It’s an unlikely cause to have a martyr. Most people don’t know or care about it. Even many in academia don’t understand the many complex issues underlying it. That may be about to change. I’m referring, of course, to open source scholarship. This issue has been around for awhile, but it’s been given renewed impetus by the recent passing of Aaron Swartz. I agree with much of the commentary that says that the prosecution was overzealous and the sentence draconian. Those defending current copyright laws are fighting a rearguard action; there’s not much they can do to stop digital information from getting out. There’s very little you can’t download, torrent, or otherwise procure online if you know where to look. It’s probably a matter of time before the laws are reformed to reflect this reality. In the meantime, the trend in academia is toward open source models that are compliant with current laws and financially viable. This perhaps makes Swartz’s death all the more tragic; his goal may be realized by legal means in the next decade. It’s a shame he couldn’t have used his considerable talent to solve some of the problems of making open source scholarship a reality rather than engage in an imprudent act of civil disobedience.
Many activists, academics among them, are rallying around this cause. It’s easy to side with the idealistic young people who cloak themselves in the mantle of the democratization of knowledge and against rent-seeking companies that seek to profit from publicly funded scholarship. Like many issues, however, this one’s not that simple. Also, like many activist movements, this one tends to be long on rhetoric and short on concrete solutions. Don’t get me wrong: I support open access in principle. But I’m also aware that there are real challenges to making it financially viable. In what follows, I plan to look at some of the facts about open source journals and some of the challenges facing this model. These are not necessarily insurmountable, but I won’t likely solve them in a blog post. My purpose is to start a conversation on the practical issues — one I hope will be more fruitful than the discourse I’ve been reading over social media and the blogosphere this week.
First, however, let’s review the case for open access. There are two arguments against the current model: 1) it’s unfair to academics who produce scholarship; 2) it’s unfair to the public who funds scholarship. To take the first one, academics object to the fact publishers are profiting from their unpaid academic labor. They essentially donate their writing to for-profit companies who then sell it back to them. Moreover, the authors don’t own the copyright in most cases; the publishers do. To the second point, publishers are also selling publicly funded research back to the public. The public must pay to access publicly funded research, which many argue is unfair. At this point, many academics and activists alike object: Why should the publishing companies profit in this way, while keeping research behind paywalls, inaccessible to the general public? The conclusion: they shouldn’t. We should find an alternative to the subscription model, namely open access.
This all sounds good in theory. Power to the people, stick it to the man, etc. However, it’s easier said than done. Although public money funds research, it doesn’t necessarily fund the dissemination of that research. Yes, there are non-profit university presses and scholarly societies that publish journals. But they only publish — and this is an educated guess — about a tenth of the research out there. The rest is published by for-profit companies. In addition, many university presses are shutting down. The public funding just isn’t there. Those who argue that all of the research can be moved in-house and made completely free and accessible have yet to demonstrate how they’d accomplish this goal. The fact is, there are costs associated with publishing (print or digital), online hosting, digitization (in the case of older print journals), and archiving and very few people are willing to do this work for free. That’s just the way of the world. Some argue that the money that would be saved on subscriptions could be put into open access journals. Perhaps, but make no mistake: many journals would be lost in this transition. It’s unlikely that public funding would pick up the slack.
So what are our other options? If academics really feel bad about the public having to pay to read their research, maybe academics will have to pay to publish it. In fact, this is the model that’s being adopted in the UK. It’s moving from a ‘pay-to-read’ model to a ‘pay-to-say’ model. In other words, academics or their institutions will have to pay a submission fee to cover ‘article processing charges’ associated with the journal. The government will chip in some funds to ‘kick start’ the process. This model, however, is also problematic for a number of reasons (see above link). It certainly favors rich institutions and senior scholars. A similar complaint was voiced when Philosopher’s Imprint, a respected open access journal, considered implementing a $20 submission fee from its prospective authors to cover article processing charges. Many grad students and early career philosophers complained that this policy would unfairly disadvantage them. However, PI’s policy didn’t seem unreasonable, especially since it doesn’t charge these same grad students and early career philosophers for access to the journal. It’s also ironic that these scholars, many of them self-proclaimed supporters of open source journals, were so unwilling to pay for those principles out of their own pockets. It makes me question their alleged commitment to the cause. In any case, the costs of running a journal are real, and if revenue isn’t generated through subscriptions, it has to come from somewhere else. That’s just basic economics.
Some have suggested that universities all over the world could pool their resources and create a massive repository of scholarship that would be free and open to all. There are at least two practical considerations I could raise. First of all, I know how university bureaucracy works, so I’m not holding my breath for this to happen. Second, even if you did have the means to set up the infrastructure to make this database a reality you’d still need journal articles to populate it. Right now, open access journals are still struggling to find revenue streams. This is the problem that we need to address if we’re serious about making open source scholarship a reality. Now, there is a solution that nobody’s talking about: ad power your open source journal. But, of course, this doesn’t disenfranchise for-profits, which is the raison d’etre of the open source movement; quite the contrary. So, it seems we’re back where we started.
In summary then, open source journals are a great idea, but they cost money to run, just like anything else in the world. So far, I’ve seen a lot of activism and rhetoric on the issue, but much less by way of practical problem-solving strategies. I’m not entirely sure how to go about it either. Of course, I’m checking out of the academy and joining the evil capitalist empire anyways, so who I am to talk? Seriously though, I like idealistic young people and the idea of accessible scholarship as much as the next guy; I just think they should be aware of the challenges they face. This post is an effort to point them in the right direction. I also welcome solutions from readers.