OA? Oh no!

[The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Society for Military History or the Journal of Military History. Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

While they only apply to journals published in the UK, the recommendations of the recent Finch Report on open access (OA) have some worrying implications for historians overseas as well as those working in the UK, especially if they are working independently of any institutional base. If adopted, they would mean doing away with the current subscription-based model of access to scholarly articles. Instead, articles published under what is known as Gold OA would be free for anyone to download (ideally, though there will likely be a transition period). The cost of publication would instead be covered by charges paid by the authors themselves, the so-called Article Processing Charge (APC). The Finch Report suggests an APC of £1450, and envisages that this would ultimately be borne by the universities who employ the authors, or by the granting bodies who fund them. The Cameron government has already accepted the recommendations of the Finch Report.

This is fantastic news for libraries, struggling with increasing subscription fees and reduced budgets. It would also make the results of research directly available to the wider public who currently need to pay a not-inconsiderable amount to download a scholarly article, unless they can get access through a public library. These two reasons, which provide much of the impetus for OA, are self-evidently good ones.

Independent historians (like me) will likewise benefit greatly from being able to freely download articles under Gold OA. But they will lose more than they gain. In general they cannot look to their employer to pay the APC for any work that they wish to publish in academic journals. Similarly, they are unlikely to have grant money to draw upon to cover the costs of publication. Most of the time, independent scholars would have to pay the APC out of their own pocket. It's already difficult enough, and expensive enough, to do academic-level research outside academia; adding a £1450 charge for the privilege of actually publishing that research will make it effectively impossible for many independent historians. Perhaps some funding could be set aside for non-academics to draw upon for APCs, but any such scheme would likely be competitive and would at best mean a lengthy delay in publication; at worst, it would mean that research that has passed (or is capable of passing) peer review would not get published. Or maybe the APC could simply be waived, but somebody would ultimately have to pay it: if it's the journal itself, that might make it harder for them to accept work from independent historians (though twenty-one leading UK history journals have already stated that 'all our decisions about publication will be taken regardless of whether an author is able to pay an APC or not').

There is also the impact on historians working outside the UK (again, like me), including those in academia. Research funding in the UK might be restructured around Gold OA, but it won't be elsewhere in the world. Historians working outside the UK quite likely wouldn't be able to draw upon universities or funding bodies to pay the APC. Even if they could, they might find it difficult to justify spending scarce funds to publish in the UK when they could publish somewhere else in the world. This is a problem for historians of Britain (yet again, like me) who naturally wish to publish in British history journals. But it's also a problem for historians working on other areas who might wish to publish in, for example, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies, or First World War Studies.

If implemented, the recommendations of the Finch Report would open access to research from the point of view of the consumer, but it would perversely narrow access from the point of view of the producer. In the sciences, where nearly all academic research is fully funded or carried out in universities, Gold OA will work wonders. It may well do so in the humanities too, but the collateral damage will be much greater. What is to be done?

Sceptical responses to the Finch Report from learned societies and scholarly journals include: American Historical Association; British Academy; International Society of First World War Historians; Journal of Victorian Culture; Royal Historical Society; and, as previously noted, the collective response from a number of journals (including First World War Studies). Most heartening is Past & Present's position:

We want to state clearly and unequivocally that merit will be the sole determinant of Past & Present’s decisions to publish articles.

Whether an author can pay an APC or not will be irrelevant.

We will accept APCs and will also publish the articles of authors who cannot pay APCs. This means that all authors outside the UK and all within can continue to be published free of charge in Past & Present.


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6 thoughts on “OA? Oh no!

  1. Brett,

    There is another implication that works the opposite way around. If UK based scholars are forced to publish in OA journals as this is what is likely to be funded by RCUK and associated bodies, will universities support publication in non-OA journals such as the Journal of Military History as part of their REF submission? Universities may stipulate that they will only fund the pieces required by staff for the REF process thus forcing British based scholars to concentrate on those journals in order to fulfill their quotas. The key problem with the Finch Report is that is has completely ignored the globalized nature of publishing. I for one would not want to be limited to which journals I submit to because of funding. These are answers that universities have yet to answer adequately.

