Prestige for a Price? Two Open Access Futures | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

"Free" is not a low, low price point, but a virtue that is fundamental to intellectual freedom

Phil Davis of the Scholarly Kitchen recently noted that the BMJ Group is starting a new open access author-pays venture. The publisher is apparently seeing it as a way to publish more and generate some revenue. BMJ Open will sort through submitted manuscripts that didn't make the cut for their established titles and selectively publish the work of those rejected authors, giving them some needed lines in their CVs (or, as the publisher puts it, an "an affordable and distinctive publishing service") and generate revenue to support their operations while they do it: win-win, right?

The only loser is the open access movement and anyone who cares about equitable access to knowledge. This tendency to treat open access publishing as a revenue-generating add-on to traditional publishing is designed to exploit authors who are desperate to publish and funders who are willing to put their money where their belief is: toward accessible research. Perhaps the good news is that it acknowledges (finally!) that libraries are not bottomless pits of money, that we can't be expected to subscribe to everything.

However, rather than solve the problem of high costs, this approach sustains the status quo while establishing a two-tiered model. Those who can afford to subscribe to the traditionally published journals will have access to high quality, high-impact research. Those who can't pay will have to be content with research that wouldn't be published at all under the old regime.

Is more always better?
As Iris Jastram has pointed out
at ACRLog, it's hard for librarians to object to more access. We always think the more information, the merrier, but she astutely questions why we claim that libraries offer better information than a generic Google search (while secretly worrying Google is making us obsolete) but then make ourselves the patsies of publishers who feed our appetite for ever growing digital collections by creating Big Deals that are stuffed with publications of limited value. Once we've filled our libraries with undistinguished rubbish, we're no better than the open web at providing curated, high-quality information.

This new move to monetize articles that aren't making the cut while satisfying authors' desire to publish saves libraries the cost of bankrolling this otherwise-unpublishable research, but it does so without solving the problem that the open access movement is trying to address.

A better way
I'm much more impressed by another approach, one suggested by Eric Hellman and Dorothea Salo. Libraries have been banding together to expand our digital collections through cost-sharing, negotiating better deals through consortia, and providing far more material through collaboration than any single library could provide by itself. Salo suggests that open access might simply be the next phase in the evolution of libraries. We could become agents in publishing, funding production costs up front by pooling our resources, making the results available to all rather than renting access post-production and running the risk of having access cut off when the annual price gets too steep.

We can see what the future looks like if we sit back and wait for publishers to design a new funding model. That model will be designed to shore up a dysfunctional system. It will brand open access publications as less important, less selective, and less prestigious by design. It will build a publishing future on a scaffold of inequity and exploitation. The most important research will be an exclusive member benefit. It will treat "free" as a low, low price point, not a virtue that is fundamental to intellectual freedom.

It's understandable: they're in business, and they need to sustain their business model. But we're not in business, and we have a lot of human and financial resources that we could redirect toward a healthier, more sustainable future.

The launch just this week of the Open Folklore Portal, a collaboration between folklore scholars and the University of Indiana Libraries, demonstrates a different future, one that doesn't have tollgates or express lanes to knowledge reserved for those who can pay. It's exactly the kind of project that results when scholars and libraries figure out what we're trying to do and use digital tools to make it happen—not just for those whose institutions can afford it, but for all of us.

Take a look and see what the future could look like.

Addendum (10/21/10):

Richard Sands, the editor of the new venture BMJ Open, sent me a detailed critique of my last column, and I feel his points should be added to the discussion (the "comment" function was malfunctioning last week when this column was originally posted).

He wrote, "the journal's editorial practice will not be to trawl papers declined by other BMJ Group journals as a matter of course, as you suggest; authors must choose to submit their articles to BMJ Open, exactly as they would have to choose to submit to any other BMJ Group journal if their research is declined by their first choice title. The journal also welcomes submissions that are original to the BMJ Group." I agree that I mischaracterized the process.

He takes issue with my claim that BMJ Open (and other author-pays journals that are being launched by prestigious publishers to offer open access avenues for scientists whose work is not appropriate for their top tier journals) is "otherwise unpublishable." He's right, of course. There are already many journals that publish work that doesn't make it into the most selective journals; our "big deals" are full of them. Much of that work has value, even if it doesn't reach the level of significance that is required to get accepted by a prestigious journal with a high rejection rate, and making those journals open access is a move in the right direction. Yet I do worry that the need to publish is not always correlated with a compulsion to share new knowledge. The phenomenon of the "least publishable unit" points toward a kind of CV inflation that advances careers rather than science. Whether the author pays (with or without our tax dollars at work) or the library pays—it still comes at a cost.

But it was unfair of me to take issue with BMJ in particular. As Sands pointed out, "all research published in the BMJ itself is open access, immediately at publication, and has been for over 10 years . . . That's hardly indicative of an exploitative attitude."

No, it's indicative of a commitment to openness in science, and it should be applauded. I will watch the launch of BMJ Open and will try to do a better job of keeping an open mind.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), has just been published by Minotaur Books.

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