Who Pays the Price for Open Access?

by Sarah Kember 

Sitting on a mainline train, in a chain restaurant or hotel conference room, you’re rarely without the option of ‘free’ WiFi these days. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan. Getting online in these situations can be hugely helpful.

The thing is, we probably all have that nagging feeling in the back of our minds when we connect to these complimentary services. What is the company getting back in return? Someone must ultimately be paying for the WiFi, mustn’t they? It may well be the value the company places on getting your personal email address, or passing on your traffic data to other organisations. But the point is – nothing really comes for free.

I have the same nagging feeling about the current rush towards certain forms of open access for all publicly funded research.

While there are undoubtedly laudable aims behind seeking to make research more widely available, and challenging pay walls erected by commercial publishers, I return to the fact that – ultimately – someone still has to pay for the costs of editing and publishing academic work. It’s time the academy woke up to who will end up bearing those costs – and their full implications for the very nature of scholarly communications.

In the UK, our four research funding bodies have signalled their intention to move towards an open access policy for long-form publications and to mandate open access book publishing for the REF exercise due in 2027. Meanwhile, UKRI has signed up to Plan S, a Europe-wide coalition that aims to accelerate the transition to full and immediate open access.

There is much to be said for this shift. I am the first to accept that there would be benefits in the wider dissemination of the academy’s output, particularly to those of us in parts of the world with reliable and cheap internet access (however it’s provided). But I know I am not alone in reflecting on the long-term consequences of such a radical change to traditional publishing models. Universities UK have recently published an interim report of their ongoing consultation about OA and monographs, which helpfully sets out some of the key areas of debate.

University Budgets

Speaking personally, I worry that achieving open access will shift the cost of publishing onto universities that, in most cases, will struggle to support it. The reality of university library budgets will mean that the arts, humanities and social sciences are particularly vulnerable, since the costs here can be high (think how much it costs to publish an illustrated art history book, for example) and STEM publications will tend to be prioritised.

Other questions emerge. How would we ensure proper funding for peer review? What about British scholars who currently choose to publish with scholarly imprints or learned societies based outside the UK, which would not be subject to our OA protocols? What about cross-over titles released by mainstream publishers – how can we ensure scholars can still reach a general audience without falling foul of OA rules? How will universities decide who as well as what to prioritise, and what is this likely to mean for Early Career Researchers and promoting diversity?

These are just some of the questions we will explore at a free one-day conference taking place at Goldsmiths on Friday 24 May 2019. We’re bringing together scholars from across the country, alongside representatives of Jisc and Research England, to discuss the latest UUK report and wider questions around the current policy trajectory. Our aim is to engage and inform the academic community and to consider practical ways forward.

Whatever your views on open access, or your extent of previous engagement with the subject, we’d love to welcome you to the conversation. We want the debate to be open and accessible – reflecting the high aims of the movement with which every academic rapidly needs to get to grips.

This comment was orginally published on Wonkhe

Professor Sarah Kember
Director of Goldsmiths Press
Professor of New Technologies of Communications, Goldsmiths University of London