (24 months in the humanities and social sciences). This was a pragmatic decision: most publishers allow green OA, but often say that papers can only be made OA after an embargo period has passed. As it happens, the figures of 12 and 24 months allow 96% of papers to simultaneously meet the REF requirements and publishers’ requirements, and given only 12% of papers are currently being deposited in repositories the gains in OA achievable within these parameters were felt to be more than sufficient as a substantial first step.

Nonetheless, if we wished to shorten these delays, we’d have a number of options. The first would be to tighten up the requirements. HEFCE analysts have shown that if the embargo maxima was shortened to 6 months (12 months in HSS), and publishers did not change their policies, the proportion of papers that could comply with the REF policy would fall from 96% to 67%. If one went further, and required immediate access to papers, the proportion of compliant papers would drop to around 40%. This raises an important policy question – what to do about that huge chunk of research papers that wouldn’t comply with stricter rules? The current policy is fairly lenient in how it handles those few papers that can’t meet the requirements – a sensible and pragmatic approach, if one accepts the principle that if one can achieve 96% OA without fussing over embargoes then one should probably not worry too much about that remaining 4%. But is that a feasible approach for 60% of research papers? And how lenient should one be?

If one were very strict, and said that only papers that were available within those embargo periods were admissible to the REF – perhaps saying that any papers that didn’t meet the requirements would have to be justified on a case-by-case basis with a very high rate of rejection – one is effectively barring publication in those journals. It is easy to see how upsetting that would be for academics and their institutions. Some excellent papers would be excluded from the REF. Some papers would be published, academically speaking, in the ‘wrong’ place. Whole disciplinary areas might be left with no compliant publishing options. Authors and their institutions might feel compelled to pay article processing charges (APCs) to comply with the REF. Yes, some publishers would shift their rules in order to allow UK authors to submit and publish in their journals. But how many would do this? Indeed, how many could do this? (Not to mention the risk that some publishers would see this as an opportunity to ‘force’ authors down the gold route…)

One might decide to be tough, stick to one’s guns, and simply accept those risks. I wonder how much concern this would cause at very senior levels within institutions that have significant lobbying power. What would the government think about a UK research assessment that barred academics from publishing in ‘top’ journals? What effect would this policy have on inward mobility if overseas researchers saw the UK as a place where you couldn’t publish in certain journals? Would that stick for long?

It is possible to see how one could mitigate these risks, of course, by doing one of two things. The first would be to relax the approach to exceptions, effectively letting in most (or nearly all) of the non-compliant papers. This, in my view, would be totally pointless. All it would do is increase the amount of work that institutions would need to do to consider and record exceptions in their REF submissions. One may as well start from the position of having relaxed criteria in the first place, and save on workload.

The second is to increase the emphasis on the gold route to OA. Gold OA has no embargoes, of course, because the risks that the embargos are designed to protect against are underwritten via other means (commonly by the payment of article processing charges). Papers published via the gold route can be deposited straightaway. Still thinking about compliance, then, a key question is how many of the papers being published today are published in venues that have a gold OA option. A good number of that ‘compliant’ 40% figure, I’d wager. But certainly not all of the remaining 60%. Journals like Nature offer no gold option. One would need to have a way of dealing with those papers that are published in venues (like Nature) that do not allow green OA with a zero embargo and do not have a gold OA option. It would be interesting to do some analysis to see how many papers we’d be talking about here.

Liberal reuse

Before getting into questions of cost, I want to consider the implications of tightening up the licensing requirements. At the moment, the REF policy is pretty permissive about licensing. The requirement is that outputs must allow anyone with an internet connection to discover, read, download and perform in-text search on them. This means that papers in repositories are OK, but those proprietary platforms such as ReadCube that forbid people from downloading the paper are not good enough. Plugins that embed papers in repositories (in the manner of a YouTube video on Facebook) need to allow downloading to comply. But the requirements do not stretch beyond that. Papers do not have to be made available under a Creative Commons license to comply with the policy, and if they were, a restrictive CC BY-NC-ND licence would be sufficient.

This is a far cry from the very permissive CC BY licence that Gates Foundation is requiring for all the published papers arising from research it funds. Why is the REF policy so relaxed about licensing? Some of reasons are similar to those given above for embargoes: ease of compliance, and the judgement that the policy requirements in their current form constitute a big enough step in the right direction. While it is very common for publishers to allow authors to post copies of their manuscript in repositories, it is rare for them to allow any special licence to be attached to this posting. It is not the case that publishers explicitly forbid CC licences; they do not need to. They own the copyright, and by saying nothing they automatically assert all their rights.

