Marc Couture explains that academic publishing is at a crossroads. That in itself is an obvious and unremarkable statement. But he introduces the idea that this crossroads involves a choice about whether academic publishing is a public good.  This makes me realize that the current discussion of the future of academic publishing is just a special case of the general discussion about the future of the university. Is the university a public good?

The idea of the University that I grew up with, into which I was socialized in the 1970s and 80s, and in which I have invested my career, I realize now, is merely an immediate post-war phenomenon, and likely a historical anomaly. It was part of a social contract between a battered western mass, having just emerged from two world wars and a great depression, and a terrified elite under intense pressure to justify and protect its privileged position.

Initiatives such as the G.I. Bill in the US meant that almost overnight, millions of people who could not otherwise have considered university, suddenly had the opportunity of an advanced education. More than 2 million availed themselves of that chance in the late 40s and early 50s. The subsequent baby boom sustained the growth of universities, expanded access even more, and solidified the perception that universities had a public mission.

The corresponding massive increase in public funding of universities in the West, both for education and research, fueled in part by the technological and sociological demands of the Cold War, also helped create the idea that both university teaching and university research are public goods in which societies must invest. Starting in the Reagan-Thatcher era, and even more so in the post-Cold War, that idea has been eroding. Public funding of universities has steadily declined in proportion. The idea that a university education is a private good in which individuals invest in order to get a later financial pay-off is increasingly replacing the idea that a university education is a public good in which we collectively invest and from which everyone benefits.

It is not surprising then that there the status of university research output a as a public good is also under pressure. Just as our students and their parents increasingly view university as a means to a better job, academics increasingly view dissemination of their scholarship as a means to tenure and promotion. And who can blame them? This is the reality in which they live.

From that perspective, the Open Access movement, which Couture argues is being co-opted by the major publishers, makes perfect sense. Just as individual students are seen as the main beneficiaries of higher education and are therefore expected to bear most of its cost, so are individual researchers seen as the main beneficiaries of academic publishing and are expected to bear most of its cost. The movement, from a collectivist subscription model supported mostly by public funds through university libraries, to an individualist model expected to be supported by individual researchers, is consistent with the transition of the university and its products from a public good to an individual good.

The major academic publishers are not defending their position by co-opting open access. They are simply reflecting the world in which we live. We are the ones who must defend. I believe that the idea of the university as public good is worth defending. One way to do that is to make scholarship available to all.

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