Open access (III)

In the previous post I argued that transferring costs from reader to author might have attractions on pragmatic grounds but was ethically equivocal – but that I suspected that in any case the real ethical attraction to open access publishing lay elsewhere. So it’s the ‘elsewhere’ that this post picks up on.

The strongest supporters of open access publishing I’ve spoken to find its ethical appeal, not in a transfer of costs, but in the claim that it reduces costs. The contention is that a shift to open access publishing would reduce the financial burden of publishing for the world of academia.

Primarily this argument rests on what are called ‘publisher costs’. In particular, it focuses on two types of cost: 1.marketing; and 2. capital costs (in the form of interest or dividend payments).

I’m unconvinced by this argument. Publishing in a commercial context is a competitive business. If marketing wasn’t a valuable, cost-effective, activity, managing directors would be only too pleased to strip it out. That they don’t tells its own story: academic publishing products, such as learned journals, require marketing.

I suspect – though I can’t evidence this – that the under-estimation of marketing here stems from two factors: (a) a general under-estimation in academia of the potential of marketing – perhaps because university marketing departments often fail to provide good examples; and (b) a belief that marketing is primarily about persuading people to part with their money – and so isn’t necessary if a product is free.

But just because a product is free (to the user, that is) doesn’t mean it will be consumed. There’s lots of stuff you can’t give away – acres of material on the web that goes unregarded. Even when text is ‘free’, you have to make sure people know about it and appreciate that it deserves their attention.

Similarly, I’m unconvinced that one can really save on capital costs. Without the promise of a return on their capital, investors walk away. One could argue that not-for-profit investors – universities, for example – could assume the burden. But that diverts resources from other activities, such as teaching and research. And it isn’t as if the sector is feeling flush with funds just now.

The alternative is to seek to get by. To keep things small-scale. To rely on some labour being given freely (as it often already is in the case of peer review). But as I argued in the previous post, costs are costs, whether or not they are properly accounted for. As as for keeping things small – I can’t see the ethical appeal of an under-funded publishing system. If the texts are any good, they deserve to be published well.

The truth is: there is no such thing as a free monograph or journal.

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2 Responses to “Open access (III)”

  1. Another thoughtful contribution to the battle for the survival of paid-for publishing – many thanks. I believe it is only the naivety of the advocates of the ‘free content’ model that makes it possible for them to argue as they do. Work/labour/toil/quality/meaning have to be paid for – they do not appear spontaneously and cannot be recycled outside of human thinking, understanding and creativity. The Google model of production and exchange parasitizes all that is thought and known, not out of altruism nor as a perpetuation of the ideals of peace/love/freedom from the 1960s. In the new Google post-consumerist consumer paradigm, our attention and curiosity are captured, commodified, instrumentalized and sold. There is no sphere of human attention that cannot be sold. Academic research and publishing is simply another gravitational centre that sucks in hits for those who have found a techno-economic formula to sell them. I am not saying this is a conspiracy. I am saying there are also excellent things available – like this blog and (I hope) this reply to it! – but meanwhile the resource of Culture (the sum total of human creativity and understanding), like reserves of oil, is alas being systematically depleted faster than it can be renewed. Please, then, let us not talk about ‘free’ publishing – our reading is always/already monetized, but not for the people who write it or produce it. If we believe that quality, meaning and understanding are good, let us freely and boldly say that it is right to charge for it. As they say elsewhere in the world of commodification, ‘We’re worth it’.

  2. […] publishing. I won’t repeat in detail the arguments from my previous posts (1 Sep, 3 Sep, 7 Sep, 13 Oct, 3 Nov, 26 Nov 2010): suffice it to say that the OA model presents a problem to authors who […]

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