Today’s Guardian front page offers an encouraging headline: Free access to British scientific research within two years. The idea is that by 2014 all publications of all research which has been funded by the British taxpayer has to be accessible to universities, companies and individuals.
This is a response to the real problem of expensive academic publishing, where companies accept (for free) research papers from academics, ask other academics to peer-review those papers (also for free, usually) and then sell the published product at a very high price back to the same group of academics who can’t be full participants in research activities without access to these publications. In the UK, the situation is made considerably worse by the REF, which makes many universities dismiss publications unless they appear in a select group of ‘top journals’, which further increases the market value of some titles.
As a result, the publishing companies have universities in a stranglehold, and library budgets are feeling the pinch. In some areas, journal subscriptions are now purely online and defined in a way which does allow access only to members of the subscribing institution: for the first time since the invention of libraries, this means that even traveling to a well-funded library will no longer give you access to all material you might need to read. In the sciences this situation has led many scholars to boycott the most ruthless of these publishing companies, Elsevier.
The government’s initiative therefore looks like an excellent move – and the Guardian clearly considers it good news. But I see some very worrying problems which will arise from this proposal, particularly for scholars in the arts and humanities (as so often, a solution tailored to the sciences is not going to suit everybody in academia).
Here is the problem: as the Guardian reports,
British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.
Of course, in the arts and humanities, the situation is different (read Mary Beard’s description of how a top ancient history journal works), but somebody will have to pay for publication here, too. In the sciences, most projects, virtually all, in fact, are funded through grant income. Write publication costs into proposals, and it’ll all work out fine. But this is not the case in arts and humanities. Funding pots are very small in these areas, and much of the research is done by scholars working around teaching and administration: salary costs and reasonable library budgets (usually equally necessary for students) is all that is needed. Much of this will be funded by tuition fees in future, since state funding is retreating from higher education, but it’s hard to believe that journals will be able to stick to the subscription model if the government’s free access proposals become law. The cost for publishing research becomes the responsibility of the author. Perhaps universities will divert some of their current subscription budgets towards publishing, but in concert with REF publication pressures, how will this funding be handled? Who will decide preferences? Or will we end up with a situation like in Germany, where many scholars already pay publication costs (currently mostly monographs) out of their own pockets? A PhD thesis there has to be published to be considered valid, yet publishing a book with a reputable publisher can set you back thousands of Euro, and funding is often not available. Is this where we want to go? Thus, while arts and humanities currently hardly contribute to the problem, they might be hit particularly hard by the impact of the government’s ‘solution’.
But there are more general problems as well.
– Firstly, one might ask (as Stevan Harnad of the LSE does here) why scholars cannot give each other open access to publications, bypassing expensive subscriptions completely. Unsurprisingly, the publishing companies are against this practice, and government has clearly listened to their lobbying.
– Secondly, even scientists, may have to battle over publication grants in future, and the idea that publication no longer merely depends on (perceived) quality, but also on the ability to pay will make it even harder for newcomers to enter an academic career.
– Finally, it seems doubtful that library budgets will remain the same: this may well mean another excuse for further budget cuts, with no guarantee that any of the money no longer needed for journal subscription will be invested in publication costs or (might we dare to dream?) in books.
In the end, the question is whether we do need a much more radical overhaul of academic publication. Journals originally were the best (and often the only) way to make research results known to the scholarly community. As academic publishing became more professional, peer review was developed to provide quality control, and recently, journals have also become a tool for measuring perceived quality for the purpose of research assessment by universities and governments. In the age of the internet, journals are, however, non longer the most efficient mode of disseminating research, and scholars continue to use them because they need the recognition which only publication in a reputable journal can provide. Do we still need journals? Is there another, more practical way of organising rigorous peer review?
*This blog post started its life as a discussion between colleagues: thanks for insights, links and ideas – particularly to Mark Humphries (who started the discussion) and Birgitta Hoffmann (who showed that my initial suspicion did not go far enough). Errors and opinions in this post are, of course, all my own.