Will toll-access publishers allow papers to be made available under more permissive terms that those set out in the REF policy? I think they will have difficulty with this happening via a green OA route. Green OA is acceptable to publishers at the moment for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that the academic community has long insisted that publishers allow them to post their paper on their website or in a repository; without this, I don’t believe green OA would even exist. Beyond this, I believe publishers tolerate green OA because they can do all sorts of things to reduce the value of the green OA deposit, effectively driving value towards scarcity (the toll-access paper). Embargoes are one such mechanism. Special conditions on green deposits – such as the requirement that the deposited file not be the final printed version of record or the requirement that the repository version link directly to the toll-access version – are others.

Is copyright such a mechanism? Technically speaking, copyright on green OA papers does not drive value towards the more scarce offering (the toll-access version of record). However, less than full copyright on green OA papers might drive value in the other direction – away from toll-access papers and towards green deposits – because the OA version is more useful. As long as toll-access publishers continue to exploit copyright in the way they do now, they will be concerned to protect the copyright of their work from the ‘threat’ of more liberal licensing. So no, I don’t believe publishers will be keen to allow green OA deposits to be made available under more liberal terms. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it in response to a REF policy, or RCUK policy for that matter, and in any case there is clear merit in engaging in discussions about what liberal licensing of green OA looks like. It simply means that they won’t make these moves without some discomfort. And, as with shortening or eliminating embargoes, some will be perfectly happy to do it, others will simply refuse to do it, and some will see an opportunity to force payment of gold OA fees.

Again, one could either accept those risks and press ahead regardless with a strict requirement for CC BY or some other licence. This has similar consequences to enforcing a stricter policy on embargo periods: it either restricts author choice, or it restricts the ability of the REF to accept the ‘best’ research (assuming that ‘best’ does not include a judgement of openness, which is not inarguable). Or it forces payment of gold OA fees. Would we want our national research assessment system to be bound by such restrictions? Even if we did, would senior academics, politicians, institutional managers, sector leaders, learned societies, publishers and overseas academics accept it without a fight?

This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that if one wants to move towards a stricter policy around immediacy and permissiveness of access to publications submitted to the REF, one must be willing to accept that stricter conditions attached to green OA will not work on their own. The green OA environment means that any stricter conditions on OA would need to be more leniently enforced, because they could not be universally adhered to. Lenient enforcement in the context of the REF is a very difficult thing to achieve because institutions tend to worry about how strictly the parameters of any lenient approach get enforced; stricter and more rigid enforcement of more lenient rules works much better. (Lenient enforcement also creates the problem that it relaxes the pressure on publishers to adhere to the stricter rules, making any change – including incremental change – much less likely.)

Moving beyond green OA

So if we can’t achieve faster and more permissive access through green OA alone, we must accept that gold OA will be a necessary part of how authors and institutions can comply with stricter policies. To illustrate, if it were to emulate the Gates policy, a revised REF policy would state that, to be eligible for the REF, publications would have to be available under CC BY licence immediately after publication. Compliance would happen via either the green route or the gold route.

A policy this strict would drive a significant amount of business to the gold OA model. This raises some significant questions, which I’ve started to tackle below. (Disclaimer: the numbers here are taken from a variety of sources and rely on a large number of assumptions that are not factored in. I have given these calculations for illustrative purposes only.)

