How can we understand the different effects of UKRI’s open access policy on small learned societies in the humanities?

The UKRI open access consultation deadline is this Friday and we’re likely to see a flurry of responses leading up to it. One response to the consultation caught my eye today from the Friends of Coleridge, a society that ‘exists to foster interest in the life and works of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his circle’. I wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts on this because I think it represents something quite interesting about the way that open access is playing out within UK humanities organisations.

The response itself was made on a public listserv — along with contributions from the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry and the British Society for the History of Mathematics — and was subsequently shared on Twitter. In it, the Friends of Coleridge explain how their existence would be ‘threatened’ by the UKRI policy for open access because people would no longer need to pay membership dues for content that they could find online for free. The Friends publishes a print journal twice-annually called The Coleridge Bulletin that is sent directly to members and then published online after a three-year period with no charge for access (although there were articles available from 2018 so I’m not sure how accurate the three-year period is). As far as I can tell, the journal does not appear online anywhere else beyond the pfds on the Friends website.

The articles themselves are well typeset and clearly a great deal of care and attention has been placed on the production of each article. The response to the UKRI consultation also mentions that ‘all the costs of conference planning, journal editing and event organizing are undertaken by the society’s officers free of charge’. In many ways, though not (obviously) radical in its politics, the Bulletin would fit well with the kind of DIY ethos of the member presses within the Radical Open Access Collective, many of whom publish work purely as a labour of love with no expectation of a financial return.

So the UKRI’s proposed OA policy represents a quandary for the Friends of Coleridge: either they keep their embargo and lose authors who are no longer eligible for the REF, or they remove their embargo and potentially lose paying members who can access the content for free online. From either perspective, the UKRI policy seems to be an unwelcome development.

It might be tempting to argue that the journal should have seen this coming. That they should have professionalised their publishing operations better and embraced the power of online distribution. However, I would disagree with this reasoning and would argue that these kinds of scholar-led humanities journals are incredibly valuable and show the power of the web far better than, for example, the average Taylor and Francis society journal does. What’s more, the journal even appears to have embraced freely accessible pdfs long before many other humanities journals have done so, albeit with an embargo before the content is made available online.

But the point remains, what would the journal stand to lose by relaxing its embargo? My sense is not very much at all. It is important to bear in mind that relaxing the embargo would not require the journal to release all its content immediately on its site; rather, their authors would be permitted to upload their final accepted manuscripts (word docs) to their institutional repository for immediate public access. It is hard to imagine Coleridge scholars cancelling their subscription to a high-quality print journal just because they can now access a handful of un-typeset pdfs in various institutional repositories. If anything, the circulation of content online would potentially attract a new readership for their print journal. The risk of removing the embargo appears minimal to me and there are many potential upsides to an expanded readership.

But the arguments about the benefits of OA do not seem to cut through the policy framework and filter down to small humanities journals. This is because the discourse on OA in the humanities is still one of reaction and of resistance to seemingly punitive impositions on behalf of UK funders. UK humanities organisations have lobbied hard to be left alone by UKRI and continue to present the same arguments they have done against it, particularly the association of open access with the dreaded APC and CC BY licensing. This is perhaps a failure of OA advocacy to show the benefits of open access and of taking an interest in the political economy of publishing, though it’s perhaps also down to ingrained conservatism on the part of UK humanities disciplines more generally.

For what it’s worth, I do not think that the Friends of Coleridge are actually that representative of the average learned society, but instead that they have been subjected to a discourse on OA — that is often channeled from the big commercial publishers — that sees no obvious benefits to the greater circulation of humanities knowledge and overplays the downsides. Many humanities societies have been convinced by their publisher that relaxing an embargo will lead to subscription cancellations, which in turn will reduce society revenues. No doubt this rhetoric is seeping into all areas of the humanities and influencing the debate.

Despite the lack of evidence that embargo removal leads to subscription cancellations, it is clear that many people think that they do. Of course, many subscription revenues will dry up for other reasons, chief of which that libraries are cancelling their Big Deals because prices are unsustainable. As publishers look to cut costs to protect their profit margins, learned society revenues are the first for the chop. Only now, publishers will be able to tell learned societies that it was the pesky government intervention that is hastening their demise, not the unsustainability of their own subscription model.

