In the wake of all the noise about corporate backed Open Access (OA) initiatives, this week brings a lively and somewhat colourful discussion on what it means to be OA. I very much like James L Smith’s distinction between technically OA and ethically OA. It proves useful for reflection.

There is definitely a push from big business publishers to define OA as “freely available to the reader”, rather than as “freely available”. This leaves them room to impose Author Processing Charges (APCs), hopefully, from their perspective, at least equal in monetary value to the reader subscriptions they currently get. In their share-holder logic, they even try to link APCs with impact factor, a proxy for journal prestige, with the notion that authors and universities should be willing to allocate more public research money to publishing in more prestigious venues. Unfortunately, as long as one thinks within the bounds of the existing academic prestige economy, this also makes sense in academic logic. And it is absolutely in the interest of corporate publishers to keep the thinking of academics firmly within that box. Nevermind the world of infinite possibilities that lies just outside of it.

What corporate OA initiatives are proposing is essentially a social engineering attack on academia. It is an all-out assault of the conception of academic scholarship as a public good, rather than a private one. Private businesses are setting up a system that uses existing academic conventions and practices to encourage individual academics to give them as much public money as possible in pursuit of their individual career interests. The public gives researchers the money to do the research, then gives them more money to publish the results.

By publishing in high impact factor, and therefore high APC journals, researchers naturally maximize the money they spend on publishing, because it will maximize their individual career returns. I am not sure in what universe this sounds like a responsible way to allocate public funds, and I can’t figure out why so many academics seem eager to enable it. Clearly, this is not open access. In fact, I consider it even less ethically defensible than the indefensible current subscription system.

At the very minimum, an ethically defensible OA system would operate on a non-profit basis and would merely cover the transparently accountable costs of making publically funded scholarship available to the public. It would actively seek to eliminate barriers to reading, but also barriers to participation in the production and dissemination of scholarship. It would certainly not seek to engineer the very worst aspects of academic society in pursuit of private profit, with the aim of capturing as much public money as possible.

Open Access doesn’t mean subscriptions. It doesn’t mean impact factor driven APCs. What the public have already paid for belongs to the public. The money currently spent on research should much, much more than cover the cost of its dissemination. The first test for any proposed OA system should be whether it very, very significantly reduces costs to readers and authors. Anything that doesn’t, is simply a private transfer of public funds, and can’t possibly qualify as OA.

3 thoughts on “What Open Access doesn’t mean

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