crochety rant against open access rants

I am officially a cranky academic curmudgeon. And I don’t even have tenure yet!

I say this because I have become the crotchety Mr. Wilson on Twitter expressing skepticism about moving from our current system of academic publishing to an open access system.

Let me state this clearly for the record: I support efforts to move to open access scientific publication. That said, I also worry about the logistical and distributive consequences (potentially unintended) of doing so very quickly. Open access is a noble and moral goal. But it also needs to become a practical reality. As we progress from our current system to a new one, I am worried that the process might inadvertently exacerbate inequalities in academia. For these reasons, I find it especially important to have a discussion using evidence to establish the best way to move from where we are to where we want to be.

I find polemics on the topic difficult to digest at this point. As a result, I found Ryan Merkley’s Wired essay about Sci Hub’s quest to free gated information by using illegal passwords and using them to access gated academic journal publications. The article is a string of mostly specious arguments ending with a call to arms to let Sci Hub’s founder off the hook for breaking the law. Let’s review them one by one:Argument 1: It’s not stealing. Merkley’s first defense of Sci Hub is that it’s okay to steal content because it’s not really stealing (this argument is embedded in the url stub for the article: He writes:

Sci-Hub is obviously committing copyright infringement, and publishers are calling on open access advocates to denounce the site. But saying that Sci-Hub is about copyright infringement is like saying the Boston Tea Party was about late-night vandalism.

At least he acknowledges that Sci Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan broke laws. Merkley might not agree with those laws, but those laws are, nonetheless, installed by the democratic process. He later cites Elbakyan’s “civil disobedience.” Civil disobedience means accepting the sanctions of the punishment to call attention to the injustice caused by unjust laws. I don’t think that Merkley meant to be ironic in highlighting that Elbakyan and Sci Hub contributors are, in fact, undermining the very Constitution and system of laws set up as a consequence of the (original) Tea Party. The response should be to change the unjust law, not continue to celebrate breaking the law (unless, of course, you would be willing to let someone get away with arguing that Kim Davis shouldn’t face any repercussions for her actions).

This does not mean that I agree with said laws. Copyright laws in the U.S. and abroad are terrible (but especially the U.S., where it truly is a Mickey Mouse operation). Publishers take advantage of monopoly rents that place their profits over the public good. But there is a means to address that injustice: change the law. I am opposed to vigilante justice and the moral certitude that comes when one group explicitly declares that it is okay to ignore laws.

Argument 2. Academic publishing is outdated. Having established that it’s okay to break laws he doesn’t like, Merkley proceeds to discuss why it’s okay to break said laws. Basically, we have an outdated, byzantine system so we should blow it up. Because freedom.

If it wasn’t so well-established, the traditional model of academic publishing would be considered scandalous. Every year, hundreds of billions in research and data are funded, in whole or in part, with public dollars. We do this because we believe that knowledge is for the public good, but the public gets very little access to the fruits of its investment.

I’ll give Merkley this: the system is not one I would design from scratch now. Publishing is byzantine, backwards and serves oligarchs. It must be shocking to Merkley that a modern system becomes bureaucratic, too bad he can’t turn anywhere to understand the phenomenon. Maybe we should all follow a charismatic leader like Elbakyan to lead us away from this byzantine bureaucracy. That never ends badly.

Argument 3. Academic publishing is immoral because it relies on unpaid labor. Merkley argues:

Researchers aren’t paid by publishers for their research as it’s sold piece-by-piece or by subscription through academic journals. The reviewers who evaluate the research aren’t paid either.

Hear, hear! I completely agree.

Again, the problem is that there are solutions to this problem. Those who perform uncompensated labor could join tens of thousands of others and stop doing that labor. Universities could refuse to remunerate editors and editorial staff on behalf of publishers. Academic societies, which publish the most prestigious journals in many fields, could require that reviewers and editors be paid as part of their contract negotiations with publishers. All of these would actually help those who provide labor to be paid, which — far as I can tell — Sci Hub is not doing unless you count the provision of stolen goods to users.

Argument 4. And I quote: “It’s in our nature to share, and in a crisis, it’s easier to act on that impulse.” Huh?

