Last week was Open Access Week. At the risk of sounding like a stick-in-the-mud, let me play devil’s advocate to the blogosphere’s near-universal celebration of Open Access (abbreviated, OA). Thus: I don’t think most OA advocates have thought deeply enough about long-term implications.
First, though, what is Open Access?
OA is a publication model where scholars (or their subsidizers) foot the bill and readers enjoy studies free of charge. Anyone can log on and read an OA article with nary a registration or fee. OA marks a radical change from the traditional model, where most costs are paid through subscriptions, usually on the part of universities, corporations, or individuals. In essence, with OA we exchange a demand-driven market for a supply-driven system.
As a frequent consumer of scientific articles, I admit a fondness for OA. I love being able to read an article anywhere. No logins, no payment for pdf. It’s great.
I am not the only one, either. OA has become increasingly viable as publication costs decline and as scholars depend more on publication record to secure positions and promotion. In the present environment, where publications are the prime metric by which careers are judged and where university openings are typically met by hundreds of candidates, academics are willing to pay significant sums to get their work noticed.
So too are corporations, whose product tests are often reported in the same outlets. Here should be the first hint of a problem, if you’ve not spotted it yet.
Imagine a journal with a slim bottom line. Under the subscription system, a journal could attempt to improve their books by courting content more suited to what subscribers were willing to pay for. And most subscribers want high-quality research. Now imagine the decision making process when readers don’t matter. At least, not financially. What is to stop a struggling journal from accepting flawed but well-paying articles? Where is the incentive for scientific integrity?
It can be argued of course that there is plenty of flawed work and even fraud under the traditional system. True enough. But OA is not only unlikely to fix the problem, but it may add perverse incentives for worsening it.
OA advocates present their model as integral to scientific innovation. To an extent they have a point: as more readers gain access to scholarly articles, ideas will flow more freely and efficiently. But the reality will be more complex.
Consider the following simple deduction. Under a scholar-pays scheme, the well-funded scholar will publish more. (Or at least, since OA articles may be cited more frequently than subscription articles, those with more money will be cited more than those without.) So if you are one of those tweed-wearing, hand-wringing, dusty old traditionalists who has lamented the decline of the humanities and other less-funded fields as universities increasingly shower favor on their glitzy biomed departments, then OA could make the problem worse. Much worse. More publications by wealthier departments beget more grants, beget more publications, and beget more positions. The status quo will prevail, and OA may become yet another mechanism by which the powerful retain their hegemony.
Fundamentally then, Open Access may provide for the entrenchment of the already well-funded. Over the long term, I worry that short term gains to innovation will be offset by more substantial hurdles to those scholars with more radically novel ideas.
In spite of what I write here, I am not opposed to Open Access. OA will bring plenty of benefits, especially to lower-income institutions that cannot afford the often astronomical subscription fees. It’s just that I find some of the blogospheric OA cheerleading a little bit naive. Changing the publication system will produce new winners and new losers. They won’t always be who we think they’ll be. Shouldn’t we exercise just a bit more caution?