Conflating OA with other issues we like

At the 2nd International Public Knowledge Project Conference‘s CLA pre-conference, a bunch of librarians and a few assorted others got together to talk about open access (OA).  One thing I kept finding myself coming back to is something I’ve been thinking about for several months now: whether we who are advocating open access should perhaps be more careful about when we are speaking about OA, and when we are speaking about other, related, topics which we may care a lot about but are not at core essentially about open access.

Most definitions of OA I have seen run along the lines of: free online access to scholarly research, which is often also free of many licensing restrictions.

To me, that definition says the primary goal of OA is Access to Read.  The secondary goal, then, is Access to Reuse. To me, that definition does not say anything about disrupting the economics of scholarly publishing.  To me that definition does not say that OA is about resisting the commodification of knowledge.

Radical change in the functioning of scholarly publishers may be a goal many of us share, but is it essentially about OA?  I would venture to say no.

Two topics that are related to changing the status quo of scholarly publishing, and often associated with OA, which came up for me at the preconference were the Serials Crisis & Conflicts of Interest in journal publishing. I’m going to argue that these are not really about OA.  Feel free to counter argue if you wish — I’m hammering this out in my mind yet.

Conflict of Interest

I think that, although some significant OA endeavours have been created in the spirit of general openness and inspired by closed editorial situations that have masked conflicts of interest (particularly in health/medicine; yes I’m talking about situations like the editors who moved from JAMA to Medscape and left CMAJ to found Open Medicine), we can generally agree that OA journals are not essentially in any way impervious to conflicts of interest.

OA journals can be as in-conflict, as corrupt, or as anything-else-you-want as closed access journals.  Why not?  It’s part of the beauty of open access that it is not tied to any one particular business or operating model. It’s about end-user access.  Period. With regard to conflicts of interest, I think we (and especially those of us dealing primarily with health information) just need to be mindful of not conflating OA with conflict-free (or even necessarily conflict-transparent).

Serials Crisis

However, the serials crisis is stickier. A lot of publications and presentations given by librarians about OA (including some presentations I have given) mention the “serials crisis.”  I understand the significance of the shrinking library budget, and the need on the part of librarians to get the word out about this, but I have some doubts about the approach that uses the serials crisis to justify OA.

  • The first one is that use of the phrase “serials crisis” strikes me as one of those signs that one has completed a ML/IS program: once jargon such as this make sense to you automatically, it is time to graduate.  To most of the non-library world, the phrase means nothing and, frankly, sounds a bit hysterical. How is something that we have been living with (some without even knowing about it) for decades now a “crisis”? You tell me how this is a compelling argument to most faculty/researchers.
  • The second doubt I’ve developed is that, while the serials crisis crunching library budgets and forcing cancellations of subscriptions may have been part of the push toward the OA tipping point, I’m not convinced that OA will really make any difference to major research libraries in the end, in terms of their serials budget. Particularly in light of academic libraries and research funders increasingly paying money (via publishing fees or membership schemes) to to pay-for-OA publishers, I see OA – at last gold OA – moving, but not necessarilydoing anything to reduce or eliminate, the cost burden.

Lynn Copeland gave some historical perspective at thie preconference that helped illuminate for my why librarians associate support for OA with the serials crisis.  I need to read the full 2002 ARL-commissioned report, “Igniting Change in Scholarly Communication: SPARC, Its Past, Present, and Future” (<- link is to PDF), but my understanding is that it recommended encouraging new entrants into the oligopolistic scholarly publishing market as a method of trying to slow/stop the serials crisis.  This makes sense to me: the increasing commodification of knowledge as scholarly publishing has become more of a for-profit business and less of an academic endeavour is certainly a problem in my view.

Open Access, and the general arrival of electronic publishing, has reduced the entrance barrier into the scholarly publishing industry, so in that way I get how can be seen as an enabling factor in tackling the serials crisis. In this way, I see how, for librarians who are aware of this history and are stuggling to stretch shrinking collections dollars, the serials crisis is a motivating factor for some types of OA publishing.

However, I don’t think OA, at core, will solve the serials crisis.  Frankly, as we see more of the big traditional closed-access journals converting (in part or wholly) from pay-to-read to pay-to-publish, and more academic libraries experimenting with paying publication fees in addition or instead of subscription fees, it seems highly likely to me that OA will only “solve” the problem OA is designed to address:  Access.

The price burden/barrier will not dissapear, but rather move from reader-side to author-side (or in academic cases, will possibly just remain within the library budget, just renamed from subscription to membership or publication costs). Large publishing companies are not likely to give up their awesome revenue streams, and as for-profit companies they “should” not, as it’s their mandate to make money (can you tell I’ve bene working with a lot of economists?). And even when we’re talking about “green” OA rather than the “gold” OA that can create significant revenue streams for publishers, there is requisite cost on the researcher-author-institution side, as someone has to manage the repositories, deposits, etc.

Is this a disappointment?

Well, yes and no.  I guess it depends on your perspective.

I would venture that “merely” removing the barrier to read and reuse scholarly content is a HUGE thing, and definitely change for the better.  No, it’s not revolution, but it is progress.  (Call me a sellout, but I’m a Gen-Xer, not a child of the 60’s, and I tend ot think of revolution as more of a process than an event.) When I think of community-based researchers, students, or health practitioners who are unaffiliated with academic institutions or even hospitals, there are so many examples in which “just” open access is very, very important.

I know there’s more to unpack here, but I have to go back to the conference and soak up more interesting stuff! So much rattling around my head right now…




Filed under academic libraries, IP, OA, publishing

3 responses to “Conflating OA with other issues we like

  1. Cheer up! Universal Green OA, after it solves the access problem completely, is likely also to induce the down-sizing of peer-reviewed journal publication to just peer-review service-provision alone, its costs recovered via Gold OA peer-review fees, with the rest all offloaded on the distributed network of Institutional Repositories (access-provision, archiving, preservation).

    That will cost a lot less money overall. And it will inexorably lead to more and more sophisticated uses for the Open Access corpus.

  2. Good points and interesting discussion.

    My thoughts:

    Ethics in scholarly publishing and OA are totally separate issues. Relying on ad revenue, for example, raises the potential for conflict of interest, whether the journal is subcription or OA.

    The economics of scholarly communication and open access are also separate concepts, however to me these are much more inherently intertwined. For example, most of the opposition to OA has come from those relying on subscriptions revenue. The profitability of OA publishers like Hindawi and Medknow has been important in showing that this model can work, at least for some publishers. OA is not in essence about libraries finding funds and staffing for IRs and support for OA journals, but these steps are making a lot of OA happen.

    Would it help if we focused less on academic library budget woes, and talked more about economic transition from subscriptions to OA support?

    Another thought: while it is important to not conflate different things, one perspective is that we are in a time of transformative change in scholarly communication, and there is much to be said for proceeding with all desirable changes at once – towards a scholarly communication system that is more ethical, open access, affordable, preserved, and that takes full advantage of the potential of the Internet.

    For anyone who missed Devon and Don Taylor’s presentation of preliminary results of our research project, it was outstanding. Watch for more on this topic.

  3. Pingback: Ethics & LIS Vendor promotional goodies « Social Justice Librarian

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