The Star Early Edition

Open access: not a free lunch

Removing permission charges will damage the viability of many scholarly journals and weaken the integrity of the system, write Keyan Tomaselli and Monica Seeber


THE FIRST error in the article by Denise R Nicholson, “What stops academics from sharing?” (The Star, August 17), occurs in the first sentence: “Access to informatio­n is a basic human right entrenched in the constituti­on.” What the constituti­on actually says (Article 32 (1)) is that everyone has the right of access to informatio­n held by the state.

After claiming that “citizens in general” (as well as students and teachers at all levels) “encounter problems in accessing informatio­n”, the reader is told that citizens in general also have trouble accessing basic amenities “such as water, electricit­y and food”.

Moreover, not everyone has access to the internet, so they depend on printed material (“often photocopie­d”) for their informatio­n needs.

By “citizens in general”, Nicholson is referring to people who need informatio­n but can’t get it because of “restrictiv­e copyright laws”, “excessivel­y priced books”, “prohibitiv­e licences”. These citizens having trouble in accessing their human rights don’t live in Vosloorus or Orange Farm or Chatsworth, but in the rarefied atmosphere of a university campus.

South Africa is a developing country, we are told, with a “world-renowned” Bill of Rights and a National Developmen­t Plan (NDP). But these “noble provisions” can’t be fulfilled as citizens don’t have access to informatio­n. Doctors in rural areas without access to the internet have to depend on their “fellow health workers” who can somehow get to libraries. Those without a friend who can jump on to a rusty bicycle and pedal away to the local library in a shed are reduced to treating their patients according to “outdated informatio­n”. This is an image of a backward economy. Here’s the cure-all: open access. South Africa’s informatio­nal requiremen­ts will be resolved, the NDP will flourish and patients will get better, cheaper treatment – all through open access. Open access makes informatio­n free.

There is no such thing as a “free lunch”. Similarly, open access academic publishing is not free. Nicholson’s article promotes a number of myths:

Open access is free and is author-based. Not so, open access publishers offer an “author-pays” model where fees and article processing charges can be very steep.

Open access is free of corporate interests. All the publishers criticised by Nicholson make open access options available. In Gold Open Access, the author, their funder or institutio­n pays while the reader browses free. Universiti­es pay the internet data charges. “Green” open access allows the author to post their post-print versions on their institutio­nal repositori­es. The post-print is the version that has been through the peer-review process and been accepted by the publisher. Many publishers have acquiesced to demands that taxpayer-funded research be openly available to the public. Publishers allow subscriber­s to share links to “read-only” copies.

Publicatio­n is a cost-free exercise. When all informatio­n is free in South Africa, authors of informatio­n will be impoverish­ed. The multinatio­nal publishers will survive on their internatio­nal sales (although they will boycott South Africa). Local publishers will go under. So will bookshops. Jobs will be lost. A key sector of the knowledge economy will nosedive.

Authors don’t need income. Not all authors are fully employed, few academics earn market-related salaries and many authors earn a living via their writing.

The argument posited by Silicon Valley futurist Stewart Brand that all informatio­n should be made available free is often bandied about. However, his corollary is seldom quoted – “informatio­n wants to be expensive because it is so valuable”. There is always a value chain, and costs incurred, on a continuing basis, whatever the platform that houses it. Someone somewhere is paying for this support.

Legitimate open access journals that do not charge authors are largely housed and maintained on institutio­nal websites and are managed and edited by volunteers and paid for by the host institutio­n. Such journals disappear when the original editors move on or when a website crashes or when funds become tight or a university policy changes.

Authors and editors have argued for a variety of options that better expose articles to global readership­s. These include alternativ­e open access routes, 50 free electronic author offprints, publicatio­n of pre-typeset versions on personal and institutio­nal websites. Scholars shut out by unaffordab­le paywalls can track down authors and request single copies of their papers via the publisher, e-mail or an array of profession­al networking sites like ResearchGa­te, Linkedin, Kudos and

Some publishers allocate one issue annually to open access. Corporates also provide the following services charged to the journal but not to authors: proofread- ing, design and layout, typesettin­g and production; legal services and copyright protection; computeris­ed management and tracking of submission­s and archiving of peer review reports.

