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On Open Access Publishing

[The following article was originally published by the Society for Critical Exchange in January 2010; alas, that version has been overrun with spam comments, making further discussion of or linking to it unlikely. I’m thus republishing it here, in the interest of having a copy that’s viable into the future.]

Raising the idea of “open access publishing” among contemporary scholars produces an immediate and sometimes surprising set of responses, ranging from enthusiasm to anger to befuddlement. The open access movement has a wide range of proponents and an often entrenched opposition, and the depth of feeling on both sides often leaves those scholars in between scratching their heads, wondering exactly what the deal is.

A huge part of the confusion arises from the proliferation of misinformation and mythology around the notion of open access; opponents of open access alternately argue that making all scholarship available for free will destroy the economic model of the publishing industry, making it impossible for anything to get published, and that doing so will simultaneously undermine peer review, turning all scholarship into vanity publishing, allowing just anything to get published. Neither of these things is true; open access publishing does not necessarily mean making everything available free of cost, nor does it necessarily imply the absence of peer review processes. It doesn’t mean that scholars lose control of the copyright of their publications (from a certain perspective, we’ve long since given that away, but that’s a matter for another article), and it doesn’t mean that plagiarism will become more prevalent.

What does it mean, though? Why have a number of colleges and universities, including institutions as varied as MIT, the University of Kansas, Trinity University, and Oberlin College recently passed resolutions mandating the open access availability of the work of their faculty members? Why have similar initiatives failed at other institutions? And what’s actually at stake in such decisions?

Far more in depth histories and analyses of the open access movement are available — including John Willinsky’s The Access Principle and Gary Hall’s Digitize this Book!, among others — but in what follows I hope to present one reading of the issues at play in the debates around open access, and my own argument for the reasons that scholars and publishers alike should support and participate in open access publishing.[1]

The open access movement in contemporary scholarship began in large part with the sciences, as a response to the predatory practices of certain commercial journal publishers. By the early 1990s, a small number of large commercial publishers had acquired most of the top journals in many fields and had begun developing a range of profit-oriented pricing structures, including bundling together large groups of journals to which libraries are required to subscribe in order to gain access to the key journals that they actually want. Because of these practices, many less-affluent institutions in the U.S. — much less those institutions in developing nations — have become unable to afford to provide access to the most important research being done in what have come to be known as the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And, of course, scholars without official ties to a subscribing institution, including independent researchers and un- and under-employed faculty members, are often unable to access that scholarship as well.[2]

Open access publishing thus has its origins both in an economic imperative, to ensure that our institutions aren’t bankrupted by the commercial interests in the scholarly communication chain, and in an ethical imperative, to ensure that less affluent institutions and individual scholars without institutional support are able to gain access to current research. That ethical concern is heightened by the prevalence of public funds used in the development of this research, including funds provided by federal granting agencies. Grantors such as the National Institutes of Health have begun requiring scholars to publish or deposit their work in open-access venues as a condition of funding. Beyond such requirements supporting the public’s right of access to research for which it has paid, however, proponents of open access publishing also call upon scholars to consider the funding and support provided to research by their own institutions, which are then charged exorbitant subscription rates to buy back the products of the research that they have supported.

These concerns have been somewhat slower to develop in humanities-based fields than they have in the sciences, primarily because the monopolistic practices of STEM journal publishers haven’t affected humanities and social science journals to quite the same degree.


There are signs that we need to be paying attention, however; when Wiley recently acquired the rights to publish the American Anthropological Association’s journals (the association’s prior contract with the University of California Press having expired), the publisher proceeded to double the subscription fee for a number of the major journals[3] — an indication that commercial publishers do see the potential for profit in “softer” fields.

Beyond the economics of the matter, however, scholars in the humanities should of course be held to the same ethical obligations as those in the sciences; though the products of our research may not always appear to be as crucial to the health and well-being of diverse populations, our work nonetheless has potentially profound implications for popular discussions about the politics of cultural representations, about the meaning of human interactions, and so forth.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to the broader public, fearing the consequences of such openness — and not without reason. The public at times fails to understand our work, and, because the content of the work seems as though it ought to be comprehensible (you’re just writing about books, or movies, or art, after all!), isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents; their dismissive responses[4] give us the clear sense that the public doesn’t take our work as seriously as, say, papers in high-energy physics, which few lay readers would assume their ability to comprehend without some background or training. As a result of these doubled misunderstandings, we close our work off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. In that case, why would open access matter?

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue with them, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. Closing our work away from the public, and keeping our scholarly conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous. This is not to say that such openness doesn’t bear risks, particularly for scholars working in controversial areas of research, but it is to say that only through open dialogue across the walls of the ivory tower will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governmental funding bodies, of the importance of our work.

All of that having been said, it’s evident that the economics of humanities-based publishing is quite different from that in STEM fields, and many of the misapprehensions preventing the broad acceptance of open-access publishing derive from that difference.

To back up a bit: there are two primary avenues through which open-access publishing is being developed. First, what has been called the “green” road to open access, self-archiving in institutional and disciplinary repositories. Under this model of open-access publishing, which is what is covered by most of the institutional mandates referred to above, scholars agree to deposit copies of their published articles in online archives associated either with their institution’s library or with their field.

Such archives are surrounded by clouds of misinformation, however; some argue, for instance, that self-archiving mandates will prevent scholars from publishing in top-tier journals (thus endangering tenure and promotion bids). In fact, most journals permit some measure of self-archiving, whether of post-prints (the manuscript of an article as edited for print) or of pre-prints (the manuscript of an article as submitted for print).[5] And it’s arguable that scholars have the responsibility to demand that those publishers and journals that don’t, as yet, permit self-archiving change their policies.