  • How much would this cost? We know that the REF policy will have a much wider effect than just on those publications submitted to the exercise; authors and institutions cannot know which publications they wish to submit in advance of the REF submission phase, so any policy will drive OA to the full range of research publications happening in UK HEIs. Currently, the UK produces around 140,000 papers per year. Not all of these will be produced an author or authors within UK HE, but the vast majority are, and the volume of published research increases annually by significantly large proportions that 140,000 is useful enough as a ball-park figure for our purposes. If we accept the above reasoning that the green route is pretty much useless for delivering immediate OA with a CC BY licence, then we should conclude that most, if not all, of those 140,000 papers will need to be channelled through the gold route each year. How much will this cost? This is very tricky to predict, but if one takes the Finch middle-ground prediction of £1,750 for the mean APC, and assumes that publishers either already have or will shortly introduce a CC BY gold OA option, the back-of-the-fag-packet UK gross APC requirement would come to £245m per year.
  • How would this be paid for? Well, not all of that £245m would need to be found by institutions and authors: RCUK and the Wellcome Trust, for instance, would already be covering a proportion of this sum from their grants (£24m on recent figures). The remainder requirement is therefore roughly £221m. If this were a REF policy, then it would be fair to say that the funds that were allocated on the back of the REF should be used to cover this sum. HEFCE paid out £1,558m in quality-related (QR) research funding in 2014-15. Assuming that English universities and colleges account for 81% of the total UK output (based on UK funding body contributions to joint projects), the APC requirement would involve taking a £179m chunk out of QR (roughly 11% of the total), allocating this toward APCs. (These numbers are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in research output, APC prices, publication patterns, the OA policies of other research funders, and overall research funding levels, many of which would appear to put upward pressure on this 11% figure.)
  • What effect on research performance? If the funding model did not change to reflect this new requirement, it would create funding problems for research-intensive institutions that had lower REF scores. The APC funding would therefore more sensibly be awarded by volume of research published alone, meaning that the total HEFCE research allocations (QR+APC) would be less concentrated towards excellence. Taking a ratio for annual return on investment for R&D of between 0.2 to 0.5, the loss in research performance in the first year alone would amount to between £36m and £90m (not considering any de-concentration effects); this number effectively doubles each year as R&D impact is long-term and cumulative. For comparison, the positive long-term NPV from OA has been very hard to quantify in recent years; Finch even calculates the figure as a negative number, recognising that NPV calculations will miss many positive externalities of OA. But ut it is reasonable to assume that in the short to medium term the additional gains from pure gold OA are bound to be negligible as subscription payments will need to continue for the other 94% of global research publications. Simply put, in a 100% gold REF world, we’d do 11% less research to make just 6% of the world’s publications OA, which is damaging in itself, and as long as we’re going it alone the UK taxpayer gets a bad deal from this sort of OA.

A few caveats here. In my second bullet point above, I assume that QR funding must be allocated away from research costs and towards APCs. I have made two further assumptions in connection to this. The first is that additional funding for APCs will not be available from government or elsewhere. (This seems like a reasonable assumption, based on recent central funding decisions in this area.) The second is that all QR goes directly to supporting research activity. This is less realistic: it is clear to me that some QR funding is currently used by institutions to cover journal subscriptions and other indirect costs. I generally agree with Finch that the end point of gold OA is widespread subscription cancellations; if we get to that point, the loss in UK research performance from a global 100% APC-driven gold OA outcome could be much lower, if not quite zero, because subscription money could in theory be transferred back into research budgets. (I say not quite zero because publishers freely admit that the price they’ll set for an OA system will be much higher than that they currently set for subscriptions.)

In sum, if we were to fulfil the aims of OA purists and design a REF policy that looks like the one Bill Gates has just announced, we have to accept that gold OA would have a significant role to play – indeed, gold OA would probably account for close to 100% of research papers published by UK HEIs each year. However, it’s obvious that the short-term costs of simultaneously paying APCs and subscriptions would require dedicated additional support of the sort I have described above, because they would otherwise be unaffordable. While the benefits of OA itself are substantial in the longer run through increased knowledge stock, positive externalities and the magical but hard-to-predict specific effects of openness interacting with opportunity, the marginal benefits of immediate CC BY OA compared with embargoed copyrighted OA are less obviously delineated. If we were to go down this road without measures in place to control the short and medium term costs (such as those introduced by IoP and RSC), the UK would take a substantial hit on research output and performance in the short to medium term, and possibly in perpetuity.

Postscript: this post ignores (a) the controversies in certain communities around the CC BY licence, and (b) the commonly heard prediction that universal green OA will somehow deliver a sustainable gold OA future all on its own.


Update: As noted by Cameron and Graham in the comments below, my analysis of the costs of OA is not as sensitive as it could be. In my defence, that wasn’t really the point of it, and hopefully I’ve given enough disclaimers to show that this stuff is pretty difficult to do well. Cameron points to some work done by PLOS that reveals that only about 40-50% of affiliated papers get billed to a given country or institution. This means that not all of those 140,000 papers will be billed to the UK. Cameron himself notes that any country pursuing the fully gold route, as I’ve set out, would see its proportion rise, as co-authors in other countries would be less likely to step up to the plate. Insofar as we’re talking about transitional costs of ‘going it alone’, this is a very real risk in our case. However, this is a factor that would affect the numbers, and my analysis doesn’t capture it.

