Open Access

Today the government announced that publicly funded scientific research should be publicly available for free. In principle, I think moving to an open access system is a good thing. However, like many others, I have reservations about the type of OA the Finch report recommends. Mark Carrigan has an extensive round-up of coverage and reaction and has a set of slides giving a good overview of the situation.

As Steven Harnad of LSE writes,

There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90 per cent) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

As Beverly Gibbs writes, the high cost of Article Processing Fees places a structural barrier for early career researchers trying to get their work published. Martin Eve asks whether “publisher boycotts [will] offer up at least one generation of early-career researchers to the sacrificial slaughter so that the cycle can either be broken or, more likely, continue once more”. And Mark Carrigan wonders about the researchers who can’t pay.

As someone working in Arts and Humanities, I’m worried that the way we do research and publish means I’ll find it harder to get Article Processing Fees funded. Unlike other disciplines, we’re less likely to work in groups with a big name attracting the funding and I’m curious as to how this will affect early stage researchers trying to publish single authored work. If there is only limited money in the pot, then as a lowly PhD researcher I’m not sure how I’m meant to compete with far more experienced and higher ranking academics.

However, I am glad that academia is finally having this discussion. I’ve been interested in creative commons, copyleft and open access for about a decade now, and the current model of academic publishing has been a constant source of frustration. One of the things that shocked me when entering university as an undergraduate was how locked academic publishing is – it seemed years behind the open licensing I’d encountered online and it was an unpleasant surprise to suddenly come up against such restrictions.

The practice of accessing journals on behalf of friends in other institutions who don’t subscribe to that journal seems pretty pervasive, and I wonder just how widespread this is. It suggests that while publishers try their hardest to restrict access, academics are willing to find ways around these restrictions. In light of this, I wonder how much loyalty academics feel towards the current publishing model, particularly PhD researchers and early career researchers who have grown up with filesharing, peer-to-peer networks and alternative licensing systems.

While Gold OA seems problematic, I don’t think the wider issue of open access to research will – or, indeed, can – go away.

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4 Comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your point that this generation of researchers have grown up with file sharing and alternative licensing systems, and that our expectations of access is quite different than that of our older colleagues. I’m very pro open-access for many of the same reasons you are, and your concern about being a single researcher as compared to a group of researchers is a valid one. Unfortunately, the way current arts & humanities postgraduate studies are set up is still focused on the single researcher in a room by themselves, which is not very helpful when it comes to fostering collaboration and bridging the so-called gap.

    As humanities researchers, we are less likely to be affiliated to a large group – that is simply the infrastructure of humanities departments. And yet as we move deeper into the brave new world of digital humanities, more and more projects are becoming collaborative. I often fear that the single researcher will quickly become outmoded by larger, collaborative digital humanities projects – projects which are able to cover quite a lot more ground merely by nature of the people involved. This faces the single researcher with an ultimatum: either join or die. I think there’s a very legitimate fear of “I’m not technologically good enough”; I see this quite a lot in my own department (English Studies). An easy fix for this is to start a digital literacy earlier, to make scholars less focused on the library as the totem of all knowledge, but this requires a huge paradigm shift which goes far beyond open access.

    As part of a large-scale digital humanities project spanning 3 institutions, I find that the funding isn’t always there, but the name of the project itself probably helps quite a lot in attracting attention to us. Single researchers in the humanities have to self-promote without the financial backing of a larger institution or larger group, which puts them at a big disadvantage. Our digital project is set up using the language of scientific funding and scientific inquiry. While I realize that digital projects are not suitable for many studies, i’m particularly interested whether or not it seems sustainable to push everyone into a more scientific form of inquiry, and if so, what sorts of skills we’ll lose as researchers.

    • I think the concept of collaboration itself is problematic: if researchers from Institution A and Institution B collaborate and want to publish something that came out of it, which institution stumps up the cash for the Article Processing Fee? I’d imagine it would make informal collaboration more difficult; while large scale projects would, with any luck, have funding agreements built it, I suspect it would cause problems for casual, researcher-led collaborations. At the moment it is possible for researchers to say “hey, we’re interested in similar things; why don’t we try working on something together and get a joint publication out of it?”. This isn’t just good for research, but it’s important in developing an academic community and establishing relationships between researchers. Would the introduction of Article Processing Fees risk this?

      I’m also concerned about single and independent researchers, especially those working in areas where digital humanities isn’t so prevalent. To me, it also risks digital humanities and large collaborative projects being accepted as *the* way research is conducted without proper assessment or reflection on the types of research digital humanities isn’t so suited to. Researchers – and funding bodies – tend to get excited about the Next Big Thing and this could exacerbate that without, as you say, examining what we stand to lose in terms of skill and expertise by pushing large collaborative projects.

  2. Yes, I agree: introducing article processing fees will put researcher-led collaboration at risk; that’s a very good point I hadn’t entirely considered. Who would be responsible for paying the fees? I imagine quite a lot of scholarly work would be outsourced for publication in places without processing fees (where that would be, I don’t know), which would change the academic landscape quite a bit. A valid point about assessment, as well; it’s one that we’re struggling with a lot in DH. Part of the project I’m working on aims to identify how to assess digital projects; you’ll have to check back in a few years and see how we do, I suppose.

    All that said, one of the best open access journals I’ve seen has been the Journal of Digital Humanities (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/).

    • That’s an interesting point about publication in places without processing fees – I wonder if the effect of Gold OA would be to drive publication away from journals and into something user-driven. Generally I’m more interested in user-driven systems – people try things and experiment and are able to see what works rather than having top-down systems imposed on them.

      One of the reasons I wonder about Gold OA is that it doesn’t fit into the way people already share research. In my experience, people are happy to share things they’ve written as long as you don’t pass it on to others. People already put slides or unpublished articles on their websites. It’s not such a big step from this to Green OA. Having to pay an Article Processing Fee is very different and I wonder what the effect on disseminating research will be.

      Still, at this point this is all conjecture, and who knows for certain how it will work.

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