Either way, for the Friends of Coleridge who do not have ties to a multinational commercial publisher, the benefits of relaxing their embargo appear to outweigh the downsides, and I would expect the same would be true for many other humanities journals. The problem is that, as is often the case with policy frameworks, it is very difficult to see the positives of something you’re being instructed to do.

COVID-19 and the future of open access

On February 26th, what feels like a lifetime ago now, the Los Angeles Times published a column with the headline ‘COVID-19 could kill the for-profit science publishing model. That would be a good thing’. Its author, Michael Hiltzik, argues that for-profit publishing is ‘under assault by universities and government agencies frustrated at being forced to pay for access to research they’ve funded in the first place.’ Hiltzik doesn’t really go into how open access confronts the for-profit model, and instead offers a somewhat crude summary of the importance of open science during the pandemic, including preprints, open collaboration, data sharing and open access to research.

But at the time it was published, I remember the headline (likely the work of an eager subeditor) jumping out as pretty ridiculous. It seemed to betray gross ignorance about science publishing and especially how embedded commercialism is within the scientific process. Multinational commercial publishers control so much of the scholarly communication landscape that it is difficult to even entertain the idea of a time in which they do not dominate research dissemination. It’s hard to see the virus changing that.

Yet everything has been turned upside down since the end of February. Much of the world is now on lockdown and it is completely unclear how this will play out. As I mentioned in my previous post, COVID-19 has intervened in the publishing market in two quite unique ways: firstly by stimulating a reported culture of collaboration and open sharing aimed at rapidly combatting the virus; and secondly, with everyone on lockdown, by encouraging publishers to offer free content to aid online teaching. These seemingly unconnected issues are in fact related by the move to openness in a variety of forms.

While it may be helpful, as Gary Hall has suggested recently, to think about the pandemic as an event in which we are ‘trapped’, and which therefore resists any hasty interpretation (paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty), I do still think there is value in trying to understand the possible impact of the virus on publishing – not out of any desire for certainty but rather to make visible the uncertainty of what’s going on. And with this uncertainty, we can ask if it is possible then that both the upsurge in open practices and the freely available content made available as a result of the lockdown might help nurture a better, more open and less profiteering publishing ecosystem?

To answer this question, it is first worth noting that the freely available content made available is largely done so at the behest of publishers and often in a piecemeal fashion, rather than systematically and in collaboration with authors, research communities and librarians. Jim O’Donnell, for example, has expressed scepticism that publishers are making content available purely out of altruistic reasons and are instead hoping to ‘entice users to some products they’ve not seen before and send those users back to their librarians insisting — when the free period is over — that we absolutely must subscribe to some of them — at a moment when prospects of budget flexibility are evaporating and cancelations are looming’. Even if this isn’t the case, it is important to note that paywalls have been lifted temporarily, unilaterally and unsystematically – purely in response to a global pandemic crisis. Once this crisis has passed, or at least when publishers deem it to have passed, there is no suggestion that anything other than business as usual will return and that paywalls will be re-erected.

But of course, economic business as usual will not return after the lockdown ends. We are likely heading for a depression, certainly a deep recession, and this will work against a diversity of academic presses who are able continue publishing. As Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press, wrote recently on the Scholcomm list:

Most of us are presses who were already feeling the pinch of the declining market for monographs and the substitution of new purchases of course texts with secondhand and digital copies. This crisis and its aftermath will clearly push many of us even further over the edge at a time when our parent institutions will likely have bigger funding priorities to deal with […] There are many independent barely-for-profit publishers who are very similar to university presses and they will be feeling similar pain, without the protective umbrella of a higher education institution. The large commercial publishers, however, are generally more digital, more diversified, and more resilient and will be quicker out of the gate to vacuum up the reduced budgets that libraries will have.

If things were tough already for small, not-for-profit, and university press publishers, they are going to get worse during the downturn. Higher education is predicted to be badly hit by the crisis and this will have a knock-on effect on purchasing decisions, university press subsidies and overall budget availability.

Watkinson is absolutely correct that larger commercial publishers – the oligopoly – will be well positioned to take advantage of new economic conditions and will probably even further consolidate their sizeable market power. In controlling the majority of academic journals, these companies will be able to price journal packages in a way that makes them attractive to cash-strapped institutions, giving them a competitive advantage over the smaller publishers, not-for-profits, monograph publishers, and so on. Where open access is concerned, this will mean banging to the beat of the oligopoly’s drum, likely through increased transformative agreements, APC publishing and infrastructures that track researchers and monetise their data.

