What about the authors who can’t pay? Why the government’s embrace of gold open access isn’t something to celebrate

Sometimes I worry that Twitter is an echo chamber, reflecting my own prejudices back at me and shielding me from contrasting views. On other occasions though, I find this same characteristic immensely comforting. Such as when reading that the government has officially embraced the recommendations of the Finch report and finding that other PhD students and early career researchers were just as dismayed by this news as I was. Leaving aside the broader issues pertaining to gold open access, which in practice simply redistributes costs within a broken system without challenging the underlying commercial premise, there’s one particular question posed by this chain of events which is the cause of my current dread about the future of academic publishing: what about the authors who can’t pay?

I fear that academic publishing could come to resemble the perilous landscape that PhDs and ECRs are only too familiar with at present. The competition for post doctoral funding is ever increasing, leading to continual inflation of the things you need on your CV to stand a chance, yet without funding it’s very difficult to actually achieve these prerequisites. Or in other words: the best way to get post doctoral funding is to already have it. Could we see something similar happening with publications? If authors are dependent on their institutions and/or funding bodies to pay the substantial fees required under gold open access then those who already have a job and funding will find it easier to publish and thereby increase their chances of getting another job and more funding. Much as the post doctoral funding climate creates virtuous cycles, so too will the publishing climate, as a whole swathe of early career academics will find themselves untroubled by article processing charges. From their perspective, open access of this form will be great: it doesn’t pose problems and it means their research is freely available. On the other hand, what of those who find themselves excluded? If your funding is patchy or non-existent how can you compete? Is it even going to be possible to be an independent researcher in any meaningful sense?

In a climate where freelance, part-time and fixed term contracts are increasingly the norm within academia, the extent to which the government’s announcement is retrograde cannot be overstated. Such a radical increase in the dependence of researchers upon their institution has profound consequences for those who do ‘make it’, leaving aside the many who seem likely to be wholly or partially swept aside for the reasons discussed above. With funding bodies increasingly focused around narrow priority areas, often tied to short term political whims to a truly abominable degree, themselves falling into homology with priority areas within universities, naturally aiming to increase their success in winning funding from these bodies, what becomes of research that falls into a non-priority area? What becomes of independent research full stop? Will their be funding available to cover author fees? Will their be conditions attached to it? How will the inevitable rationing work? Even assuming the best will and highest managerial accumen in the world, these yet unanswered questions paint a picture of the future university which I find far from appealing. What of the willingness to dissent and speak up at a time when economic instability looks set to continue indefinitely? With academics even more reliant on universities, as one of the two potential sources of author fees, will they be willing to resist? Or will the disciplining of academic labour, already entrenched in multifaceted ways with many personal consequences, simply continue?



Categories: Academia 2.0, Communication, Scholarly Communication, Scholarship, Social Media

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10 replies

  1. You have hit on something very important that I worry about a lot…I think that the near-term solution is ensuring that either libraries don’t lose their budgets or it is reallocated to departments via research departments…This will ensure that some funding is available for authors publishing in OA journals.

    It is interesting to speculate on how this may augment the politics on campus and make various departments even more top-heavy politically than they already are…

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    You have hit on something very important that I worry about a lot…I think that the near-term solution is ensuring that either libraries don’t lose their budgets or it is reallocated to departments via research departments…This will ensure that some funding is available for authors publishing in OA journals.

    It is interesting to speculate on how this may augment the politics on campus and make various departments even more top-heavy politically than they already are…

  3. You haven’t done your research. There are lots of OA venues that are free to authors as well as to readers; and among those that ask a publication fee many (such as the PLoS journals) offer a no-questions-asked waiver to authors who do not have funds for publication.

    This is a non-issue.