Argument 5. But, Einstein! Seemingly without irony, Merkley actually invokes Einstein:

Some argue that those at universities already have access, but who knows where the next discovery will come from? Einstein was a patent clerk, not an academic elite, and 100 years later we’re still proving his theories to be true—even the ones he thought to be wrong.

Leaving aside the fact that, according to Wikipedia, was a patent clerk while working on his Ph.D. and started working as a lecturer in his twenties, this argument is patently absurd. If I had to guess where the next discovery would come from, odds definitely favor a university. Because probability.

Argument 6. There’s no “I” in “team”. Merkley’s next argument makes sense to me:

Public investment is a powerful and vital collective act—something we do together that we could never do individually.

He then goes on to cite how blur removal technology developed by NASA was used by researchers to improve mammogram technology. Sounds great! I wanted to see what it looked like to have this data available to the public that could be used right away. Until I found out some of it was…behind paywalls.

Argument 7. Capitalist pigs. Next, Merkley turns to deriding the profit motives of companies rent-seeking to maximize profits:

When we push for more open access, publishers’ response is to charge the researchers to publish their own work. Publishers argue that they add significant value through peer review, editing, and distribution, and the prestige of their storied journals offers credibility…In exchange, publishers claim the authors’ copyrights, and collect significant profit margins, sometimes as much as 30 percent.

Practices like journal bundling and pay-to-publish are shady. But those practices are those of profit-maximizing capitalists. To criticize one industry of acting immorally inside of a larger economic system is un-sociological; to call for the end to capitalism seems like howling at the moon. If he’s a dreamer looking to move to a less capitalist economy, sign me up! I’m happy to howl at the moon. I’m also happy to think of alternative methods to serve the public good inside of our current system, especially with a growing number of corporations following such models.  I would support legislation to make rent-seeking — and its attendant shadiness — harder. We need to reform our entire copyright system. We need to say…

Argument 8. …make a whole new model.

We need to change the model, not just tweak around the edges. An alternative system, where all publicly-funded research is required to be shared under a permissive license, would allow authors to unlock their content and data for re-use with a global audience, and co-operate in new discoveries and analysis.

Here I can totally get on board with Merkley. One slight problem though: what about all of the research that isn’t publicly funded? Sci Hub doesn’t discriminate to find, say, articles that indicate in the acknowledgements that the researchers received federal funds. Instead, they distribute all of it regardless of public funding. The federal government didn’t actually pay for a lot of the research included in the bundle. This undermines the premise of argument that those the U.S. taxpayers among us “pay to read research we fund.” It makes sense why he would make that argument though; arguing  that we “pay to read research that the tuition money of college students funds” doesn’t have quite the same rhetorical ring to it.

Argument 9. Elitism! This is a story about academics and the internet, so somewhere we had to have our requisite argument about elitist gatekeepers. Merkley doesn’t disappoint:

If the Web has achieved anything, it’s that it’s eliminated the need for gatekeepers, and allowed creators—all of us—to engage directly without intermediaries, and to be accountable directly to each other.

Wait until oil companies jump on board to rail against gatekeepers on climate science, or pharmaceutical companies do so against gatekeepers on medical research, or payday lenders against economic research. I’m sure that will help science. At least now they have to take effort to pay off researchers.

Argument 10. Incremental progress is too slow. Perhaps Merkley is a Sanders supporter because nothing but drastic change will suffice (comments about the oil industry make me think he’s not a Trump supporter):

The US government has moved towards more open access, but has also at times
capitulated to publishers by giving them embargo periods before research can be made available and allowing research to be free to read, but not open to use—denying the access necessary for text and data mining.

The U.S. government moved in the right direction, but didn’t want to upend an entire system without considering the unintended consequences? Sellouts! Establishment shills! Never mind that, if the real concern is just about science progressing, then scientists usually own the copyright to preprints which contain most of the science. A better target might be universities to make it part of faculty policies to deposit preprints to permanent repositories. But then Merkley can’t take on the capitalist pigs like in his concluding cri de coeur:

Think of the the potential of students, citizen scientists, educators, researchers,
corporations, non-profits, and more all working together on a grand global challenge
that would benefit all of us for generations.