It is worth remembering that open access is now key to the business strategies of large commercial publishers who have figured out how to monetise subscription content, open access content and data analytics. For example, services such as GetFTR reveal a desire by the big publishers to collaborate with one another in order to keep users interacting on their platforms (rather than on institutional repositories, ResearchGate and Sci Hub). In doing this, user interaction data is made available – what Julie E. Cohen terms a biopolitical public domain ­– in a way that allows publishers to amass and exploit it for financial gain. This kind of data extraction is both a response to open access and a way to control it.  

So COVID-19 does not ‘kill’ the for-profit business model decried above by Hiltzik and in fact might strengthen profiteering through the ability of the publishing oligopoly to weather the financial downturn and dictate the future of open access according to their conditions. While this might increase the amount of open access research available, it will be at the expense of the loss of control by the research community and the continued dominance of a handful of players. Such is the problem of a move to open access that is not emancipatory from capital, or at least antagonistic towards it.

Community-led open access

But what about our corners of OA projects and advocacy that are antagonistic to the profit motive or to the publishing oligopoly? How will radical, scholar-led and not-for-profit forms of open access be impacted by the fallout of COVID-19?

It is hard to avoid the fact that much of the OA movement evolved during a time of austerity. In the UK, our austerity programme began in 2010 and continued for many years thereafter (if it ever ended); open access gained popularity at the time, perhaps due in part to being part of this foment. At the height of this, OA advocacy was imbued with the sense that open access publishing is not just more ethical, but is also cheaper than traditional forms. Low-cost commercial publishers like PeerJ and Ubiquity Press launched in 2012 to offer inexpensive alternatives to the high APCs of commercial publishers, both of which are still going strong today. 

Similarly, scholar-led and not-for-profit OA publishers have argued that their approach to publishing is cheaper to produce, either for journals or monographs. Many presses in the Radical Open Access Collective are entirely without remuneration and operate purely in the free time of those who staff them. Publishing can be done much cheaper but at what cost? OA has always had a difficult relationship with austerity and its tendency to devalue the skilled labour of those involved in the publishing process. While there is a nuanced conversation to be had about the costs of publishing (as the blogposts from OLH and OBP show) and the ways of valuing this labour, this conversation will be much harder to have during an economic depression in which there are continual pressures to ‘do more with less’. As much as scholar-led forms of publishing have real value and point to a future of scholarly communication controlled by research communities rather than commercial publishers, we must be careful at this stage to avoid arguing that all publishing should be managed entirely by working scholars (as I have argued elsewhere).

Now is perhaps a good time to re-inject politics into OA advocacy and to remind ourselves that open access only makes sense as part of a project to imagine a world beyond capitalism. It is thus emancipatory from the idea that knowledge and education can only ever be understood as a commodity and disseminated in a market; it recognises that there should be no financial qualification to either accessing or producing such knowledge, and that both could be supported through non-market and economically just means. Strategies for OA advocacy should therefore attempt to intervene in and unsettle the market where possible, while creating commons-based alternatives that point to a better future, such as AmeliCA, OPERAS and the COPIM project (among many others). Although none of what I’m saying is particularly new, it has never been more urgent.

One strategy to intervene in the market may take the form of governance, and COVID-19 is the perfect illustration of this. As publishers unilaterally decide which content to make available, should the research community not have a say in when and how they do this? After all, we create the content, though often in exchange for the copyright. Editorial boards should be able to demand a say over when content is made freely available and under what conditions, while librarians might request the same in their negotiations. These interventions in governance could form part of a broader strategy of increasing oversight by the academic community rather than governance by the market and control by commercial publishers. They may also allow us to retain ownership of our data and make commercial publishers accountable to researchers rather than the market at large.

This is why a systematic focus on governance – instead of, or at least alongside, open access – is vital for the future of publishing. Even if the for-profit publishing model is not going to be ‘killed’ any time soon, governance may still allow us to assert some control over it. Coupled with the publishing futures already being created and nurtured by library publishers, university presses and scholar-led collectives, we may be able to imagine a world that isn’t trapped in the logic of COVID-19.

Notes on open access and COVID-19

As this feels like the first day in a while that I have enough concentration to write, I thought I’d take the opportunity to jot down some thoughts guided by the question: what on earth can the pandemic teach us about open access to knowledge?