Graham notes that repository costs, monitoring costs and subscriptions would reduce in the event that all of the UK’s research output moves to gold OA. I think this certainly true for repository costs, but these administrative costs would be replaced by payment processing costs within universities for dealing with APC funds etc., which as this report has shown, are much higher than the costs of posting in repositories. Monitoring would still be necessary for the REF, and would be harder as compliance would depend on third parties (publishers), not local services (repositories). There would still be the costs of dealing with the REF processes and policies, too, and these might rise or fall with each new variant of policy across the wealth of funders that authors and institutions have to deal with. So I decided to exclude administrative costs; but if I were to include them, I think it would push the cost up, not down.

Would subscriptions fall if 100K+ articles became available OA? No, not unaided. We’re talking about 6% of research output globally. Why would an institution cancel a journal big deal if they could only access 6% of the articles for free? To say prices will fall ignores the long-standing issue that subscription prices are continuing to rise – a still current trend, and one that’s predicted to continue into 2015. Subscriptions only fall when they are under threat. They are not under threat from local moves to gold OA, not without the kind of interventions being staged by University of Konstanz or by universities in The Netherlands. They might fall in tandem with APC rises if publishers realise en masse that double dipping is a real issue and resolve to follow IoP and RSC, though…

A more open view of openness (LSE Impact Blog post)

I wrote a guest post for the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. Read at the link, or find the standalone text below. 

In publishing its report on open access journals in the humanities and social sciences, the British Academy has reminded us that the open access debate has a continuing tendency to concern itself with questions of the applicability of open access innovations to particular disciplines. In this article, I posit that these questions arise from an incomplete conception of the nature of openness more generally. This conception neglects one vital component of openness: connection. Connection requires moving beyond a view of open access as a disruptive process towards a more nuanced picture of the interrelationship between openness, visibility and impact.

Openness will require some definition before we proceed. One definition of openness might be ‘for the many, not the few’, as typified by notions of the public good. Open access has a strong case on these terms alone, irrespective of how limited any public utility might seem to those producing esoteric literature. Another definition might include ideas of multiple party involvement, in contrast to single party ownership. From this perspective, open access creates the potential for new utopias of collaboration and co-creation of knowledge. Thirdly, openness might simply be defined as the opposite of a certain form of ‘closed-ness’, in which form, content, innovation, communication, benefit and critique are closely circumscribed and controlled by a guild of experts. Such closed-ness is typical of lay criticism of the academy as irrelevant.

Each of these aspects has, at some point, encountered strong objections from particular voices within the academy when applied to research. While one ought not to be tempted to knock down straw men when invited to do so, rebuttals are often voiced by those wishing to compare and contrast the more discursive disciplines with those more deeply rooted in the scientific method. In treating each aspect of this definition in turn, we may start to see a bigger picture.

It is somewhat axiomatic that the intellectual pursuits of academics are mercifully free from questions of personal gain; indeed, it is argued that the purpose of the academy is to create the space to nurture such freedoms. However, it is also true that the driving force of self-interest is far from absent from the research world, ranging from the practices of attribution of knowledge discovery to individuals to the vagaries of Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica. The process of knowledge dissemination straddles both worlds, in that it is through publication that one converts freely pursued research into personal attribution and credit. Though it is perhaps tempting to reduce the academy in this way, to do so entirely ignores the other side of the dissemination equation: the reader. To ignore the importance of the reader to the publication process is to reduce it to its most venal status, and academia itself becomes meanly extrapolated to a neat irrelevance.

Public funders of research, of course, cannot ignore the reader. We have the right to demand that the research we fund can fulfil its greatest potential relevance, and we have the right to place the burden of responsibility to achieve this on those being funded. Open access is an obvious way to do this, but in making research outputs more openly available, policymakers may entirely respect and preserve the symbiosis of academic freedom and credit: open access can (and I believe should) work within these parameters. HEFCE’s open access policy, with its generous exceptions, shows that it is possible to do this, and n this way, research may be more successfully conducted for the benefit of the many, as well as the few, and in ways that are entirely compatible with the economies of individual benefit.

It is also somewhat axiomatic that the new technologies of the Internet create the potential for new forms of creativity. Openness, through location-independent research and liberated reuse of material, can create new paradigms of co-creation and co-authorship. Such paradigms are often seen equally as enticing and threatening: academics working together and collaborating on new forms of open research have the potential to achieve much more than those working alone, but if this became too widespread it might threaten the highly plural nature of research demanded by the relativist epistemologies of certain disciplines. Likewise, open access promises to liberate ‘content’ from the strictures of form, allowing maximal use and reuse of material – potentially toward an eventual abandonment of the clearly delineated research artefact. This liberation of research could potentially eradicate the delays present in the current, quantised, artefact-driven research process. But it may also undermine the status of attribution and the integrity of well-established scholarly forms and practices.

