On Open Access
In the academic world, including the humanities, the demand for Open Access is becoming more pressing. I am not a specialist of these forms of publications, but I want to offer some reflections from my limited perspective as a scholar. To be eligible for the next REF in the United Kingdom, for example, articles accepted from 1 April 2016 should be included in an Open Access repository. Exceptions are possible, and, if the publisher allows this, the requirement can be met by uploading the accepted paper in a PURE repository managed by the university or the academic. Without entering into the technicalities of these exceptions, it is clear that Open Access is gaining ground, and several prestigious journals are proposing that scholars pay substantial fees to publish with Open Access, and have their papers therefore available for other readers on-line for free. This, of course, meets the usual rhetoric of free access of information, of anti-elitism, of ‘impact’ of academic research on society. However, beautiful slogans do not match reality. The rhetoric of making universities more open and useful for society actually translates into an increased burden of demands on academics, who are required to engage more and more in issues that are not those of teaching and research, with the universities, and ultimately the government, shifting onto them many responsibilities which were previously given to other institutions. At the moment Open Access is actually strengthening monopolies of large publishers that can offer both the prestige of a well-known periodical publication and the possibility of having them freely accessible online. They can therefore set high fees, which are difficult to afford even for tenured academics without substantial research funding. There is the risk that instead of paying £500 a year for buying books and purchasing articles we are going to pay up to £2,000 to publish a single article. The problem is that the burden is shifting again from the university to the academic, the worker. Only if there is a budget available, for example through specific grants that can fund Open Access publications, is it possible for academics to cover Open Access publication fees. Independent researchers, but also academics who have fewer funding opportunities or wish to publish outside their research framework, will have to pay themselves. As academics need increasingly to rely on grants to have time for research, in a similar way scholars will have to look for ways to fund the publishing of their original research. Some universities may have grants to fund Open Access publications of their staff, but the burden of the fees ultimately falls on the academic, since it is her/his responsibility to look for the funding, apply for it, etc. I think we are in a kind of strange situation in which potential sources of ‘democratization’ actually help to strengthen university inequalities: some universities (and countries) will find themselves in a more favourable position than others. What is happening is by no means a ‘spontaneous’ process of sharing knowledge as a ‘common’: in many countries it is centrally decided that publications must be Open Access, no matter what the funding options are, and academics must simply comply with the rules imposed upon them. Some journals have been created as Open Access journals, with no fees to be paid by the authors, but of course they have to establish a reputation in order to find their place in the international scientific community. We need to find alternatives to those strategies that are being enforced now.
Personally, I think this is part of the general trend of worsening work conditions of academics, of the increased burden of responsibilities that has been put on them. This has often been masked by claims of making university life more ‘open’ and ‘useful’ for society. It can be seen in phenomena such as the commodification of academia, the drive to amalgamate business and academia, and so on. Similarly, the form of Open Access that is prevailing looks just like another way of moving financial responsibility from the university to the academic, strengthening the business monopoly of a few major publishers.
There is another issue that seems to be neglected in this debate: that of the conservation of knowledge. Digital history has proven that the material on servers will not last for long. We need printed material of good quality, for libraries to keep it, for personnel to maintain and catalogue it, if we want to transmit knowledge across time. I see once more a tendency to regard science as something that is produced and consumed quickly, rather than transmitted through time. Nothing is eternal, but acid-free paper lasts longer than data on servers. Especially in the humanities, research is still largely based on traditional media, even if many of us genuinely benefit from digital access. Books, manuscripts and archival sources still represent a large part of the relevant literature. It would be dangerous to give the impression that funding institutions can cut library budgets even further, or invest solely in digitization, since it would discourage the preservation of this patrimony of knowledge. We have already seen old books being sold cheaply on the market by libraries; we definitely need to avoid a model in which knowledge is quickly produced just in order to be quickly consumed and then discarded. Many good and serious publishers are not converting to Open Access: it would be a shame if the monopoly of big companies were to put out of business smaller publishers which have developed competences in specific aspects of scholarship.
There is a genuine need to develop new systems to share and diffuse knowledge, but this should consider the complexity of academic life, the need to preserve and transmit knowledge across time, and respect the rights of academic as workers who already make a fundamental contribution to society.