But there are other anxieties surrounding self-archiving that demand address as well. Some scholars are concerned that material that hasn’t been subjected to peer review can be deposited in such archives, thus undermining the quality control of institutional repositories generally; others are concerned that making published material available through self-archiving will have the effect of undermining already declining journal subscription figures; still others are concerned that archives needlessly complicate citational practices, by providing multiple avenues of access to published work. None of these concerns are borne out by the facts, however. Material in institutional repositories can and should be labeled as “pre-print” or “post-print,” thus giving a clear indication of its status with respect to peer review and, where possible, directing the interested reader to the final, published version of the text, with its appropriate citation. Such links to journals, and the discoverability of material published in them via institutional repositories, may in fact help promote purchases of articles, issues, or subscriptions from publishers once desirable content has been found. And projects such as the Open Archives Initiative’s OAI-PMH protocol for harvesting the metadata provided by institutional and disciplinary repositories is increasingly making such archives interoperable, and their contents more easily discoverable.

And let this be said clearly: increasing the discoverability of one’s work on the web, making it available to a broader readership, is a Good Thing, not just for the individual scholar but for the field in which she works. The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available to, for instance, journalists covering those issues for popular venues, the richer the discourse in those publications will become — increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education, and their importance to the culture at large.

Beyond self-archiving, however, lies what has been referred to as the “gold” road to open access: journals that are published online in a freely-accessible form. Such journals are surrounded by similar forms of misinformation — most notably, that they aren’t peer reviewed, and because they are made available for free, they must therefore be intellectually valueless, both of which assumptions are patently untrue — but the greatest concern that they raise for scholars and publishers is their economic model. After all, publishing still costs money, and if the journal’s subscribers aren’t financing it, who is?

Part of the reason for such concern has been the visibility of the Public Library of Science project; this non-profit open access publishing project launched its first journal, PLoS Biology, in October 2003, followed by several more such journals, all of which employ rigorous peer review and have developed high rankings in terms of selectivity and scholarly impact. However, the funding model for these journals, as for many other open-access journals in STEM fields, is author-pays, which is to say that authors are charged at times hefty page fees in order to publish their articles. PLoS Biology, in fact, charges $2900 in page fees to an author whose work is selected for inclusion in the journal.

Such a model works in the sciences, in large part because page fees have long been a part of the culture; scientists have for quite some time written publication costs into their funding proposals, and funders have agreed that the cost of publication should be funded as part of the cost of doing research. Transplanting such a model to the humanities will simply never work, as the vast majority of research in these fields is either self-funded or funded, directly or indirectly, by the scholar’s home institution; moreover, grants coming from agencies supporting humanities research are generally so small that there’s no room available for publishing costs.

This is only a problem, however, if “author-pays” is the only viable business model for open access journals — and it’s simply not. Many journals in the humanities have published in a free and open fashion since the early days of the web; the electronic book review, for instance, was founded in 1994, and has been in continuous, open publication since. Kairos, likewise, has been in open, online publication since 1996. And Open Humanities Press publishes a range of open-access, peer-reviewed journals online.[6] Journals such as these generally operate on very limited budgets, cobbling together a range of kinds of support, including grants from funding bodies and staff/in-kind support from the journal’s host institution. But much of the support that such journals rely upon is volunteer labor — unpaid editors and reviewers, volunteer designers and coders, and so forth.

This situation isn’t all that different from more traditional, publisher-based models of journal production; whether the end result is distributed by commercial or university presses, the support that those entities provide to a journal’s editors is generally slim at best. Economist Theodore C. Bergstrom argued this point in his 2001 paper, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?,” advocating that scholars refuse to publish in overpriced commercial journals. I, however, want to espouse a more radical position, and argue for what strikes me as the most important reason for scholars to espouse open-access publishing: reclaiming the value of our labor for the profession itself. I want to suggest, as I conclude this essay, that it isn’t just ethically incumbent on us as scholars to publish in open-access venues, but in fact to create more open-access publications, and more systems for their support. These systems might include new public or foundation-based granting agency programs specifically designed to support open-access publications. They might include more consortial agreements among universities to create and support open-access publications. And they might include the development of new tools to assist in the labor that goes into journal production, such as the Public Knowledge Project’s open-source project, Open Journal Systems, which helps to create a workflow that reduces a journal editor’s reliance on technical personnel and expensive web production.[7]

But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free — the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing — as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields. We should value our labor sufficiently to ensure that we, our institutions, our colleagues, and our students, have full and perpetual access to the results of our work — and promoting the development of open-access publishing venues, and contributing all of our work to them, are the best ways to meet that ethical imperative toward the widest possible distribution of the knowledge that we produce.

  1. I focus in what follows on journal and journal-like publishing, largely because of its role in the origins of the open access movement, but discussion of and projects supporting open-access book publishing are on the rise; see, for instance, the work of the National Academies Press, Rice University Press, and Open Humanities Press, and projects such as the Open Monograph Press, among many others. ↩︎

  2. Contrary to some assumptions, the interlibrary loan (ILL) service of a smaller institutional or public library is not an adequate substitute for such direct access; though faculty at larger institutions rarely see the cost directly, ILL is not a free service, and many institutions are required to pass those charges on to the user. ↩︎

  3. See Kelty, Christopher M. et al. “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies.” Cultural Anthropology 23.3 (2008): 559-588. ↩︎

  4. For evidence of such dismissive responses, one might see the annual stories about those wacky papers being presented at the MLA. ↩︎

  5. The SHERPA/RoMEO project maintains an extensive list of the copyright and self-archiving policies of publishers. ↩︎

  6. An extensive list of open access journals may be found at the Directory of Open Access Journals project. ↩︎

  7. A list of journals using Open Journal Systems is available on the PKP website. ↩︎


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