More on the Open Access Debate

15 Jan

Josh Sanborn has written a lengthy and detailed reply to my post on open access. I’m not planning to respond as I think it further reiterates the economic challenges of open access. I do want to draw attention to it.  Here’s a snippet:

The Finch Report is a set of recommendations created by a British governmental working group headed by Dame Janet Finch entitled “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications.”  It recommends that all academic work be made available free to the public on the internet and that the costs associated with the production of such works be borne by their authors. This is a mind-numbingly foolish solution, as many British academics and the AHA have pointed out, but the Finch Report at least clarifies something that, occasionally, airy discussions about open access neglect: nothing is free. Again, this point is well addressed in the comments to Sean’s blog, but it’s worth reiterating. Whenever you hear the word “free” in any discussion on open access, you should substitute the word “subsidized.”  One of the remarkable things about the economics of academic publishing at present is that much of that subsidization takes place invisibly, as many (though not all) academics both write journal articles and referee them without the expectation of piece by piece remuneration. This willingness to work without direct pay creates the possibility for much greater access than the public sphere currently enjoys. And most scholars want to create greater access. In contrast to Sean, I think that most of us and most of our institutions give greater weight to widely distributed journals than they do to those with a smaller reach. It is not my impression that publishing in the American Historical Review, a high subscription journal, is less prestigious than publishing in a smaller venue.

Still, all of this intellectual work is subsidized. The research for the articles is often underwritten by institutions of various sorts. Further, universities and colleges expect professors to be a part of a professional dialogue, and many of them include authoring journal articles and refereeing them as labor that falls under our job descriptions. Some, like my own institution, consider this work carefully when deciding upon merit raises. Others do not. But this doesn’t mean there is no subsidy, just that there is a massive free rider problem at play in any college or university faculty. Thought of more broadly (but not of course literally), we might say that society pays for part of the production of scholarly articles through block grants to professor salary pools rather than piece by piece. Part of it is also paid for by independent scholars and professors who lack institutional support and/or living working wages for the work they do and essentially subsidize the enterprise through their own uncompensated time.

You can read the full post here.