Open access (II)
So I welcome the development of open access publishing, as part of a mixed economy. Many of its supporters, however, go further. They argue that open access is a superior form of publishing – even that we would be better off if open access publishing became the system.
There is a strong ethical tone to the debate around open access publishing, as if open access = good and traditional = bad. I sympathise with one aspect of the ethical claim for open access: that is, if authors wish to make their texts freely available (and hence more accessible to the less well-off), and they possess the resources to make that happen, that seems to be commendable.
Beyond that, however, I question the ethical argument for open access. I suspect that, not for the first time, the word ‘free’ is proving infectious – so the fact that open access is free to the reader somehow creates aura, as it such publishing is free, full stop. But, of course, there is no such thing as a free publication. Publication always requires resources, involving some combination of time and money.
One can try to cut corners – for example, doing proof-reading or indexing oneself, rather than paying specialists. But that tends to produce an inferior product – and in any case has a cost, at least in terms of time. In the case of academics, the real cost of this time may be very high – not merely because of salary costs, but also because of the opportunity cost: time devoted to publishing is time taken away from other valuable activities such as research and teaching. Though such costs might not appear on any financial accounts, they are nonetheless real.
I think everyone accepts that, in any case, there is always some financial outlay required. If the reader does not pay, who does? The usual answer is the author (or the author’s sponsors). This is where the ethical argument seems to me particularly shaky. I often encounter authors who complain that they don’t earn enough from their publications. I don’t encounter any who tell me they would like to be out-of-pocket . There may of course be pragmatic reasons why some authors may choose to foot the bill for a publication – I just can’t see anything ethical about requiring them to. The risk is that in protecting less well-off readers, we end up penalising less well-off authors.
Similarly there may be pragmatic reasons why an author’s sponsors – an employer, say, or research funder – may wish to pay for publication. But why would this be ethically superior? It would, after all, make less money available for other purposes, such as funding research.
In summary, replacing traditional publishing with open access publishing seems to me to transfer costs – and the grounds for doing that, where appropriate, would seem to be pragmatic, rather than ethical.
I suspect, though, that an argument such as this isn’t going to change anyone’s view. And that is because I suspect that the real ethical appeal of open access lies elsewhere. But I’ll leave that for the next post. In the meantime, if your hackles have been rising and you feel I’m not seeing things straight, do please let me have your comments. After all, I plan an open access programme myself – so I’m rather keen to ensure I know what’s what.