Oh, wait. We should do all of this to help “corporations…benefit us all”? We need to rid the world of the scourge of capitalist swine like profit-seeking publishers to support  profit-seeking corporations in other sectors? The sector most likely to benefit from this free flow of information — especially given Merkley’s focus on cancer research — comprise pharmaceutical and medical device companies, you know, paragons of public interest.

You really should read the whole thing. I would post it all here except that the material on Wiredmay not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast.”

33 thoughts on “crochety rant against open access rants”

  1. Underneath all this is an unstated assumption: you don’t think the system now is that bad, and you think our democracy works to rein in monopolies. Otherwise you would find the sci-hub disruption justified, as resisting really bad laws and undemocratic systems surely is.

    About your for-the-record statement, it’s a red herring: there is no danger that well move “very quickly” to an open access system, causing the damage you fear (based on what – the cost of PLoS page charges? No one thinks that’s the future open access system.) The distributional consequences you say you fear must be really bad to be worse than those endemic in the system you are defending, which leave scholarly output — now — out of the reach of many in poor schools and countries.


    1. The open-access model required the payment of considerable sums of money to publish. While I’ve seen a number of venues that waive or reduce such fees for scholars in less-developed countries and perhaps for graduate students, I have not seen fee reductions for those working at institutions without the ability or willingness to fund publication fees. In contract, those of us at poorly-funded colleges can rely on our excellent interlibrary loan offices to obtain articles from periodicals to which we do not subscribe, so predatory subscription fees only delay–rather than preventing–our reading and research. Open-access advocates at elite and well-funded institutions need to think seriously about institutional stratification and the consequences of high publication fees for the scholars working at public comprehensive colleges, community colleges, and other institutions with limited funds and realize the problems these new models present. I believe the smart people in the OA movement could set their minds to developing solutions, but not until they take this issue seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course, as I said, author fees cannot be the basis for a new system. This is widely understood. If you read the white paper I reference here you will see that indeed the smart people in the OA movement have addressed this problem.


    2. Phil, I don’t appreciate you telling me what I think; you can certainly fault me for not going far enough and challenging the tactical value of my approach (building momentum to change the law) over yours (resisting bad laws), but please refrain from reading my mind.

      I find your red herring argument disingenuous. You are on record calling for ASA to move as quickly as possible out of its contract with Sage. You want to see the whole system upended. I quite literally had you specifically in mind when I wrote that sentence. I am intrigued by the white paper that you posted. I think that the white paper is a genuinely good argument, unlike Merkley’s mish-mash of terrible arguments. That said, it’s still a white paper, not a proven business model. We can strive for new ideals, but at present, the only evidence of a business model that is seriously challenging the current publication system are article processing charges (APC). It’s one thing to write out ideas, it’s another to implement them at scale. Until models are implemented at scale, I remain skeptical — which, I believe, is my first responsibility as a scientist.

      Finally, I did not communicate clearly that my concern is not that the distributional inequality will be worse than the current system, and you are right to point out that inconsistency in what I wrote. Let me clarify: we should consider the costs, and potential for distributional inequality in those costs to exist, when we move from our current system to a better one. Merkley did not address that at all in his piece. The K|N Consulting memo did and I applaud them for that.


      1. Sorry – didn’t mean that’s what you really think – it seems to be the assumption that underlies the logic of your comment. I hope the latter phrasing (as with, “you seem to assume…”) is within reasonable bounds of argument, though of course I could be wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Phil — thank you for your comment. I thought that the two paragraphs were two different arguments, not a connected argument. Now that I see what you meant, I realize that I over-reacted. My bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I just wrote an essay for an issue of the American Sociologist in which I address concerns about publisher rents without having any serious engagement with the viable options. But I do think it is increasingly important to address the fact that universities are paying twice for the work and that non-universities are extracting the profits.