I say this because I don’t have any idea just yet. This is because COVID-19 is so fast-moving (figuratively and literally) that it seems to shift the very moment you think you understand it. It is also because all of our anxiety levels are elevated and my brain feels a bit fuzzy, which also makes clarity of thought difficult. This is why I’m wholly sceptical of certainty right now and the grand pronouncements from anyone who claims to know the way forward for anything, let alone research access. In this post, I’ll simply try to articulate some of the complexities associated with the virus.

I am currently writing a book on the relationship between open access, care and the commons (with the University of Michigan Press). In it, I theorise the various ways in which open access might act as an intervention into the free market practices of the publishing industry, i.e., a way to move away from the commodification of knowledge through both policy and grassroots interventions that return control to scholarly communities and provide open access to knowledge. It seems to me that there might be some value in thinking of COVID-19 as a kind of viral intervention into the publishing industry.

With the rapid circulation of preprints and data, alongside the lifting of publisher paywalls on the virus, COVID-19 has intervened in the pace of science publishing. Much of this is predicated on openness and collaboration over the usual approach of competition and closure, as countless news articles and thinkpieces have shown already. Yet the virus has also changed the pace of publishing in fields that aren’t directly relevant to COVID-19 by reducing the speed of publication. Many journals in the humanities and social sciences have stopped processing papers, while others are telling authors to expect delays while we adjust to the new way of working. In the UK, with the REF being postponed, the virus is also impacting on cultures of productivity and assessment.

Furthermore, as classes move online, lecturers are looking for easier access to syllabus content outside of physical libraries. Some publishers have obliged by opening up their content through Proquest and associated databases, while others have made their textbooks freely available to read, temporarily at least. With this said, Cambridge University Press had to re-paywall their textbooks due to ‘reported misuse’, while other databases are so difficult to navigate such that accessing the newly unlocked content has been challenging (for me anyway). Though it may be easy for publishers to announce that they are removing paywalls on their content, actually accessing this content can prove a challenge.

So, like many other industries, publishing has been upended by the virus. COVID-19 has shown both the ease and the difficulty of open access, its necessity but also its contingency. As the lockdowns continue, I’ll be interested to see what happens to those publishers who removed paywalls from their content — when will the paywalls be re-erected and what will be the justification for that? This is the price of marketisation. Scholarly communities have largely ceded control over the governance of publishing to the market, meaning that publishers are still beholden to market principles when it comes to crisis management. This state of affairs is not particularly novel to academic publishing, but it should help us formulate a response.

So I’ll be tracking how the virus impacts (or contaminates) open access as it develops and will try to post notes here as I go.

The undecidable nature of predatory publishing

The term ‘predatory publisher’ reveals a limit of language – or rather it asks too much of language. It seeks a binary separation between ‘predatory’ and ‘non-predatory’ where no such separation can exist, ultimately illustrating more about the motivations and hidden biases about the accuser than the supposedly predatory journal at hand. We therefore need another way to conceptualise the practices that predatory publishing seeks to describe.

The limitations of the term are on display in a preprint circulated this week by Severin et al, titled ‘Who reviews for predatory journals? A study on reviewer characteristics’. The study used a review tracking service called Publons to identify researchers who have declared to have reviewed for journals the authors consider to be predatory. They conclude:

[T]he profiles of scholars who review for predatory journals tend to resemble those scholars who publish their research in these outlets: they tend to be young and inexperienced researchers who are affiliated with institutions in developing regions.

According to the analysis, predatory journals both publish the work and rely on the reviewing expertise of the same groups of inexperienced researchers based in ‘developing’ regions. This leads the authors to conclude that a possible explanation is that ‘predatory journals have become an integral part of the workflow for many scholars in low-and lower-middle income countries’ (p. 8). The kinds of people publishing in these journals are demographically similar to those reviewing for them.

The authors base their definition of ‘predatory’ on Cabell’s lists, a proprietary database containing journals identified as ‘potentially not following scientific publication standards or expectations on quality, peer reviewing, or proper metrics’ (p. 4). The authors make it clear that predation is not a ‘simple binary phenomenon’ and that some classified journals may exist in a ‘grey zone’ between predatory and legitimate. As with much humanities/social science research, when something isn’t a binary then it is often conceived as a spectrum.