  4. You say ‘many’ but could you cite some examples beyond PLoS? Furthermore could you offer some examples specifically relevant to the social sciences and the humanities? I’m aware that some gold open access journals offer waivers, I’m just sceptical about how generalisable this will be as the model expands and becomes more integral to the economics of scholarly publishing. The fact you seem to think both that I’m unaware that open access extends beyond author pays models and against open access in principles makes me think that you either didn’t read my post and/or are reading it through a pretty narrow ideological prism. My problem may very well be a “non-issue” but the evidence and argument you’ve cited to this end amounts to nothing more than observing that not all open access involves fees (I know and not really the point here) and observing that PLoS offers waivers. I’m very worried about the impact this will have on early career researchers in humanities & social sciences and I’d LOVE to be convinced I’m wrong about this. But you’ve not really come close to doing this, just said some largely irrelevant stuff and then declared it a ‘non-issue’.

  5. I think it’s the politics of this that fundamentally concerns me. It’s impossible to predict the technical details at this stage but given the general trajectory of higher education, particularly for social science and humanities, over the last decade, increasing the dependence of academics on institutions and funding bodies (while living commercial publishing, in principle, untouched) is a glaringly obviously bad thing.

  6. Mark, I beg your pardon — I am a scientist and am writing from a scientist’s perspective, where fee waivers really are widely available: see for example the BMC journals as well as PLoS. I’d not realised you’re in the humanities, and concluded you’d “not done your research” on the basis that you didn’t mention PLoS — which of course is not really relevant to you.

    I don’t know much about humanities, but IIRC SAGE Open is the main open-access megajournal in that area — correct? If so, their current gold-OA fee of $195 seems very reasonably, and they say Authors who do not have the means to cover the publication fee may request a waiver [click on "Submission Guidelines"].

  7. Thanks for apology, I thought your initial post was unnecessarily dismissive and I realise now it wasn’t intended to be :) I’ve been obsessing over this for the last 2 days (I gave a lecture on scholarly publishing & open access today) and I’m a bit tired of talking/thinking about it at this stage to be honest…

  8. ALT’s peer-reviewed journal Research in Learning Technology – a niche field, I guess – is Gold Open Access, with no article processing fees for the moment. [We switched it from traditional to Open Access in January this year.] This is not to dismiss the issues that Mark raises.

  9. “If so, their current gold-OA fee of $195 seems very reasonably, and they say Authors who do not have the means to cover the publication fee may request a waiver [click on "Submission Guidelines"]“.

    Excuse my ignorance of this but is this $195 a personal contribution by the author i.e. from their wage packet? And who judges whether or not someone is worthy of a fee waiver? As an employed ECR (for now!) I am by no means struggling financially but to have to pay even the apparently ‘reasonable’ (I don’t consider this reasonable when I want to publish just one paper, let alone more, so I can be competitive in this job market!), $195 from my own money seems ludicrous to me. In essence I am returning the wage I got to write the paper in the first place for my work to be public, which should be a right anyway! It seems wrong that any author should have to pay out of their personal finance to have work published when they have already worked hard on it. Maybe I am wrong on this, but I think Mark makes very important points relevant to science and humanities more generally.
    Any correction to y points or constructive development on these ideas appreciated.

  10. Excuse my ignorance of this but is this $195 a personal contribution by the author i.e. from their wage packet?

    That is a possibility, but I imagine it’s extremely rare. The general expectation of Gold OA journals is that publication is part of the cost of doing research (just as library subscriptions are) and that the money comes from the same pool that’s used to buy lab equipment or other necessities of research.

    And who judges whether or not someone is worthy of a fee waiver?

    That’s down the the publisher. But in my experience “I have no institutional funds to cover this publication” has always been sufficient reason to obtain a waiver. To return to the example of PLoS, it’s explicitly part of their philosophy that no-one should be prevented from publishing with them by financial issues. (I don’t know whether the same is true of SAGE Open, but we can reasonably hope it would be so.)

    $195 from my own money seems ludicrous to me. In essence I am returning the wage I got to write the paper in the first place for my work to be public, which should be a right anyway!

    I whole heartedly agree.

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