I was recently asked to respond to a variety of issues concerning academic ‘open access’ publishing, especially in light of the boycott of the publisher Elsevier and other related initiatives happening in Canada. These are detailed in this article in Rabble.Ca. However, my comments which were indeed designed to be a general reflection, were heavily excerpted, so their sense may not be entirely clear. Below is the full response I gave to the reporter, Cory Collins:
I’m somewhat more sceptical than many of the open access movement. I see it as addressing a rather limited set of problems surrounding academic knowledge production and specifically underestimating the role that publishers play in the process. To be honest, I’m surprised that publishers aren’t putting up more of a principled defence of their activities.
I think the best way to see the open access movement is as akin to a consumer’s revolt. A consumer’s revolt doesn’t address fundamental problems with capitalism, but it does tackle issues surrounding high prices and value-for-money. Similarly, open access doesn’t deal with, say, the power structures inherent in academia’s peer review process or the technical language in which academic work is couched. Rather, it simply removes what is seen as an unproductive ‘middle man’, namely, the publisher, whose efforts at producing and distributing journals don’t seem to justify the high price to universities.
I say this because ‘open access’ is often associated with ‘democratizing’ knowledge, but at most it is democratizing it for professional academics who are already the beneficiaries of the publishing system. It doesn’t ‘open’ up academia in any other meaningful sense. Even if the open access journals are freely available on-line, you still need to be able to make sense of them (i.e. know the lingo) and submit your papers to its peer review processes. Those are arguably bigger obstacles for non-academics than even the price of journals.
Now, as for the publishers themselves. They do more than simply profit from gullible universities. They actually organize the peer review process and ensure a regular flow of academic product to fill the volumes of the journals. In other words, they industrialize the process. This is not a trivial function: Such a rationalization of the work process cuts against the relatively unreliable character of academic practices. (It’s very very hard for peer review to work in a timely fashion unless someone is cracking the whip.) If open access works as a large scale phenomenon in academia, it will be by being parasitic on production systems established by commercial publishers.
Moreover, publishers have incentives, which established academics typically don’t have, to look for new fields that can be the basis for new journals, and hence new income streams. In other words, in their endless pursuit of profit, publishers end up promoting innovation on a regular basis, which might not otherwise happen if academics are left to their own devices. Cultural studies, gender studies, etc. may be seen in retrospect to have been publisher-driven movements, based on how these topics were beginning to be picked up in traditional history, sociology, literature, etc. courses in the 1980s.
As for whether to pay for peer review, I’ve made an argument here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/06/16/a-modest-proposal-to-solve-the-problem-of-peer-review/. My basic proposal is that ‘peer review’ should be taken out of the professional academics’ hands entirely and be put in the hands of academically trained people who work for the publishers of the journals.