But the problem with the authors’ strategy is that their analysis is still conducted on a binary between predatory and non-predatory, rather than a spectrum of questionable practices. Because of course, if the authors were to analyse journals along this spectrum, then they would have to move outside the list provided by Cabell’s towards all journals too. We only have to look at websites like Retraction Watch or various ‘sting’ articles to know that bad practice occurs across all forms of publishing, not just those identified by Cabell’s, Jeffrey Beall or whoever else may have a financial or ideological interest in accusations of predation. We may also consider the extractive nature of publisher profiteering to be a similar kind of bad practice that impacts on the quality of the research published.

I’m not in any way questioning the author’s motivations with this study (and they recognise some of these concerns in a Nature story about the article), but just highlighting that the study of bad publishing practice cannot be conducted according to whether or not a journal is ‘predatory’. This is especially important as the journals that are identified as predatory are most often those from outside the Global North. There are always colonial and racial overtones to the analysis of predatory publishers that — consciously or not — separate them from the ‘trustworthy’ outlets in Europe and North America. When, in fact, any study of trustworthiness in publishing should not be limited to publishers already identified as ‘predatory’.

So the term ‘predatory publisher’ is an aporia: the moment you define an organisation as ‘predatory’ is the moment the term collapses and reveals the motivation to decide in advance which publishers are good and which are bad (often according to geographical boundaries). But this issue cannot be decided in advance — it is undecidable — and so is continually open to interpretation and shifting context. Either publishing is always-already a predatory practice or we have to find a different way of analysing trustworthiness.

How the academic publishing oligopoly skews debates on the cost of publishing

When the original BOAI declaration on open access was published, one of its stated aims was to ‘save money and expand the scope of dissemination at the same time’ through open access publishing. The web offered distribution costs that the authors claimed were ‘far lower’ than print publishing and so OA was seen at least in part as something that could ease library budgets ailing from above-inflation journal subscription prices, all while making research available to the public. Arguably, the BOAI statement was quite measured in its focus only on distribution costs (which clearly are cheaper in an online world); but despite this, many people claim that the cost of publishing more generally should be less in an open-access world. Some advocates have even tried to calculate how much an article should cost to publish.

Continue reading “How the academic publishing oligopoly skews debates on the cost of publishing”

Who are these ‘open access advocates’?

If you’re at all interested in open access publishing, you probably know that it has a long and complicated history. There are disagreements and differences over strategies, tactics, politics, definitions, motivations, disciplinary approaches, business models and routes to OA. Many words have been spilled over the ‘mess’ that open access has become and the fact that the concept of open access itself has a number of different lineages. The OA ‘movement’ is not therefore a unified movement — nor has it ever been — but is a disparate collection of arguments and projects in favour of freely accessible research.

Continue reading “Who are these ‘open access advocates’?”

Open *By* Whom? On the Meaning of ‘Scholar-Led’

(Cross-posted on the ScholarLed blog)

I write a lot about scholar-led publishing. My thesis explored the differences between scholar-led and policy-based forms of open access, and I’ve recently published an article about early academic-led experiments in e-journal publishing. I love what the ScholarLed consortium is doing for open access and look forward to seeing the infrastructures and forms of governance that the consortium members design and build for open monograph publishing.

Continue reading “Open *By* Whom? On the Meaning of ‘Scholar-Led’”

Edited volumes and low-risk open access

As early-career researchers, one of the first things we are told about publishing is not to release our research as part of an edited volume. Chapters in edited volumes are not nearly as valued for career progression as journal articles, even though they may take the same amount of time and care to produce. When I edited a volume on open research data a few years ago, the most common reason for declining to submit a chapter was that it would simply not be valued for career purposes.

Continue reading “Edited volumes and low-risk open access”

New publication in JASIST

I have recently had an article published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST) entitled ‘Revisiting “the 1990s debutante”: Scholar‐led publishing and the prehistory of the open access movement’. The article explores a small number of early scholar-led e-journals and their relevance to open access today.

It is currently freely available on the publisher’s site (though I’m not sure for how long):

There is also a postprint available here:

Continue reading “New publication in JASIST”

What is the relationship between the commons and open access publishing?

Why is there an association between open access publishing and ‘the commons’? What is it about the two concepts that implies they are linked? I’m currently researching the relationship between the commons and OA, looking specifically at the application of the literature of the former to our understanding of the latter, and it is not immediately obvious why the two are so connected.

Continue reading “What is the relationship between the commons and open access publishing?”