Last week, the White House issued a guidance memo on Open Access, to not quite as much fanfare as could have been expected, and causing (so far) surprisingly muted controversy.  The memo requires US federal agencies that fund research to ensure that any publicly funded peer-reviewed scholarly publications “are made freely available and publicly accessible by default in agency-designated repositories without any embargo or delay after publication.”

What’s kinda big

Generally, “peer reviewed scholarly publications” are understood to be traditionally published academic journal articles. So in theory, within three years from now, all scholarly peer reviewed publications at least partially funded by US federal agencies will be fully available to the public at no additional cost (which is very different from “for free”) as soon as they are published. There are also provisions for supporting data to be freely and openly available.

That’s the part of this that is big, and the open data provisions are possibly even bigger than the open publications provisions. This is long overdue. The products of publicly funded research should be publicly and openly available, period, point à la ligne, as we say in French. More broadly, if universities work for the public good, the work of scholars should be available to the public, and much of it is at least partially federally funded in the US.

It may be a modest step forward, but at least it’s a clear commitment, with a clear timeline, to make research and scholarship publicly and freely available.

What’s kinda not

In theory, the measures outlined above should make access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications free for the public, which includes academics. In practice, it most likely won’t, and may even make such access more expensive overall.

The business model of big commercial publishers of academic journals has been to charge academics, and public who pay for our work, for access to our results. Up to recently, this had been done through charging subscriptions to academic journals, or in the past few years, selling access to individual articles online, with university library systems bearing the brunt of the cost, and most of the public having no realistic or affordable means of access at all.

If that subscription model was still dominant, the Open Access measures in the White House memo would be revolutionary. Everyone could access scholarship without having ridiculously expensive subscriptions to a massive number of academic journals. Essentially, it would have spelled the end of big commercial academic publishers as we know them.

The astute reader will have guessed by now that the big commercial publishers of academic journals saw this coming and have been preparing for it for a while. Except for a few stubborn subscription-focused holdouts who have been loudest in protesting this White House announcement, big publishers have been moving toward APC (Article Publishing Charge) model, in which academics (or usually their funding agency, which is the public) pays for the privilege of publishing an article in a journal, which is then available to the public without subscription.

Cleverly, they call this Gold Open Access. Of course, it isn’t Open Access at all, as it merely shifts the access gate from the reader to the writer. For academic publications, those are usually the same people anyway, and much of the cost comes from the public purse, wherever the gate actually is.

Publicly funded academics and institutions used to pay thousands of dollars for subscriptions to read work they had done, reviewed, edited, and in many cases published, with the “publisher” doing little more than formatting and hosting the material, and critically for their strategy, putting their brand on it.

Now, the same publicly funded academics and institutions pay thousands of dollars for the formatting and hosting of the work they did, reviewed, edited, and in many cases published, but are free to read it, along with the rest of the public, at no additional cost. A bargain to be sure, especially that this new system allows publishers to charge more for publication venues that academics see as more desirable on the basis of their perceived prestige and name recognition, hence the risk for this to be even more expensive for the public than the old subscription system. Brand competition is now a real thing in academic publishing, and it is a very profitable game.

The real problem

As long as we academics force each other, through hiring committees, granting juries, etc., to publish in commercial journals, the cost of access to science will continue to increase, with all the inequalities that this promotes. For example, now that the researchers and their institutions have to cover the cost of publishing in commercial journals, lots of the world has much less access to publication and is effectively cut out of entire academic communities.

We could just decide, as a community, to publish our work in institutional repositories. Some of us do that already, but the system (us, we’re the system) forces us to also put our papers in commercial journals. There is no reason for that, and I hope we stop soon.

In three years, we could have a world in which publicly funded scholarship (in the US at least) is produced, reviewed, edited, and made available to the public at little cost beyond what they already pay us and our institutions to do the work. I doubt we actually will, but we could.

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