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Open-access initiatives to benefit the academy

A variety of schemes would allow the academy to reclaim control of its knowledge and labour, says Steffen Böhm

Miles Cole opinion illustration (30 May 2013)

Source: Miles Cole

I am by no means the first to observe that the current model of academic publishing is broken. It effectively requires universities to hand over largely publicly funded research to a handful of corporate oligopolies, which then copyright it and sell it back to universities at a very high price. This simply does not make sense.

The UK government’s decision to make all research funded by the British taxpayer universally accessible must be regarded as a significant victory for the open-access movement. The problem is that the open-access mandates with which funders have responded will do little to rein in corporate publishers’ infamously high profit margins.

The Finch Group’s remit to secure publishers’ consent for its recommendations led it to express a preference for the “gold” option, in which journal versions of articles are made open access - often in exchange for fees. This preference has also been adopted by Research Councils UK’s open-access policy, which came into effect on 1 April, leading it to reserve millions of pounds to pay the associated article fees.

We would do much better spending the money to support a variety of open- access initiatives that work in the interests of academics, universities, the government and the public, not the publishers.

One idea would be for the Russell Group and the 1994 Group of research- intensive universities to get together with Jisc and other members of the UK Open Access Implementation Group to set up a publishing platform controlled and run by academics. This could be modelled on Brazil’s Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO): a publicly funded, university controlled open-access platform that has operated since 1998 and currently hosts more than 900 open-access journals in a variety of disciplines run by scholars and learned societies.

These journals operate like any other, but SciELO’s provision of a free platform for reviewing and publishing papers means that production can be done without the help of traditional publishers. Quality is ensured by requiring all new journals to go through a simple yet rigorous application process, and the platform has recently been opened up to book publishers, too.

Let’s not forget that many UK academics and learned societies already self-publish their knowledge. I personally have co-founded and co-edited various open-access academic publishing ventures since 2000, most notably the journals Ephemera and Interface, as well as the book publisher MayflyBooks. There are many other examples in existence, such as the journals Surveillance and Society and Acme, and the publishers Open Humanities Press and re.press.

While setting up and running an independent open-access journal is, admittedly, not an easy task, the hurdles are not insurmountable given that academics already do most of the work required to put together journals, such as editing, peer reviewing and often even production. And learned societies have produced journals for decades, often for a much lower subscription price than corporate publishers.

But a UK version of SciELO would make things significantly easier, offering free technical and quality support while also providing a powerful indexing tool that would ensure accessibility and compatibility of content. It would counter the modern trend for increasing consolidation among academic publishers by encouraging hundreds of groups of scholars and learned societies to set up their own journals.

I can already hear colleagues objecting that academics want (and need) to publish in journals with established international prestige - all of which are in the hands of corporate elites that will protect their profits by any means necessary. But this argument ignores the fact that these elites are completely reliant on our continuous support: not only on academics’ willingness to submit their manuscripts and to edit and review those of others, but also on university libraries’ readiness to pay for access to the journals produced.

If we were to refuse that labour, resign from the editorial boards of corporate-run journals and set up open-access alternatives, publishers’ profits would quickly nosedive. And if we - particularly those of us with established careers and secure jobs - became more aware of the realities of the publishing industry and made a point of favouring the new journals, their prestige would soon rival that of the established market leaders.

Such a concerted effort by all players could result in the UK becoming a beacon of open-access publishing. By cutting out the parasitic publishing middle men, the academy could reclaim control of its knowledge, funding and labour.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • This is a very important article, and it does raise many questions about just how poorly informed policy makers have been in relation to Open Access. It is astonishing in this moment of austerity that the UK government has chosen to intervene with such a 1980s protectionism.

    It is like the government choosing to subsidize HMV or EMI because the vinyl record market has collapsed. But more than that, doing so at the moment when they relocate to Switzerland for tax reasons. This is precisely what Routledge have done, according to the THE in its piece on Feral Publishers.

    Steffen Bohm more than anyone has the right to call on the rest of us to step back from maintaining this utterly discredited system. The journal ephemera which he helped set up is infuriating but brilliant. The last RAE panel singled it out for praise. Yet, the Association of Business Schools's ratings cartel classifies it much lower than other much less intelligent, more mundane journals.

    And the thing is, no-one has to just take my word for it. You can just search 'ephemera journal' ; and read it online. For absolutely, utterly, free.

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  • Stevan Harnad

    NO NEED TO CATER TO FINCH/RCUK FOOLISH "PREFERENCE"

    The RCUK mandate requires UK researchers to make their published articles Open Access (OA).

    There are two ways to do this: (1) pay-to-publish in an OA journal (Gold OA) or (2) publish in your preferred journal and self-archive the final refereed draft in your institutional repository (Green OA).

    The RCUK allows Green or Gold OA, but prefers Gold OA.

    There are 30,000 peer-reviewed journals across all disciplines and languages worldwide.

    Why on earth should UK researchers wait to re-invent Gold (sic) OA equivalents of those journals, funded by university subsidies (instead of pay-to-publish), on the SCIELO model?

    UK researchers can simply pick RCUK's non-preferred option (Green) and keep publishing in their preferred journals, cost-free.

    Then universal Green OA itself will make journal subscriptions unsustainable, forcing journals to cut costs, downsize to peer review alone, and convert to the Gold OA model.

    The subscription cancellation savings will be more than enough to pay the affordable, sustainable price of this post-Green Fair Gold many times over -- instead of double-paying for today's pre-emptive, pre-Green Fool's Gold, as Finch/RCUK prefer.

    (All this ground has been covered, many, many times over. We need fewer bright ideas and more [Green] OA!)

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  • Stevan, apart from anything else - the obsession with 'green' and 'gold' is amazingly parochial, and as we speak of it, portrays the UK academic community as phenomenally introspective and self-obsessed.

    No one else in the World has the first idea what 'Green' and 'Gold', 'Finch", "RCUK" mean in journal publishing terms. Even the Swiss, where Routledge is now tax-exiled.

    It is the UK which is trying to "reinvent" - as Prof Bohm points out, the scielo.org model covers many countries already.

    The old "Fog in Channel: Continent Cut of From England" attitude pervades in Finch, and sadly, your response. The UK government is trying to State-manage a publishing system on the basis, it seems of "World Class Scholarship in One Country".

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  • I sometimes wonder if I have accidently wandered onto the wrong planet when I read open access articles like Böhm’s. The problem is that it does cost a lot to properly subedit and typeset papers for publication, especially scientific ones with complex diagrams and tables. It also costs money to ensure worldwide dissemination, marketing and curation of an electronic data base. Someone somewhere has to pay for this. Money has to keep coming in perpetuity to ensure access to papers that no longer generate money by subscription. Who is going to supply over time scales of decades is uncertain.
    The UK may be plowing ahead with open access but the rest of the world isn’t. As the UK produces only a small fraction of the world’s papers it will be in the happy position of giving its publications away free whilst still paying to see the rest of the world’s papers.
    All this may seem fine and dandy on planet Böhm but unfortunately it doesn’t look very sustainable on planet Earth

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  • Peter, did you actually visit what you so insultingly call Planet Bohm, namely www.scielo.org - that bit of the 'rest of the world' , namely most of Portuguese, Spanish, and English speaking Latin America, where there are (literally) thousands of peer reviewed journals achieving what you describe as impossible ? Did you look at the websites for the publishers and journals he names, which also do what you say is impossible ?

    But hey, evidence schmevidence, eh ?

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