  2. Dan

    OA Gold might work for sciences - it's a bizarrely ill-informed decision to apply it to the humanities. Pierre Purseigle has an excellent post on it here: http://www.pierrepurseigle.info/a-response-to-the-finch-report-on-open-access/
    All of your points about independent research are spot on, Brett, but I fear that independent researchers will not have the weight of voice to make a difference here except through the learned societies. Ross is absolutely right, the key thing will be whether OA publications are judged the only ones enter-able for REF. If universities roll over and play along with this, then the implication as the RHS has noted is that all those inside academia will have a budget allocated for such publications, which will mean that publishing decisions will be taken by administrative managers rather than scholars. It will be very hard to resist from within the system. The instant response of many of us to proposals for OA might be that for less than £1500, we could set up a robust, peer-reviewed online publication model - albeit one that didn't have the support with book reviews and administration that publishers give - but that won't wash if it's not being counted by the REF panels. And I suspect that many of those running universities have already accepted the implications of the Report as part of a much broader recasting of what academics do.

    Also worthy of note: the APC seems to have been calculated to allow publishers to maintain a margin, rather than on the basis of what the full costs of publication might be if they were chargeable - ie it assumes that academics will continue to referee articles for nothing. But if a university is paying such fees, won't it also want its academics to earn them back by charging for their services?

    The UK government is currently attempting to implement a very broad range of radical reforms across the education sector - many of them, like the move to OA, underpinned by valid criticisms of the current model. The risk is that the academic community will be so worn out by these that it will prove very hard to mobilise effectively against the really dumb ones such as the Finch Report.

  3. Post author

    Thanks, Ross and Dan, for pointing that out. You're right, decreeing that only Gold OA publications would be REFable is the big danger: it's probably the biggest, certainly the cheapest stick the government has to push Gold OA through. I have little faith in the modern university's ability to push back against these sorts of ideas, especially when, as in this case, it's not so bad for the big money spinners like science and medicine. However, a few years back the ERA journal ranking exercise was dropped here in Australia. I don't know the inside story of why or how but part of it surely was that academics and universities said, and kept saying, 'look, this is a really dumb idea'. So there is some hope.

    A really good post on, not only the implications of the Finch Report, but what academics should be doing to prevent or at least mitigate the effects, is up at The Disorder of Things. I will quote the summary of their proposed actions here:

    In response, academics should:
    Practice and lobby for ‘green’ open access of all post-peer reviewed work within journals and institutions
    Lobby against proposed restrictions on REF2020 and against compliance pressure for ‘gold’ open access
    Demand clear policies from Universities around open access funds
    Ensure institutional resources are not unnecessarily spent on APCs
    Protect the integrity of scholarly journals by rejecting the pressure for ‘pay-to-say’ publishing

    (I neglected to mention Green OA in my post; it's essentially self-archiving published articles on your own website or in public repositories, usually after some embargo period. This is already done widely in the physical and mathematical sciences and works well there; unlike with Gold OA, I can't see any reason why it wouldn't work in the humanities and indeed I already self-archive wherever possible.)

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  5. "If implemented, the recommendations of the Finch Report would open access to research from the point of view of the consumer, but it would perversely narrow access from the point of view of the producer."

    Exactly! I support open access but the UK model has significant drawbacks. A better model needs to be proposed, and as Ross said, one that recognises the global nature of scholarly discourse.

  6. Post author

    Yes, and unfortunately there seems to be little sign of such a better model being proposed. The US has just gone for OA after an embargo period (by default, 12 months) for government-funded research. That seems like a safer route to me, but for some reason the UK government doesn't want to distinguish between funding sources (or lack thereof). At least a debate is happening now; maybe something will shake out of it. (ETA: the model proposed here is interesting, and would go far beyond simple archiving of papers, but research data too.)

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