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.

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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.