Earlier this week (11 Oct) I went to a mini-conference on the future of scholarly publishing organised by the Research Information Network (http://www.rin.ac.uk). Four speakers, all well informed.
The discussion was rather dominated by discussion of open access. Not completely so – but it was the major topic. Generally the speakers favoured open access publishing – and also tended to assume that the audience would too.
Last month I wrote on this blog three posts about open access publishing. I did so a little tentatively, having as yet no firsthand experience of publishing an open access programme. So this event was a good opportunity to test what I wrote then against the views of the experts.
I wrote in the post on 7 September (Open Access III) that “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.”
Well, I didn’t find any evidence for that view at the event on Monday.
I also wrote (Open Access II – 3 Sept) that “I suspect that … 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 … Publication always requires resources, involving some combination of time and money.”
Again, I didn’t find any evidence that anyone thought that. There was a recognition of cost. I would say, though, that what was missing was an explicit recognition of opportunity cost. The term itself was not used and there was no discussion of what the parties who sponsor open access publishing forego by doing so. Several times the discussion verged on the concept, but it never quite became explicit. I would suggest that the open access debate only becomes completely candid when that concept gets out into the open.
Where I think my previous posts were most accurate was in their scepticism over the belief that open access publishing is necessarily superior on ethical grounds. A speaker from the audience, from the Alzheimer’s Society, argued that his organisation simply couldn’t afford to underwrite the costs of publication of research. In the conversation over drinks afterwards I found this point had clearly resonated.
As I say, there was a recognition of the resource requirements of open access publishing. A speaker from the University of Liverpool said that he had done some calculations and discovered that a complete commitment to open access publishing on the part of his university would result in a substantial net loss. (As a number of speakers pointed out, this will happen if you subsidise your own research publications whilst still having to purchase those of others.)
What surprised me was the conclusion that he drew from his finding. He said he hoped there would be compulsion. This seems to me a non sequitur. If you are contemplating doing something and then calculate that doing it would result in a loss that you’re uncomfortable with, surely the conclusion to draw is: Don’t do it! By what logic do you arrive at the conclusion: I want someone else to make me do it – and make others do it as well!
Sounds like masochism to me.
As the chair pointed out, even if all UK institutions followed this line, they would still need to purchase content from abroad.
I hope I’ve not misrepresented the argument from Liverpool. I don’t think I have. And as a result I came away with a strengthened belief that open access should be supported on tactical, pragmatic, grounds – but not as an entire alternative system.
That compulsion thing bothers me a lot. It feels like something religious is at stake. I found myself thinking of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”