Open Access and Academic Publishing

Independent information services professional Ian Lovecy suggests that there are a number of questions – philosophical and practical – which need to be answered before open access could be a sound and sustainable method of academic publishing. This post makes no attempt to answer them, but rather to identify them and perhaps open up some of the issues involved to discussion.

What do we mean by “open access”?

Time was, I could walk into my public library, ask for a book or a journal article, and if they didn’t have it they would obtain it for me through inter-library loan; that was open access to information, and it died in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In those decades, access remained open, but subject increasingly to charges, primarily to cover the administrative costs of the service. Increasingly, requests became subject to a form of censorship, requiring proof of need or (in Universities) a tutor’s signature.

Today we have the Internet, and access to much of the information on it is available to anyone with access to a computer. (This is theoretically anyone in the UK since computers are available in public libraries and Internet cafés, although opening hours, location, costs, line speed and computer literacy may all impose limitations.) Not all the information is available free of charge, but subject to questions of privacy and confidentiality, public interest, security and government policy on access, it is available to all.

Two questions relating to academic information immediately become apparent:

  • Do we mean free open access?
  • Do we mean open access to the entire world?

Equally, in the case of inter-library loans, it was understood that the material was governed by copyright legislation; frequently, especially in cases where material was provided as a photocopy, recipients had to sign a declaration that they would observe copyright. Items published on the Internet are, or at least can be declared to be, subject to the same legislation, but the enforcement is even harder than it is with library books (and I am sure many lecturers have used the occasional copyright photograph in their lectures without seeking permission). In theory, enforcement should be easier in the case of electronic access, since such access can be traced; in practice, with multiple access by people in several different jurisdictions control is effectively impossible. A further question is therefore:

  • Do we want to put restrictions on the use of the information?


What are the reasons for open access publishing?

A frequently-heard justification is that since public funding pays for the research the results should be publicly available. This is at best a slightly tenuous argument – even after the passing of the Freedom of Information Act there is still a great deal of publicly-funded information to which the public most decidedly do not have access. It can, in any case, apply only to a subset of research, primarily that funded wholly by the Research Councils. However, the current intention is that all material, if it is to be included in the REF, must be available on open access.

In the past, there has been an underlying assumption that all research undertaken in Universities is publicly funded; this is no longer tenable. Even ignoring the existence of entirely privately-funded Universities, much research – particularly in medicine, biochemistry and the social sciences – is jointly funded by research councils and either charities or business (or sometimes both); there may be restrictions on the amount of information which can be published because of commercial considerations. Many academic posts in the Humanities are now funded entirely by student fees – surely that cannot count as public funding?

It should not be forgotten that there exists also a group of independent researchers – retired academics, former students who have gone into non-academic work and self-taught members of the public with a keen interest in a specific topic. None of these is likely to be submitting material to the REF (with the possible exception of the first group) and they are not therefore under pressure to use open access publishing; they will, however, be affected by some of the consequences of it considered below.

There can be few researchers who do not wish their work to be read, appreciated and cited by others, and for many who publish in the form of journal articles this is indeed the only reward they have. It is understandable that they may feel exploited when they see the price charged for the journals in which they publish; it is even more understandable that institutions resent paying a high price to buy back the results of work which they feel they have funded. Is the correct answer to this problem making the information available to all? What about monographs? – in this case the authors may receive a (small) financial reward in the form of royalties. Are they to be denied this? After deciding what we mean by open access, the next question to answer is:

  • Is there any moral or philosophical justification for insisting on open access publishing?

What might be the practical effects of open access publishing?

The practical effects can be considered under five headings: the value of information, effects on conventional publishing, location and language of publication, universality of access and costs.

The value of information

A professor (of English literature, no less!) once told me there was no need for subject librarians because “all students had to do was use the Internet to find things”. I put the following fairly specific search into Bing: “studies in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII”. That is, of course, one of the most minor of the plays; the search returned 23,500,000 hits. The first 20 included a Wikipedia entry, several references to Spark notes, summaries and quizzes, one text, one (Spanish) production, and several references to A study of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII by Cumberland Clark. Which is doubtless an excellent book; but a similar search in Birmingham University Library’s catalogue shows in addition, in the first 10 items, books by Larry Champion, Alan Young, Sir Edward German, Tom Merriam, Maurice Hunt and Albert Cook, a text with a preface by Israel Gollancz, and a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Some of the books are on detailed aspects of the play or its authorship. It is a manageable list, and represents the selection (you could call it censorship) by a group of scholars over a number of years of books which say something worth reading about the play.

That selection is made in a number of ways, such as the reputation or place of work of the author, the reputation of the publisher, reviews in newspapers and professional journals. There can be dangers in all of these: an author may have a reputation as a maverick and be scorned by established academics; just because an academic doesn’t work in a Russell Group university it doesn’t mean he or she is not good; Mills and Boon might publish a scholarly book; reviewers may have personal axes to grind. However, behind all of this is the publisher: it is the publisher who publicises the book, sends around lists of forthcoming volumes to libraries and academics, sends out review copies. Going back one step, publishers’ editors decide which books to take on, and there can be problems here for those with radically new ideas; the existence of a flourishing, competitive industry is one way of minimising the risk of censorship.

