Who loses out from Open Access journals? Plus the weirdness of the Magisterium

March 2, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Maria Faciolince and I have a paper out in a Development and Change special collection on Open Access in academic publishing (full disclosure: Maria did most of the work). One of the concerns about how OA is playing out is that many journals have responded by introducing ‘author processing charges’ (averaging around £2,000 per article). Instead of readers paying to read, authors must now pay to have their work published. The D&C editors wanted to know if that is excluding authors from the Global South, so we took a look, partly by talking to southern FP2P/Powershifts contributors. An extract from our conclusion:

‘Short of doing away with the whole edifice of academic journals, we remain convinced that Open Access represents a positive step forward in making knowledge a public good beyond the walls of relatively privileged academic institutions. But if we want to eliminate the pay-to-read business model for everyone, there needs to be more thinking and investment going towards supporting scholarship from the global South.

The academic journal system:
Think giant vampire squid, but with footnotes.

Questions about ‘inclusion’ must not stop at opening access to academic publications, but must be attentive to the structural constraints for all scholars to be equal participants in debates. That would make much more sense than to step back behind the paywalls once again.’

I discussed some of these aspects recently in an LSE seminar with my colleague Kate Meagher, who came up with the idea for the D&C collection. Her introduction and powerpoint for the seminar (below) cover a range of perspectives, including the proliferating range of approaches to OA (gold, green, diamond etc).

The conversation was a bit disorienting. In these kind of internal scholarly exchanges about academic publishing, I feel like a barbarian trespassing within the gates of the Magisterium – I find it impossible to convey to my colleagues just how bizarre the journal system appears to outsiders. A system that produces work that no-one outside academia is likely to read, where academics are expected to write, edit and peer review for free, and now pay for to have their work published, all so that private journal corporates can continue to rake off massive profits. Think giant vampire squid, but with footnotes.

One massive blind spot is that discussion on OA is conducted almost entirely from the point of view of producers (i.e. academics). It’s a bit like trying to discuss food policy with farmers. Which academics benefit/lose out from different journal regimes? Missing is the world outside academia, especially readers (consumers). For them, the current journal system is largely invisible – just too much hassle to access, and then (if you’re lucky enough to be able to get your work to pay) hours of pain recouping the fees. No thanks, I’ll just keep searching for something I can read without all the hassle.

And in these days when academics are supposed to think about (and prove) their impact on the real world, this is even more important. Paywalls = less impact – the civil servants, NGOs, journos and others that could take your research and turn it into narratives, policies, laws etc won’t ever read it.

So from point of view of the readers, it’s a no brainer – OA rocks. Then the question becomes how we do that without exacerbating all the inequalities within the academic system (which of course also has a knock-on impact on what is written/constitutes knowledge).

What emerged from Kate’s presentation was a v clear message:

  • The structure of knowledge production is dripping with power and inequality. Which language counts, which topics, which discipline?
  • If you try and find a tech fix to a political problem, there is every likelihood that the gatekeepers will mobilize to maintain their control and profits (see graph). Which is exactly what has happened – the big publishing conglomerates have mobilized very effectively to gain a position of control over the evolution of OA – the foxes are now in charge of reforming the hen coop.

Final thoughts. To some extent, the whole OA debate feels like it’s been overtaken by events anyway, in the form of BLM inspired discussions on ‘decolonizing academia’.

Where I’m still not clear is (as ever) on the so whats. Is OA necessary but not sufficient, or a distraction from the real business of tearing down the whole system in pursuit of some kind of knowledge revolution?

This is where I think a focus on consumers, not just producers, is relevant – if you care about readers, OA is a must; one small step towards a less bizarre and exclusive system of knowledge production and sharing. Then let’s sort out the magisterium.

There are 9 other articles on experiences of OA in various parts of the Global South and the Global North, all free to view online.

March 2, 2021
Duncan Green