The case for open access to research and the problem of reputation.

October 11, 2011

For £25 you can buy a pdf copy of my 2005 article “Placing Quebec nationalisms: constructing English identities in Quebec’s Eastern Townships,” which was published in the British Journal of Canadian Studies. The article is just 16 pages long, but costs more than most 200 page books. I have no idea how many people have actually paid £25 for my article, as I do not receive royalties and I did not receive a one-off fee. The University of Southampton was not paid for my contribution and neither were the two peer reviewers. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which funded the research on which this work was based (with money from the UK taxpayer) won’t get any of that money either.

This is well known within academia, but those outside academia are mostly surprised to learn that neither we, nor our employers receive any payment for our work. This youtube video produced for open access week shows a conversation between a researcher who has been asked to assign copyright to the journal publisher and the publisher himself. (In practice these conversation do not happen—we just sign the form and stick it in the post).

Open access journals allow anyone with Internet access to have access to research. In some cases the researcher can pay the publisher a fee to make research open access, though this form of open access is scarcely really in the spirit of open access to research.

The aims of the open access movement are honourable. The researcher, reviewers, universities and government don’t make any money from putting research behind a paywall. This also means that the public, whether they be interested amateurs, independent scholars, advocacy groups or academics in universities without the funds to pay thousands of pounds a year for journal subscriptions—this is a key issue for academics working in poorer countries. The Open Access Pledge reads

I pledge to devote most of my reviewing and editing efforts to manuscripts destined for open access. For other manuscripts, I will restrict myself to one review by me for each review obtained for me by an outlet that is not open access.

Here, manuscripts destined for open access mean those that the authors or journal post on institutional or university repositories, or those that are made open access by the publisher within 12 months. Because I believe that access to publicly funded research should be free, I will also support open access in other ways.

At first glance it appears that the only winner in this process is the publisher. Therefore, why not just publish research on your own or your employer’s website? The answer is that academics and universities do gain from publishing research in good and prestigious journals in terms of reputation, prestige, potential for further research funding and promotion and rewards for the researcher him/herself. It is not the just the research that matters, it is where it is published. A pile of bricks in my garden is a pile of bricks—a pile of bricks in the Tate is art.

The reputation of journals is the principal barrier to Open Access.  As long as academics and their employers want to publish in the ‘best’ journals (of which few are open access) journal publishers will continue to make their profits from the labours of academics and taxpayers’ money.

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