In an open access world, the radical and the maverick are in less danger of being stifled by the establishment; but they have an even greater risk of being lost in the mass of irrelevance which comes pouring out of a search. Only their institution might help to refine the search, and even this might not assist given the lack of sophistication of most search engines: adding “published by Universities” to my search had some effect – it reduced it to a mere 9,300,000 hits. So a vital question in relation to open access is:

  • How do we sort the wheat from the chaff?

Effects on conventional publishing.

If open access publishing of monographs became the default option – as it might if open access became a requirement of the REF – the effects on the academic publishing industry could be severe to catastrophic. Much would depend on a question asked above, and explored further below: is open access to be free access? Electronic publication is not necessarily free – e-books are often cheaper than printed copies, but librarians would question whether even this is true of e-journals – but payment is made by somebody in some way. If, however, open access were to mean free or cheap access, academic publishing could become unsustainable; even today margins are small and there is often cross-subsidy within major publishers from more lucrative parts of the list. University presses are often subsided by parent institutions, usually as part of institutional marketing.

A significant decline in the number of academic publishers would (as indicated above) greatly affect the way in which published research was publicised. It would also leave independent scholars outside the university system with little or no choice of where to submit a manuscript, thus potentially reducing the amount of information and scholarship to which the world has access.

However, despite talk of “webs” and “clouds”, it must be remembered that the Internet is a very physical thing at heart: it needs servers which hold the information. Storage of digitised material is becoming ever cheaper; costs of maintenance of equipment are not. Servers sometimes go down – ask any customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland! – and the more information on a single server the more inconvenience caused when this happens. One way of minimising this problem is to scatter the information on a number of machines; another is to duplicate it on more than one server. Might publishers become involved in this? Would every university want to dedicate machines and staff time to such an operation? Who would publicise new monographs, or persuade people to review them? These questions could be summed up as:

  • Would there be a place for academic publishers in an open access system?

Location and language of publication

In the age of the Internet, research collaboration across national borders is common; however, with the important exception of the United States commitment to open access publication is not. For institutions and scholars in many countries, publication in respected journals which are not open access may be important for prestige or career purposes. Hitherto in the UK, this conundrum has usually been solved by the open access “green” version of a paper (the penultimate draft), leaving the final version to be published normally; the “green” version is acceptable to the Research Councils (and so far to the REF) as satisfying their conditions.

If it is decided that all material for submission to the REF must be available as open access, a further problem arises. Researchers in linguistics or the literature of other languages and cultures frequently publish in non-English languages in journals published in the relevant country. Open access journals in, for example, Mandarin or Sanskrit, Latin or even French, may be hard to find! Open access publication of monographs might be possible, but probably only through a UK publisher – depending on the answers to questions above; This could affect the breadth of the reception of the item, which as well as diminishing any royalties which might still be available could significantly reduce the impact in respect of a REF submission.

An important question to be considered if open access academic publishing is to become the default expectation is:

  • Are foreign language publications to be exempted, and if not what provision is to be made for them?

Access to “Open access” and its costs

As suggested above, “open access” is usually interpreted as free access, but this is not without cost. At present universities have been willing to place science articles on local servers at marginal cost; if humanities publishing and monographs are added, the costs of maintenance over the next fifty years will probably be less than marginal in research-intensive universities. Moreover, there will be a need for more sophisticated search software, akin to that in use by libraries – and as librarians will confirm, such software is not cost-free.

Moreover, the costs of indexing may be increased. If articles are not collected into journals, indexers will have to search over a hundred sites for potential material. This could be carried out by software, but again such software would have a cost; and there would be the added problem that software working by gleaning key words from titles or full text may not take account of the context. (It sometimes happens with human cataloguing – I have seen a book on Keats entitled The mirror and the lamp classified as optics!)

Alternatively, material (at least articles, although not monographs) could be collected into online journals. This could ease the problems of refereeing and therefore selection of useful material, although it would bring back the possible problems with the current system of refereeing – which have recently included the costs in terms of time if not of money. But online journals would need editors and some level of administrative staff – publishers, in other words – and there would be costs involved. Who would pay them? If it is expected to be users, we are back to the question of whether open access is to be free; and if it is paid for by institutions we are likely to find those who do not belong to such an institution disenfranchised.

There are also hidden costs in terms of the use of materials. Screens and readers are improving all the time (although that is also a cost – I don’t need equipment to read a book) but many people still find prolonged use uncomfortable. Hyperlinks can facilitate the movement from index to relevant page, but activities which require having more than one volume open at a time – comparing two editions, for example, or reading a critical work in conjunction with a text – can be awkward.

A book published 400 years ago is (generally) as easy to read as one published four days ago; computer software is upgraded frequently, and although upward compatibility is often included, there are sometimes step changes – Windows 10 has provided examples, and many word processing systems confine upward mobility to perhaps the last five versions. In my research I used a number of books and articles published 100 years previously, and probably little-used in between; how accessible will material published today be in 100 years, and what will be the costs of keeping it accessible?

There are a number of questions arising under this heading:

  • Will there be a need for new indexing and/or searching software, and if so who will pay?
  • Will in-built upward compatibility in software cope with material published a century earlier, and if not how will upgrading be managed?
  • If there are costs in respect of open access which are born collectively by institutions rather than by the end-user, will some potential end-users find themselves without access?
  • How can the problems related to potential inconvenience of use be overcome?


What do you think of the issues and questions raised in this post?

Are there others?

Get in touch below!


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