Notes on Open Access for academic works

by Sebastian Benthall

You could read this blog post, or you could watch this YouTube video and get about 50% of the written information.

I attended a meeting last week about Open Access publishing at Berkeley. As is well-known now, most academic publishing is a ruthless industry that stifles innovation by making it expensive to acess academic journals. (Nevermind for a minute that this industry is only possible because of academia’s unhealthy dependence on these journals as a currency of prestige.) Thankfully, principles of ‘openness’ are swiftly descending on the academy.

Three interesting things came up in the meeting. The first was the existence of hybrid open access journals. These try to bridge the gap between open access journals (which generally allow publishers to maintain copyright and make works available on the web) and normal journals by charging authors a premium for making their articles openly available in an otherwise journal..

This sounds good for about two seconds until you think about it and realize that the publisher is essentially ransoming the openness of the work, and making the author incur the cost. Often the fees charged by hybrid publishers for openness are exorbitant.

It’s worth noting that open access publishers tend to charge authors for publication as well. Also, in many cases universities or their libraries have started subsidizing their faculty to publish openly. (That makes sense, since it cuts down on library subscription costs!)

The difference between open access and closed publish, then, appears to be that in the case of open access publishing, authors (or the university they are associated with? unclear) get to maintain copyright. Also, the fees tend to be more reasonable. These may be related. The openness of the content means that publishers don’t reap monopoly profits, so doesn’t sense for the OA journal to charge academics for profit lost due to open content. OA journals will run leaner. They will also, in a just world, be more competitive, but that will require a shift in the way academics view prestige as being associated with a journal’s name or ‘impact’.

Which brings me to impact rankings. Since academics need to compete on how good their research is, they need a filter mechanism for demonstrating the value of their work. This has traditionally been benchmarked against journal publication, and in particular which journals one publishes in. Journals are ranked by various estimates of impact factor–who reads it, who cites it, who takes it seriously.

I haven’t looked into it carefully, but I would be willing to bet that the definition of impact factor is viciously circular to the advantage of any existing journal with “high impact.” It is precisely this estimation of “high impact” that gives journals the power to get academics to provide free content (articles) and free labor (editors) and then charge libraries for access to the tune of extraordinary profits.

This is a bad system. The solution, article level metrics (where the use and impact of the work itself, not the impact of the journal in which it is published, is considered what’s valuable–maybe a no brainer) is being pushed forward by the Public Library of Science, a leading Open Access publisher, but at the time of this writing article level metrics are covered by only the stubbiest of lonesome stubs on Wikipedia.

The other interesting thing I learned was about the growing trend of prestigious universities mandating that faculty publish open access. Harvard, MIT, Princton, Stanford, and Duke are apparently on board for this already. By the domino logic of academic prestige competition, this means a sea change is afoot.

There are some objections to this trend that are quickly countered. The main one appears to come from the humanities, where there are many small “society-based” journals that use a traditional business model to publish works. In my imagination, these journals are a bit like private poetry magazines, or n+1.

As a result, these university-wide open access mandates come with a strong opt-out clause. Faculty can get permission to publish in closed way, if they really really want to.

Then why is this a big deal? It turns out that it’s about bargaining power. It’s not that Harvard, MIT, and the rest are no longer publishing in Nature or other big name journals. It’s just that they can negotiate special deals with the major publishers to allow the universities to maintain copyright. With that copyright, they can then publish the works on-line with a university based publishing tool.

What does this mean for other schools? Well, it means that open access journals are going to become more legitimate and traditional journals are in trouble unless they can change their business models. And it means that more and more universities are going to have an easier time using their bargaining power to change the way academic publishing works.

At Berkeley (and I believe this is generally true of other universities) the decision to go open access is a faculty decision, to be made at the Faculty Senate. I didn’t get a sense from the meeting when these meetings take place or how like the faculty was to take the dive, but I’d like to look into it more.

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