Such tensions are part and parcel of the open access debate, and their nature and provenance must be understood fully before we take bold steps to drive new paradigms. It is in this context that a layered understanding of open access is useful: well-established and defined criteria for access to material as its core; more liberated types of openness on top. A layered understanding of open access can be used to encourage innovative, intelligent and careful steps towards openness within the academy. HEFCE’s open access policy aims to do just that.

The third aspect of openness that I want to deal with is that it may act as the antidote to destructive circumscription of academic impact. If we make the mistake of conflating the reach of particular publication venues with their prestige, we not only make a fundamental underestimate of the benefits of open access to individual research artefacts, but we also lose sight of the main goal of public research: the creation of new knowledge and insight for the benefit of all. If we preserve the academic ‘guild’ at the expense of the public benefit it brings, then we have set on a course firmly away from the ideal. It is unimaginative and self-interested, and one can well argue that public money should not prop it up. I’d like to believe that the publicly funded academy can make a better case for its continued existence.

Finally, to the fourth dimension of openness: connection. There is no doubt that ‘impact’ is becoming a more pressing agenda for governments, institutions and funders, and is indeed perceived by some as a pernicious influence on academia. While one would expect research funders to argue strongly against such a perception, I believe there is value in academics adopting a more subtle view of impact. The ‘reach’ of research must be seen as fundamentally bound up with notions of openness, not just the passive openness of research publications, but also the active processes of public engagement, influence over public life, and imaginative application of research in new ways that ‘connected openness’ implies. There are tremendous opportunities for academics in all disciplines to reach out and make a difference on wider society – to see the work being done by researchers as so esoteric that it surely has little or no value outside the academy is simply wrong-headed. It just requires a little imagination, and encouragement, to see the opportunities for research impact and application, and then to actively pursue them. Making research publications openly available to all who might want to read them is just one dimension of this, and to argue against open access on the grounds that it damages the reach of research is, quite simply, to undersell research.

In sum, questions of openness extend far beyond the effects of technology on the publication of research materials; the very idea of the open academy challenges the assumptions and motivations of some scholars, and open access is perhaps resisted so vociferously precisely because it is seen as disruptive to these. In my view, academics must move beyond this resistance: they have so much to gain from greater openness, and so much to lose by staying closed off from the world.

Thoughts on journal embargoes

Some personal thoughts on the necessity and optimal length of any embargo periods applied to open-access deposits of articles published in toll-access academic journals. 

Conventional academic publishers have argued that it is necessary to place an embargo period on open-access deposits of authors’ articles in order to protect their income received through journal subscriptions. One can summarise their argument as follows:

  1. It is a given that some measure of private return to the publisher is necessary to underpin the public good of research publication.
  2. Short embargo periods will cause people to cancel subscriptions.
  3. Longer embargo periods are therefore necessary to protect publisher income through subscriptions, and therefore, the public good of research publication.

If we accept that argument, the focus shifts from whether we should have embargo periods to how long they should be. This is desirable territory for conventional publishers, because they know that policymakers can be persuaded that the how long question may only satisfactorily be answered when there is evidence that short embargo periods have caused damage to publishers, and is therefore straightforward to argue for a risk averse policy strategy. However, the publisher reasoning above is flawed, and can be unpicked in its entirety.

Anyone prepared to conduct a thought experiment to reimagine scholarly communication would conclude that  effective research dissemination needn’t be dependent on conventional publishers at all. Indeed, the existence of and the numerous open-access university presses worldwide show that there are already perfectly workable and acceptable alternatives to the conventional publisher model. The current dominance of conventional publishers does not negate the validity of the above thought experiment. One may question, then, what value is added by the publisher.

If policymakers were to reduce the publishing process to its essentials, they would find two valuable contributions that the publishing process makes to the author’s initial submitted draft article. The first of these contributions is peer review. Peer review is a service, managed by publishers, but provided by academics. The service is very valuable, no doubt, but its management has no intrinsic value. The service of academic is transferrable and, though facilitated by the publication process, it is not a direct product of it. Peer review is not unique to conventional publishing, either. So the traditional locus of peer review must be for historic reasons, and our thought experiment above might just as easily locate peer review elsewhere.

