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The UK coalition government, desperate to address sluggish growth, is promoting open access publishing, which aims to make peer-refereed journal articles available online at no cost to readers.
The idea is laudable and the principle is supported by academia. But as with all great ideas, the devil is in the detail.
The independent Finch committee was asked to look at how OA could be established. But the policy based on its report and its underlying assumptions are flawed to the point that the remedy is worse than the disease.
The policy assumes that one size fits all. But there are significant differences between science, technology, engineering and maths, of stem, and social sciences and within sub-disciplines.
Referring to the business and management fields, it is the government’s view that the current arrangements, where libraries pay a subscription fee to journal publishers in return for immediate access to articles by their readers, impede working managers’ access to research findings, thus depriving UK plc from garnering full value from universities’ research. The view that ease and cost of access is the main hindrance is misguided. In reality factors including the gulf between industry and academia, the different format and language favoured by each, and an absence of a national knowledge transfer strategy, play a more prominent role. Peer-refereed articles are written for readers with an appropriate degree of technical knowledge, making them inaccessible to the great majority of practising managers. Consequently, peer-refereed journals are unlikely to be found on the bookshelf of executives. A related problem is the small number of actionable research published by the premier management journals.
There are better ways to encourage practising managers to use research. For example, the government can encourage publishers to offer practitioner summaries highlighting research’s practical implications on OA repositories, or ask authors to offer multimedia summaries explaining how the research can be put into practice. Publishers are open to such ideas and the government can put pressure on the publishers of management journals to do more to make refereed articles accessible to executives.
Value for money is another consideration – why pay for the funded research a second time through highly priced journal subscriptions? In the case of stem sciences a great deal of research is funded through the public purse. But in the case of business schools, the bulk of research is funded from teaching income and industry donations, hence, the dual payment argument is less relevant. Furthermore, the proposed gold OA simply shifts the burden of payment from the reader to the researcher. Under gold OA, researchers have to find the money from their publicly funded research grants or universities have to find the money to pay for a specific article to be openly available. In practice this will mean that only a limited number of articles are likely to be available on OA basis and to access the remainder of articles libraries will still have to pay a subscription. Paradoxically taxpayers would pay twice instead of once.
Another unintended consequence of paying to be published is a rationing of what is published, with well-known academics being published ahead of new and mid-career researchers and less established subjects. Ultimately it will drive out innovation in favour of orthodoxy.
The gold OA policy is motivated by the premise that access to peer-refereed journal articles is effective only via large university libraries. This ignores a number of realities. Industrial users can locate articles (via Google Scholar) and buy the relevant article at a modest cost of circa $35. Furthermore, the world of journal publishing is not immune from the disruptive impact of internet. There has been a significant increase in OA publishing recently, a trend that is likely to continue.
Publishing is a profitable business but the gold OA will exacerbate the situation. The proposal is likely to strengthen the position of established high-profile journals and drive many mid-ranking journals out of business. This in turn will enforce academic safe bets and drive out innovation in risky topics.
Finch fails to engage fully with the more interesting issue of whether the UK should adopt OA unilaterally and ahead of other countries, particularly the US. All the signs suggest that the US is a long way from adopting OA and despite supportive noises the picture is unclear in the rest of the EU. OA offers no first-mover advantage but many first-mover pitfalls. For example, the OA publishing requires Creative Commons Attribution Licence. This allows anyone: to copy; distribute and transmit the work, adapt the work, or use the work for commercial purposes. It is unlikely that a US-based journal will agree to grant the licences, hence, restricting the ability of UK academics to publish in the leading journals and adversely affecting the UK’s competitive position.
Despite the rhetoric of evidence-based policy, it is important to note that a detailed cost-benefit analysis has not been carried out. OA is a significant change, in many ways as significant as the introduction of student fees and yet the whole policy is based on a wing and prayer.
We wholeheartedly agree with Finch that communicating research outcome is too important to leave to chance but OA is not the solution. Finch’s report recognises that the outcome of the proposed change is not perfect for any of the parties – so why do it?
Abby Ghobadian is a professor of organisational performance, Henley Business School; Yehuda Baruch is a professor of management, Rouen Business School; Mustafa Özbilgin is a professor of human resource management, Brunel Business School