Whatever happened to the Academic Spring? (Or the irony of hiding papers on transparency and accountability behind a paywall)

August 7, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Is the Academic Spring running out of steam, like its Arab namesake? Last year, there was lots of talk of opening up access to academicbye bye paywall papers. Both DFID and the Wellcome Trust took some welcome steps to push the recipients of their research grants to open access.  Following the death of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself because he was being prosecuted for conspiring to publish paywalled journal articles, the editor and editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration resigned en masse because they had a “crisis of conscience about publishing in a journal that was not open access”. It seemed that a long overdue revolution was upon us.

Yet this week I had a depressing exchange with the (usually wonderful) ODI about their journal, the Development Policy Review (no link for reasons I’ll explain). The latest issue of DPR covers transparency and accountability initiatives, and (oh the irony!) it is hidden behind a paywall: if I want to read more than the abstract, I have to fill in online forms, pay a few $, then go through the hassle of reclaiming it through Oxfam’s expenses system and anyway, I balk at paying before I know if it’s any good.  The result is (and I suspect I am fairly typical) that I move on – I either write to the author to scrounge the piece, find someone who has access eg through a university or, as in this case, read something else instead (it’s not as if development wonks are running out of reading matter).

When I complained via twitter, ODI directed me to an FAQ page on their website which explains:

“ODI does not hold copyright for articles in ODI’s two peer-reviewed journals, Development Policy Review and Disasters, so cannot directly publish these with open access. However, articles can still be accessed through the following methods:

Free access in developing countries. Both journals are available to qualifying institutions for free or low cost through the HINARI, AGORA and OARE initiatives. In 2012, 5,116 institutions were able to access our journals via these initiatives.

Author-funded open access. OnlineOpen is available to authors who wish to make their article freely available to all. This form of open access is mandated by a number of funding organisations, including Research Councils UK and The Wellcome Trust.

Author self-archiving. All authors can publish an electronic version of unpublished articles on their personal website, their employer’s website/repository and on free public servers in the subject area. The final accepted peer reviewed article can be put online in the same ways 24 months following publication in Development Policy Review or Disasters.”

or maybe not

or maybe not

But while some people can therefore access DPR without hassle (if they have the right institutional affiliations), this does not include ‘users outside academic institutions and in the developed world.’ i.e. me, or anyone else working for a northern thinktank, NGO or on their own account.

Does this matter? Well yes, for me – I would quite like to skim the latest DPR, (and will do so next time I’m at the ODI office, and probably try and steal a copy as well). But also more broadly, because it means the journal is cutting out large chunks of potentially influential readership (in this case, a lot of organizations working on transparency and accountability!). The reason for sacrificing so much impact is to cover the costs of peer review and publication by Wiley – but is the trade-off really worth it? Is the review of peers really worth more than the readership of mere mortals? And is Wiley, like most journal publishers, operating a form of highly profitable knowledge rent-seeking?

What to do (apart from whinge on twitter and here)? A few suggestions, in ascending order of bravery:

  • Ask DFID or other funders of ODI to investigate: if they are paying for the research, it should be open access. If DPR is running at a loss (as one insider tweeter claims), then it is being cross subsidised by other ODI activities, much of which are funded by DFID, so the same argument applies.
  • Alternatively DFID/ some other funder could work with journals to extend access to non-profits, North and South (or the journals could just decide to do it – if my behaviour is any guide, they wouldn’t lose much revenue and would gain a lot of kudos)
  • We should all refuse to peer review papers for gated journals (as Owen Barder does) or to link to them in our blogs (hence no link to DPR in this piece)
  • As I understand the ODI page, they are entirely within their rights to contact DPR authors, suggest they self-publish their final drafts, and thenAcademic Springpublish those links on the ODI site. You up for that ODI?
  • Or they could try and get a better deal from Wiley – Oxfam hosts the Gender and Development journal and has a deal with its publisher, Routledge, that you can get its content free via the GaD or the Oxfam Policy and Practice websites.
  • Or someone brave (i.e. not me) could blog the executive summary of each DPR paper and challenge Wiley to sue
  • Or someone even braver (and who doesn’t mind putting off readers) could publish the whole thing.

So who wants to be the Julian Assange of development research?

By the way, twitterati may have spotted that I originally suggested co-authoring this with transparency guru Owen Barder, but in the end we agreed that co-ranting is just too difficult. He did ask me to include this line though: ‘Publishing academic articles behind paywalls is more than an inconvenience: it limits the spread of knowledge and ideas to already rich and powerful institutions and people.  It belongs to an era in which printing and distributing journals was an expensive business. Limiting access to the world’s intellectual resources on those grounds in the digital era is having a legacy tail wag a modern dog.’

August 7, 2013
Duncan Green