The second valuable contribution that the publication process makes to the author’s draft is that it inherits some of the brand value of the journal in which it is published. This brand value serves as an important signal to readers of the quality of the published work, and some of the brand value rubs off on the author, helping her to signal her own academic worth to others.

It would be tempting to conclude that this sort of brand signalling is an intrinsic contribution of the publication process, and the greater relative stickiness of journal brands would support such a conclusion. This understanding is incomplete, though: the article does not simply inherit the brand – it also contributes to it, in the same way that all prior articles published in all journals have contributed to all journal brands. Indeed, a journal’s brand should be more accurately thought of as a by-product of the freely given work of academics: not an additional good, but a secondary one. A journal’s brand is simply the result of an underlying process that mediates and accumulates academic esteem. Such processes are not unique to publishing, and our thought experiment might readily design new ones.

Beyond journal brand and peer review, policymakers should consider the other activities of publishers as nonessential to the research dissemination process (even though some of it may be highly desirable for academics and worth paying for, such as copy-editing, design, or even society activities subsidised by journal income). This isn’t to suggest that policymakers should attempt to do away with publishers, but rather to illustrate that it is straightforward to conceive of their contributions as being less essential and unique than they often attest. This deals with point 1 of the publisher argument above.

Turning to the assertion that short embargoes will lead to subscription cancellations, one uncovers more interesting things. While some conventional publishers are permissive enough to allow authors to upload copies of the final published version of record to the Internet, most conventional publishers restrict this to authors’ accepted manuscripts (AAMs) instead. I am sure that even those with access to the final version of record would agree that, in the vast majority of cases, the AAM contains all of the academically important aspects of the research article. Even if this were debatable, it appears that conventional publishers are on my side of this debate: if the AAM were meaningfully inferior, there would be no need for an embargo. The very existence of embargo periods should lead policymakers to conclude that AAMs, distributed to the Internet via repositories and indexed by search engines, are academically sufficient and therefore optimal.

Such a situation may be unpalatable for conventional publishers, but they can reassure themselves that, even with the AAMs available online with no embargo, readers will still subscribe to journals because:

    1. citation practices, particularly in the humanities, depend at the moment on paginated print copy, and these practices require a version of record to be available for citation (though it is straightforward to think up solutions to this: numbered paragraphs, signposting through sub-headings, AAMs annotated with VOR page breaks, direct correspondence with the author(s), and so on);
    2. many people want to read the journal’s editorials, book reviews and other peripheral content.

There are three further reasons why cancellations are unlikely, and all relate to the fact that libraries are the principal subscribers to academic journals. Firstly, if free online access to articles takes place at the article level, as with author uploads, then it takes place anarchically. Knowledge about which articles are freely available within a given journal is very therefore difficult for a subscriber to obtain. Libraries do not have the resources to monitor which articles are freely available in any given journal, nor do they have the appetite to make predictions about how this will change in the future. This means subscribers’ decisions to cancel a given journal on the basis of its contents being freely available online are impossible to make until (almost) all of the journal content is virtually guaranteed to be available for free. However, even at that moment, points 1 and 2 above would still apply.

Secondly, librarians say that embargo lengths are a relatively unimportant factor in whether they decide to cancel a journal. Crucially, one of the major factors is journal price. Libraries will only cancel journals if they can’t afford the journal, and the following condition did not apply.

Thirdly, most librarians find it difficult to cancel individual titles, as they are tied into ‘big deals’ for subscriptions to many titles. Librarians cancelling their big deal would immediately face higher costs, not lower costs. The irony here is that libraries are therefore more likely to cancel society/minority journals first – it is ironic because of all of the ‘additional’ value provided by the subscription publication process, it is the dependent activities of learned societies that policymakers ought to be most sympathetic to.

We now turn to the final part of the publisher argument at the top of this piece. Here I present one simple truth: policymakers find embargo periods very hard to swallow, because they fundamentally undermine the public good of research publication by putting a price on recent knowledge. If policymakers accept that an optimal strategy is to annul existential threats to journals, it is reasonable to examine the evidence that such threats exists without losing sight of this simple truth. What they will find is this: there is no evidence that short embargo periods put journals at risk, and many journals currently allow embargo periods of less than 24 months, and a substantial proportion of journals allow authors to put their article online immediately. Policymakers should therefore feel well justified in asking why they should not simply set embargo periods to zero.