Academics are revolting: the open-access frontier

Here’s the deal. You work hard to produce something, then sell it for a pittance. Perhaps you even give it away. The buyer ‘adds value’ and sells it back to you at an enormous profit. It’s standard sweatshop practice.

It can also be, in some cases, standard publishing practice. Authors and creators, keen to add the ‘value’ and prestige of a publisher to their work, or just excited that someone – anyone, is interested in publishing them, often give their work away with little thought of remuneration or what’s happening to their copyright.

Of course, publishers rightly argue they have the costs of editing, producing, advertising and distribution, not to mention the financial risks. It’s about adding value.

The rush to publish in ‘quality’ journals at any cost is particularly true of academic publishing. Academics are driven by a ‘publish or perish’ mandate where promotion and tenure is largely reliant on publishing and citation counts in accredited peer reviewed publications. Check out what’s happening at Sydney University (and coming soon to a university near you), where a retrospective performance marker of four research publications in the last three years is being used as one criteria to cull the ‘non performing’.

Of course, academics, unlike your average author, generally have the benefit of an income that is independent of their publications. As Louise Adler pointed out in The Australian last year, authors and creators not publishing in academia are probably in more actual danger of perishing, given, ‘the average annual income of Australian writers has declined in the past decade from $23,000 to a character-building $11,000’.

But while non-academic authors might be teetering on the breadline, operating outside of academic publishing models does provide the opportunity (and probably a more immediate incentive) to experiment with new modes of production.

In a recent appearance at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on a panel discussing the implications of the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Jeff Jarvis stressed the need for authors to develop new business models. While this may be good advice, many authors, and academic authors in particular, risk becoming trapped in their existing arrangements, relying on proving their publication record in traditional formats.

But as the cost of academic journals rise, many are asking who benefits most from the current model? Philip Soos in a piece on The Conversation, ‘The Great Publishing Swindle’, argues that what was intended as a public good has become a publishing monopoly.

Danny Kingsley, also writing on The Conversation about the US Research Works Act – a Small Bill in the US, a Giant Impact for Research Worldwide – breaks it down like this:

Publicly funded research being undertaken by researchers who are often themselves (in Australia almost exclusively) also publicly funded, is written up and submitted to a publisher. The publisher sends it back out to the academic community to peer review the work, for no charge. Many of the editors of journals are also academics who again are doing the work gratis. The publisher then adds the journal design to the article and publishes it, charging disproportionally large subscription fees for access to the work. These fees are paid by university libraries, again, with public funding.

And they are big fees. Each year university libraries pay millions of dollar to give scholars the right to access material that in the main has been provided by the same scholars, free of charge. Prices continue to increase while university budgets diminish and, as Adam Habib outlines, developing countries are priced out of the market.

While authors are using the internet to experiment with new ways to reach their audience, many academics are also revolting and choosing open-access publishing models that offer the same peer reviewed guarantee while allowing anyone who wants it, access to their work.

Take a look at this clip for a really simple overview:

Most users of the web, including authors and creators, aren’t interested in all this closed/open access and copyright stuff. Authors put their work on the internet and users take it for free if they can. Many people don’t realise that the internet is governed by the same copyright laws that exist in physical space. Others don’t care. But if you’ve been yawning behind your hand, consider this: one of the really interesting things about all the new google/facebook and other whizz gadgetry that allows your every move to be traced is the potential to make it really easy to track the use of copyright material.

Unless you’re Kim.Dotcom making an estimated $175 million from alleged illegal filesharing, it’s unlikely you’ll find the FBI on your doorstep any time soon. I can’t help thinking, however, that we’ve been living in the digital equivalent of a frontier town, and sooner or later, for good or ill, the lawmen ride in and the frontier gets tamed.

Big Copyright has been slow to mobilise and grasp the monetary potential of the web, but it’s starting to lumber to its feet, and when it gets there you can be sure the 99% are going to be left hanging. The extensions of PIPA, SOPA and the Research Works Act to copyright embedded in free trade agreements and similar actions are indications that the giant is awake now.