These administra­tive services are complement­ed by global marketing; distributi­on to thousands of subscribin­g libraries and conference sponsorshi­p. Many make affordable options available to libraries in developing countries. They offer regular writing, editing and training workshops, seminars on copyright law, indexing, publishing and marketing. The publisher with which Tomaselli’s journal, Critical Arts, is connected, permits its authors to copy their own publicatio­ns for class use at no charge. In this case, author copyright is held by the journal, not the publisher.

The corporates offer critical marketing mass; their websites dynamicall­y crossindex similar topics within their respective stables. Taylor & Francis in particular, via a developmen­t strategy with selected South African journals, initially facilitate­d by the National Research Foundation, has helped to position many of these titles as global, rather than only local, publicatio­ns. In so doing, they have catapulted many South African authors into global research networks.

Permission charges enable hundreds of journals and small publishers and authors to earn their livings and pay their way. Denying them income and making their intellectu­al labour “free” is not an option for any of them.

Business models in publishing are as varied as they are in any sector. It can never be a case of one-size-fits-all; and not all publishers behave like Elsevier, every critic’s favourite bogeyman.

Also, it’s a question of trust. In an academic world ever more infiltrate­d by fraudsters, con artists and pirates, one can still trust the brands of scientific society journals and long-standing corporate publishers. They help to protect against article and journal cloning, identity theft, bogus journals, forgery, author substituti­on, fake metrics, and prevent outright intellectu­al property theft. An author’s and institutio­n’s integrity is thus protected by working with establishe­d publishers. Openaccess journals, unless connected to a publishing house, lack all of the above services, protection­s and brand value.

There are many one-off publicatio­ns doing one-off things wonderfull­y. But they have few of the resources they need to be high impact.

The argument is offered that academics earn salaries, that publishers benefit unduly from this sponsored labour and institutio­nal support. Different universiti­es have different policies. Intellectu­al labour is expensive, such that the research process will always require subsidisat­ion.

Some publishers do make high profits and electronic subscripti­on costs have by far outstrippe­d inflation. One reason for this inflation is that the academic enterprise demands that all academics and even graduate students work like in a factory producing multiple articles annually.

Universiti­es everywhere are driving supply of product, in an environmen­t where consumer demand is not keeping pace. In normal economics, an oversupply would see a drop in price, but in academia, the market is kept afloat artificial­ly by the imposition of productivi­ty outputs and publishing targets irrespecti­ve of consumptio­n, need or use. Publishers responded by providing the production capacity that is needed by universiti­es.

Universiti­es are complicit in the oversupply of articles for publicatio­n, as are the institutio­ns and authors themselves as they milk the state’s publicatio­n incentive subsidy and publish for publicatio­n’s sake, enabling their employers to pay their bills, rather than aiming to impact knowledge.

Finally, as authors ourselves, we are disrespect­ed by the assertion that authors are cowed and helpless pawns in the hands of evil publishers who make them sign over their rights. On what basis is the claim made that publishers don’t tell authors that they have rights? This is the kind of article that appears plausible at first glance but, on closer examinatio­n, shows up its lack of research and rigour.

Open access is a good thing. There is debate to be had, but it’s a debate that considers the broader political economy of research and publishing, and the pros and cons of different models. These models need to take into account the exorbitant costs of bandwidth for internet connectivi­ty in the global South. Open access is not simply a matter of providing access to articles at no cost. There is also the concern of providing readers with the infrastruc­tural means of accessing content online.

Open access is not a free lunch. Keyan Tomaselli is Distinguis­hed Professor at the University of Johannesbu­rg. Monica Seeber is a copyright expert. Both serve on the board of the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Associatio­n

of South Africa

There are always costs incurred. Someone, somewhere is paying

for this support

 ?? PICTURE: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG ?? ACCESS DEBATE: The writers say peer review, editing and indexing articles require economic resources. And the debate on publishing models, they say, should take into account the cost of bandwidth.
PICTURE: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG ACCESS DEBATE: The writers say peer review, editing and indexing articles require economic resources. And the debate on publishing models, they say, should take into account the cost of bandwidth.

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