  3. It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for the “but it’s breaking the law” argument. First, I don’t think it puts anybody any farther on the slippery slope to dystopian lawlessness. And, for every Kim Davis example, there’s various counterexamples where it’s hard to imagine where one would really follow any kind of legal absolutism (4/20? protection of undocumented populations? sex work? pornography? March Madness pools? various state regulations that I’ve seen broken in the course of hiring/admissions/faculty-meetings?). So why would this a particularly good place to draw the line? Legal zealousness in this domain is what led to the persecution of Aaron Swartz, and for what?

    The domains where “piracy” really bothers me are those where I can see clearly how rampant piracy screws the folks responsible for actually producing the content. I think it’s awful when people download contemporary novels from pirate sites, for example. But, in this case, the authors of the content aren’t being compensated by the folks who profit from publication anyway, and younger authors are quasi-coerced by the incentive systems of their professions to participating in this system and signing away copyrights anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a compelling point, Jeremy. You ask where I would draw the line. My line here is when a single person becomes a cause celebre by intentionally flouting the law. This puts a single person above the law. If that person wants to suffer the consequences of punishment in a form of civil disobedience to call attention to an unjust law, then more power to them. That is why I see the parallel to Kim Davis: she wanted to flout the law and suffer no consequences for doing so.

      The case of Aaron Swartz was definitely troubling; but the problem is a severely outdated law that was initially written when pagers were new technology. His case was a criminal proceeding; not a civil one. And, for all of his activism, his downloading of material didn’t ultimately change legislation because his prosecution became the cause rather than an organized movement to change the law.

      We need to develop a plan that uses leverage to displace the current system and justly distributes knowledge. Especially since, as you cite, the people producing the content are not standing to gain from the current system. But Merkley’s argument — even if you disagree with me on the argument of breaking the law — does not advance any effort other than to celebrate a person. He doesn’t call attention to real models of change (as Phil has done). The best good that could come from this debate would be to reform intellectual property laws so that we aren’t always skirting around the edges and that money can be redistributed from profits for rent-seekers to producers. A next-best alternative is an academic publishing model that avoids rent-seeking altogether. I do not see how Merkley’s argument advances us toward either of those goals.


  4. I’ve been meaning to write something about this but (as usual) was slow to get to it. I actually agree with much of what Mike writes here, though I haven’t read the Merkley piece.

    I have been reading what Philip has been posting, including the white paper he’s very fond of, and I find myself unconvinced. The financial model the white paper proposes is basically: hey, there are lots of wealthy institutions, and asking them to pay for OA would be a small proportion of their budgets. (“We are looking to the institutions to fund this model, not necessarily to the libraries.
    The numbers we quote may look large to a library, but are quite small for an
    institutional-level budget.”) I work at one of those big-budget institutions, and there are many, many demands on those budgets. Based on the funding model in the white paper, UNC-CH would be on the hook for about $115K annually, but “the fee might reasonably rise as much as 10-fold” to $1.15M annually. In our current budget condition, that’s a very large ask to be made solely on principle. I assume other peer institutions would see it similarly.

    Of course, our libraries are paying far more than that for commercial journal subscriptions, so if we could simply snap our fingers and make all scholarly publishing OA and all past publications available free (legally), that’d be great. But there’s no way to do that. The mechanisms for assessing scholarly quality and reputation via journal prestige are not going to change overnight, and even if they did, commercial entities would still own the vast stock of previously-published papers, and would presumably continue to charge (potentially even higher) subscription fees for these. Unless you account for the transition from where we are to the new model, I think the white paper is just a pipe dream.

    I do NOT buy the ASA’s argument that the association is somehow entitled to rent-based surplus from the journals to do all the other things they like to do. That’s a desperate and silly argument.

    Finally, I want to address the idea that because “the public” has funded the research, it is immoral for the public not to have access to the articles that result from it. That claim doesn’t make sense to me. I think public funding for research means the public ought to derive benefit of that research, but it doesn’t imply that the immediate product of the research ought to be immediately available. By analogy, public funding for universities doesn’t imply that any member of the public has a right to be admitted to or take courses at such universities; just that the public benefits from the education of those students who are admitted. There are all sorts of publicly-funded things to which we don’t all have immediate, free access (space shuttles, foreign wars, national parks come to mind).