Copyright is like superannuation and interest rates – something no-one pays attention to until they have to. But it’s important for authors and creators to think about how they want others to access their work. If you want others to access your work freely, make it clear. If you want them to pay, make it easy for them to do so. Read the contracts you sign. Because the reality is, if you don’t think about what’s happening to your copyright, someone else will.

Catherine Moffat

More by Catherine Moffat ›

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  1. Re:Meanland
    Academics are revolting: the open-access frontier
    AuthorCatherine Moffat,Posted on5 June 2012.
    A really good article.
    It is obvious to me that there is great scope for academic writers to form their own peer review networks via the net and bypass the publishing monopolies. The technology is already available and open source provides non proprietorial means to present one’s work and share information in a form not dominated by Microsoft et al.
    A dialogue on these issues and the alternatives available to authors outside the
    monopolistic publishing houses is overdue.
    Contemporary technology now allows authors to communicate directly with audiences, small or large. Perhaps the oligopoly has missed the boat and their attempts to shore up their fading empires are doomed to failure and irrelevancy.
    If academics lift their heads from their chests long enough to establish their own peer-to-peer networks they can get paid properly for their output and escape many of the dubious practises currently associated with’publish or perish’.

  2. Very good article, Catherine. One thing to keep in mind during these discussions is that publishing in Open Access journals is still very expensive for the authors, at least in biomedical research which is one of the largest areas of scientific publishing. A typical paper may attract publication fees of several thousand dollars – this is to cover the costs of hosting the site, editorial staff. In response to requirements of funding agencies such as NIH in USA and NHMRC in Australia that all publications be available via open access a the reasonable time after publication, many journals from commercial publishers allow their articles to be freely accessible after 12 months. Otherwise, authors are free to post the final accepted version of the publication on an institutional open access website or archive. So the whole story is pretty complicated, especially from a researcher’s point of view who has to balance accessibility vs prestige of the journal vs the cost of it all.

    1. I agree it is a complex area and one for which I don’t think there are any easy or ‘right’ answers (and what might be the answer today, might not work tomorrow). I think the main thing is for authors to be aware that there are options – even if their final choice is bound by the realities of their own circumstance.
      Knowing the policies of their own institutions and what their publisher allows is a good first step.

  3. There are also increasing numbers of writers and researchers without institutional affiliations (including me) who want to access scholarly and archival material but are currently locked out unless they want to pay through the nose (which I don’t, as I earn about the average Australian writer’s income).

    Contrary to what Ian says, I’ve found very few commercial publishers unlock articles after a certain time period (at least, not the kind I’m looking at – largely in marketing, psychology and biometrics). I’ve found Google Books and Google News Archive to be invaluable; it’s kind of amazing that so much of this stuff is freely accessible.

    It’s possible that academics are posting their work online but this scattershot process is really not ideal. My experience of university websites (last year I researched the marketing of certain academic disciplines in Victoria and subsequently advised a Victorian university faculty on how to restructure its site) has been that they’re almost impossibly byzantine with subpages within subpages – unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s incredibly hard to find it.

    1. No argument from me here, Mel. There are very big differences across academic domains – I suspect it is in part the way publications are treated in different domains, in part the specific publishers who dominate those domains. In biomedical research, Elsevier is a huge player – I suspect most active researchers in bio-med publish in Elsevier journals sooner or later… LIke many of my colleagues, I have been an editor, a paper author, a chapter writer, a reviewer, a subscriber, a library committee member trying to figure out how to pay for it all… I’d be interested to hear how other deal with all this!

  4. I think this is where the growth of institutional repositories can help. They offer a place for academics to make work available while complying with publishing contracts – as Ian’s mentions – perhaps after an embargo period, or with a particular version of the work.
    Hopefully this will help to get around both the scattergun approach to putting information online and what you rightly describe as the ‘byzantine’ structure of many university websites.

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