Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Academia and Open Access

Noting the attention paid to Ian Mosby's important story about dietary experiments on First Nations kids in the 1940s and 1950s, Andrew Smith considers the inaccessibility of academic scholarship, much of which is paywalled by the journals that publish it.  Mosby's article is the key to a significant public debate, but it is only accessible only to Histoire sociale/Social History subscribers or those who schlep themselves over to the journals room of an large university library.  (Actually, as he notes, HS is now making Mosby available online for a couple of weeks.)

Andrew moves from that oddity to criticism of a British proposal to provide "open access" to scholarship -- by making scholars pay for it. This is a kind of vanity-press program, becoming increasingly common, by which scholars who want to be published in a refereed journal pay the costs of publication themselves. (PloS, the Public Library of Science online suit of journals, a pioneer of this system, currently bills contributors from $1300 to $2900.)

Evidently there is a new proposal in Britain to make this the standard for academic publishing. Andrew: "As I’ve said before, this particular way of funding Open Access publishing is a terrible idea." 

There was a solution forming to this problem decades ago.  It was called collective licensing. It began almost a century ago with broadcast performances of music, spread to photocopying, and was poised for adaptation to online distribution.  In essence, institutions and distributors played or copied what they liked, some tallying or sampling took place, and a broad-based negotiated fee, supervised by regulators, covered the costs. Access was guaranteed and mostly seamless; costs got covered. What's not to like?  

But in Canada currently, collective licensing seems to be going down the drain, in favour of something called "educational fair dealing," which essentially means that schools and universities, the largest users of educational materials like journals, get to appropriate published materials for nothing.  Fair dealing has been sanctified by the Supreme Court of Canada and incorporated in the latest copyright revisions. 

But if the principal users of scholarship take everything for nothing, it does not mean that the costs of scholarly publishing go away. Is it any wonder that journals end up behind paywalls, or that academic task forces recommend that journals bill their contributors for the privilege of contributing to knowledge?  

It has been universities and ministers of education who have been the prime drivers behind "fair" dealing. Naturally they are keen to keep their overheads down, and not much concerned with the implications. But academics and their union, CAUT, have been slavishly supportive of the administrators -- and done much to create the chains that Andrew now observes weighing down open access to scholarship.  Doesn't look to be getting better, either.

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