    (BTW, it’s tough to delineate what research is publicly-funded and not, given federal financial aid, state appropriations to universities, and tax advantages for private endowments, so I’d be willing to state that all academic research is substantially publicly funded.)

    I do want to be in favor of OA, but financial and quality-assurance issues are major roadblocks to which I don’t see adequate answers as of yet.


    1. On the snap-your-fingers thing, this is surmountable. The plan involves (basically) getting a grant to cover to cost of publishing a whole bundle of journals for a few years, then using that time to line up universities to commit to contributions that are in the neighborhood of (or less than) what they are paying for that bundle of journals already. That way the universities never have to pay more, and you get out from under the publishers.


  5. I just signed a contributor agreement with Springer for a 5000 word discursive essay/rant about the review process in peer review. The price of providing open access is $3000. That is ridiculous. I will say that the agreement allows me to put my pre-publication MS on my personal website; I don’t have to pay for that.


  6. I have not yet read Dr Cohen’s white paper but I will.
    Couple things, it is important that research be free to access, take for example gay civil rights. We need to be able to pull the studies that are being cited in court cases. We need to be able to read the studies.

    Her’s what I think, and I’ll just throw this out there, I think you need a distributed data system for storing the research. Universities can be coerced into offering some of their computer resources for distributed storage and server tasks. Think crowd funding, except crowd computing. Each university would do their best to figure out their lowest cost computer resources in their operation, and in the end it would be lower cost than buying a bunch of Journal subscriptions.

    The rest I don’t know, I would have to think about it but one thing is for sure I sure hate Elsevier. That private business out of the Netherlands is making money hand over fist and they would NOT do anything about Regnerus lying in his paper that the funder had nothing to do with his paper. When it can be proven that the scholar is flat out lying in his paper, some sort of something needs to happen.

    Elsevier was paying a small salary to the Editor of Social Science Research, Jim Wright out of the University of Central Florida and gasp, wait until you read this next part. The University of Central Florida hired a grad student to do nothing except work on the Journal Social Science Research (well maybe I sould say that was her PRIMARY job duties). That was her job. And the State of Florida Taxpayers paid for that. The State of Florida Taxpayers paid on the University payroll, paid for a part time person to help with the Journal, essentially State Taxpayers were subsidizing a private FOR PROFIT business, Elsivier.

    Tell me why Elsevier should get this kind of sweet deal and McDonalds doesn’t? Why isn’t the University of Central Florida paying the part time workers at McDonalds, put the part time workers of McDonals who work at a campus McDonalds, put them on University payroll just like that grad student working on the Journal Social Science Research who is paid by the university? This was revealed in that bloggers court case against Dr Wright for the Regnerus records, after all it was university staff, paid by the university who was in possession, so it should be subject to an open records request. Elsivier is pure evil. They are ripping us all off and why are the Universities paying university salaries to help a for profit business? Why? Why Elsivier and not McDonalds?


    1. Your point is well taken, Str8G.

      The reason Elsevier gets it but McDonald’s doesn’t is because the work is central to the mission of the university. That explains why the university supports that work – but it doesn’t explain why Elsevier should benefit from it.


      1. How? How is the Editor of any old Journal who happens to be employed at a university, how is that critical to the mission of the university? Won’t the university just keep rolling on if Elsevier picks a new Editor at a different school? If the school is not crushed, then doesn’t that kind of dispute your claim that a Journal is, well I will quote you, “the work is central to the mission of the university”

        I don’t think these journal jobs are critical to your universities, it seems to me more likely that they are critical to the prestige of the people in the academy, personally, individual professional prestige. Amirite? It is not so critical to the mission of the school that they should be paying the salary of university employees to work on a for-profit journal. I could maybe go along with it if the publican was run as a non profit, but certainly no taxpaying way to benefit a for profit.

        If my point stands, that indeed no particular for profit journal is mission critical to any university then there is no justification for subsidizing Elsevier with tax payer funded employees but not McDonalds.


