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to a rusty bicycle and pedal away to the local library in a shed are reduced to treating their patients according to “outdated information”.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 Academic.edu.
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