A down side of open access journals

The latest notable milestone in the open access journal movement is the announcement by Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and U of C Berkeley that they have formed an open access journal compact in order to share research more widely.

Most peer-reviewed journals are not available to the general public (or even the thoughtful public). Annual subscriptions are expensive. The people who read scholarly journals are the ones who tend to write for scholarly journals: faculty members working in universities and paid for doing research as part (or all) of their responsibilities. To compensate for the subscriptions costs, some open access journals charge authors for publishing accepted papers.

According to Harvard professor Shieber who authored the five-university agreement, “Universities and funding agencies ought to provide equitable support for open-access publishing by subsidizing the processing fees that faculty incur when contributing to open-access publications. Right now, these fees are relatively rare. But if the research community supports open-access publishing and it gains in importance as we believe that it will, those fees could aggregate substantially over time. The compact ensures that support is available to eliminate these processing fees as a disincentive to open-access publishing.”

It’s comforting that he acknowledges fees as a potential barrier. However, the article seems to assume research is done by faculty members. What about the independent scholar-practitioner who does good research to enhance his or her work and vice versa? I have seen many exciting presentations at conferences by people who have little or no formal association with universities. My guess is that their university associations are often with young, innovative institutions rather than “top tier” institutions with large endowments. They are an interesting and marginalized group. If we want scholarship to influence practice and have practical experience influencing scholarship in real time, will open access journals with author fees be another barrier to that integration?

As Clarke and Kingsley point out, the unlocking of intellectual property is an idea in-progress; hopefully its directions will be studied from many perspectives.

2 Responses to “A down side of open access journals”

  1. innotectureOctober 27, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    Hi Alice – I am neither a fan of the “pay to play” author-fees approach or the “pay to read” model. It’s interesting to compare the academic press with the trade press. No fees for publication and they generally don’t mind you reprinting the article elsewhere (with attribution).

    My question is: what are these fees paying for? We are now in a publishing environment characterised by abundance rather than scarcity. How do we adapt to this?

    I’ve done some reviewing for academic journals and I don’t recall getting any cash for this!

    • amacgillivrayOctober 27, 2009 at 4:55 pm #

      Regardless of our preferences, I’m thinking about the very different cultures, and ways of knowing, and truth that are out there. While a successful up-and-coming social media entrepreneur sees many opportunities for publishing, and probably never loses sleep about whether to post in twitter or yammer or Moodle. The successful up-and-coming scholar (apologies for generalizations) needs to get X papers published in a period of time. Let’s say they care about the kind of content we speak about (as opposed t microbiology or astronomy). The journals they submit to might accept 10% or 20% of submissions after lengthy review and edit processes. Should they submit to journal X where they have a 20% chance of getting in? Would people think their work is inferior if they publish there rather than in the “A journal?” And of course anything worth effort has to go through formal peer reviews, because that brings one closer to some form of external Truth.

      People pay tens–sometimes hundreds–of thousands of dollars for degrees and their careers are often shaped by exactly what letters and what schools are on the parchments. It’s a different world.

      So, even if I find some blog posts more thoughtful than some A-journal papers, it doesn’t matter because the readers and systems are so isolated.
      Not very eloquent, but I’m literally on my way out the door now!

      PS: I am sure that people deep in the academic system (especially those leaning towards reductionism and positivism) believe that the scarce, difficult to get into A journals are worth far more attention and effort than anything leaning towards citizen journalism. And until we unpack the nature of those different beliefs I don’t think we will make much progress.

      The fees are for traditional publishing costs. I don’t know what all of these are, but could include stipends for editors, administrative costs for pre-press work and direct costs for printing and shipping hard copies. Authors and peer reviewers are typically not paid for anything by a journal. Again, it is embedded in the system. You need to prove your value in the system to move up and get tenure, for example. Which is a whole other topic.

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