  7. Think BitTorrent. I don’t know a lot about BitTorrent, just a little bit. But you can google it and see. Every author agrees to host some BitTorrent files on their computer, or they pay the author fee, or a higher author fee. The scholars might convince their Universities to be BitTorrent warehouses instead of their personal computers. If you stop giving access to BitTorrent on your computer, your research gets deleted. Therefore once in, you are always in, and the distributed data grows and grows. A very low author publishing fee can be maintained as you only need to maintain a small central HQ for administration. Nothing needs to be fast if it is free. If it takes a while to download a file, as long as I’m not paying I won’t be frustrated.

    BitTorrent has redundancies so that if one computer goes down all is not lost. Decide if I want free access to research does that mean that I as a requestor of info have to participate in Bit Torrent also, or should all the data distribution rely on the authors and Universities. In other words, I think the first thing to investigate is IT. After the ideal IT solution is found, then work backwards from there from there. All you need it one Journal to got Bit Torrent. What about that new Open Access Journal, I forget the name, the one Stanford Sociology is part of. Oh yes that sociologist Kiern something is on that Journal. Instead of providing free open access, they could move it to BitTorrent and have the Universities provide some data storage. So free is not free, the Universities, or anyone involved, from the authors to the requestors like me, have to join BitTorrent and provide a little bit of our computer resources to the cause.

    I would rather give computer resources than pay. I already own my computer and internet connection so it is not costing me anything to join BitTorrent for free access. BitTorrent has a bad reputation because of pirated movies that are on there, (I have heard this as I am not a BitTorrent user) however BitTorrent is a model that can be used for good also. The solutions to provinding no cost access to Journals is in iT, then you work backwards once you decide on the right IT platform.

    You could probably even start to drive Elsevier out of business if you developed a BitTorrent that links back to olderwoman’s soon to be published article. Springer gave permission to have her publish the pre-press version on her personal school web page, right? Springer is obviously not going to link to that, but another software can link to that. This other software can be like a spider crawling your webpages, authors using tags, and you can BitTorrent the list, which is going to be long. You are thinking as sociologists and funding and author fees etc, I think the solutions are with IT pros ask and see what they come up with. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. But I have a strong hunch that distributed data is probably the only viable solution or else the costs are to enormous in a one repository situation. In stead of asking for money, ask for computer space and resources. Then you need just a little bit of money for administration.


  8. Sorry to be so late to the discussion!

    As one of the authors of the white paper that Philip has cited, I’d like to address the concerns raised here (by Andrew Perrin), that “The financial model the white paper proposes is basically: hey, there are lots of wealthy institutions, and asking them to pay for OA would be a small proportion of their budgets.” If that is what we were suggesting, without acknowledgment of the severe budget crises that almost all institutions — public or private, large or small — are facing, I would agree that the model we propose in our white paper is a “pipe dream.” Thankfully, what we’re saying is quite different.

    First, we are looking to all tertiary institutions to pay to make content open, not just to the “wealthy” ones (which are admittedly an increasingly small number). Our goal is to achieve full participation from the entire higher education community — from small community colleges and large research universities alike. We argue that everyone — including all the life-long learners that have graduated and will graduate from these institutions — will benefit from a world in which all research output is freely available, so every institution should pitch in to make this the reality. What we’re really asking is that institutions spend $1-$5/year per student, rising over time (as Prof. Perrin properly notes) to $10-$50/year per student (depending on institutional type). If funds cannot come from budget reallocation, why not create an “open access” student fee to cover the costs? At UNC-Chapel Hill student fees for this academic year are $1942.99. A very small increase of $5 — perhaps added to the computing fee (currently $50) — would be barely noticeable to the students but would have not only immediate but ongoing impact in ways that other student fees do not. Most students, raised to believe that sharing (rather than piracy) is a core societal value, would not balk at a fee that would very directly enable them to invest in their own ongoing success and the opportunity for each of them to continue learning for a lifetime beyond that of their classroom experience.

