Dangers lurk in move to open-access publishing

The UK government’s working group on expanding access to published research findings reported last June. The intention of the Finch report is admirable, the effort misguided. The report concentrates on how academic research will be published. It rather neglects what research will be published.

Dame Janet Finch, advised less by academics than by organisations with interests in academic publishing, recommends open access – but open access to what? Perhaps only to the publications from which these organisations benefit most. Access to research findings unapproved by these organisations is likely to become more difficult.

Producing a vast report on academic publishing that does not mention research assessment is something of an accomplishment. Research assessment dominates academic life and academic publishing dominates research assessment. Publication in top journals is the main indicator of academic performance, determining salary, careers, research grants and a goodly slice of institutional funding.

So great are the rewards for publishing in top academic journals that everyone games furiously – authors, editors, universities and academic publishers. Key is helping top journals remain top journals by facilitating citation of their papers. Increased citation boosts journal impact, which is largely what makes a top journal a top journal. This is why reference lists are now so long and packed with the journal’s own papers. This is why each paper has so many authors, all shamelessly self-citing. This is why editors of top journals routinely coerce authors to cite papers – any papers – in their own journals as a condition of publication. And this is why so many papers in top journals are so relentlessly anodyne that they can be cited almost anywhere to support almost anything. Peer review offers no protection: it collapsed when the pressure to publish in top journals produced 95 per cent rejection rates and cascaded submission to journals with ever-lower impact factors.

But what happens with open access, basically the question the Finch report was supposed to answer? Under the “gold” open-access model the report recommends, academic publishers will simply charge the author before publication rather than the university library after publication. Academic publishers have no objection at all to being paid in advance at the rate they set. Why would they? Academic publishers are currently charging university libraries more for top journals. Where there is already gold open access, they simply charge authors more to publish in these top journals.

The higher the journal impact factor, the higher the publisher is prepared to set its “article processing charge”, which seems to be quite independent of the costs of processing articles. The university, rather than the author, will pay this charge. But universities cannot pay for every academic paper to be published. Committees will choose. And their criteria? For a paper in a top journal – the indicator of so much academic performance – universities will pay almost anything. But what about specialist research? What about controversial findings, papers on non-stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, papers out of tune with university strategy, papers that challenge the orthodoxy, that threaten vested interests? What chance have these of sharing the university’s publication budget? The Finch report devotes much of a sentence (on page 71) to this threat to academic freedom.

Academic publishers have long balanced the market’s need for access to top journals with its ability to pay journal subscription charges. They have been rather good at this. The journal Organization recently carried a paper by David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley and Kenneth Weir on “feral” publishers. The paper finds gross profit margins on academic journals of more than 70 per cent. Tight oligopoly the industry may be, but the fiction that top journals publish top-quality rather than highly citable papers is just about all that props up a nonsensical business model. Consider that the public pays the costs of academic research and then pays again when academic publishers sell the research to university libraries. Referees, editors and authors all donate their services to academic publishers.

And then there is copyright. At the moment, academic publishers treasure copyright because it gives them something to sell. They will care less when gold open access provides their money upfront. Will academic authors – the creators – retain their original copyright? Of course not. Universities will demand ownership of what they pay to publish. And publishers will own where they publish.

Academics favour an alternative “green” open access. They would simply publish on the internet, with the labour of authors, editors and referees being contributed gratis – much as it is now. Academic publishers would reap rewards commensurate with the value they add as organisers. With the loss of their current meal ticket, academic publishers would have to work for their living.

Universities join with academic publishers in their support of gold open access. Universities long to control the most influential indicator of academic performance – publication in top journals. If renegade researchers are brought to heel in the process, this is a delightful bonus. The prospect of universities competing to pay for slots in their top journals should be heady enough to distract academic publishers from worrying themselves about academic freedom. The Finch report sees none of this. It sees only the practical problem of rewarding publishers without disadvantaging universities. Dame Janet has produced a report for the times, a report for a managerialist world that expects private benefit from publication in academic journals. There is no succour in Finch for those academics who hope for public benefit from the publication of their research.

The writer is a professor at the School of Business at Aalto University, Helsinki and a visiting professor at the School of Management at Leicester University

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