    Second, I’d like to argue that the core problem of the conversion to OA is one of will, rather than way. “In our current budget condition,” Prof. Perrin observes, “[an institutional payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars, rising 10-fold over time] is a very large ask to be made solely on principle. I assume other peer institutions would see it similarly.” True. But it is the word “principle” that is problematic here. The $115,000 (or even the $1.15M) ask (as per the UNC-Chapel Hill example) is considered “very large” only because, for all the increasingly positive talk in favor of OA, for the most part institutional administrators (including university librarians) consider OA to be an “add-on” expense rather than a core expenditure that should be at the heart of the budget allocation process. It is true that an additional $115,000 would be a burden. We argue instead that there needs to be a reallocation from existing expenditures to support OA projects. Does that mean tough decisions need to be made? Of course. Does that need to come from the libraries’ budget? Not necessarily. In FY2014 the research funding for UNC-Chapel Hill was $792,729,006. The initial reallocation of $115,000 would be 0.01% of that. Even the proposed $1.15M would be only 1%. Is a 1% reallocation of funds to open up all research output produced by the university too much to ask of an institution with the stated mission of “leading change to improve society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems”? Or is it merely putting institutional money where its mouth has been so far?

    Rather than a pipe dream, what we propose through the development of the Open Access Network ( is doable and scalable. Such development of course requires the hard work of education, especially at the administrative level, but the numbers themselves are not as daunting as some would like to believe them to be. That argument might even be considered (to continue the pipe metaphor) blowing smoke.

    I very much welcome the conversation started here and am happy to continue it in this and other forums.

    – Rebecca Kennison, Principal, K|N Consultants and the Open Access Network

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my concern. However, I respectfully suggest that you’re making arguments in a vacuum that have to be made in the context of the broader environment in which universities are operating. You make a couple of specific suggestions regarding my home institution, UNC-CH, that I think demonstrate this problem.
      First, you suggest that UNC could impose an additional $5/student fee to pay for OA charges. On the face of it, this is a small additional charge (though it would have to be a bit more in order to cover the $17,410 assessed annually for UNC-CH’s 3,482 full time faculty). But 20% of our students are in the first generation to attend college, and 14% are Carolina Covenant scholars, which means their family income is below 200% of the poverty level. There are also competing demands for increased fees: computing, child care, campus health, and more have been discussed and considered in the past few years. The problem is not just “can’t we afford $5” but also “if we can afford $5, is this the priority for which we should afford it.” Add to that the fact that the vast majority of these students would never read or consider the vast majority of material being made available – I doubt if they would consider the money well spent.
      Second, you point out that UNC-CH has a nearly $800 million annual research budget, so between $115K and $1.5M annually wouldn’t be such a big proportion. But once again, the question is: what expenditures from that budget would you suggest cutting instead? That figure is the total of contracts and grants awarded for research purposes (see, so the majority is encumbered for specific research tasks the moment it comes in. The remainder (“overhead,” or F&A costs) is divided widely among many units on campus (libraries, physical plant, computing, networking, research ethics, research development, etc., etc.). Any decision to spend on OA is a decision to spend less on something else. I assume that’s why you distinguish between the will and the way. But in our case, the reality is there is more will than way for many valuable priorities, and I’d be surprised if a case for making this the top priority would be convincing.
      I am also intrigued by the phrase “open up all research output produced by the university.” Would you have UNC require that faculty publish only in OA venues? If so, I think there’s a major academic freedom issue there. I would not support a policy that prevents faculty from publishing in the best journals, or those most appropriate for their work, unless those are OA.
      My main point is that, in the current fiscal climate for higher education, the case cannot be “this is important and not that expensive, so do it.” It has to be “this is more important than all the other priorities that are currently un- or under-funded.” I don’t think I’m convinced of that, and I’m a relatively sympathetic reader. I doubt if provosts, chancellors, and boards of trustees would be more convinced.


      1. Thanks for your response to my response.

        I merely focused on UNC-CH as an example because you mentioned your own institution in saying that what we’re suggesting to do would not work there. I could make a similar financial argument for any institution, but in reality the real argument is the one you posit: That the wholesale transition to OA requires a cultural shift, not a monetary one.

        I agree that for now the moral argument of the public good does not hold much sway with many, even those at public universities who are funded in large part by the taxpayers of their states. That is why I argue instead for the importance of openness to the products of academic work as part of fulfilling the mission of institutions of higher education. Every college’s and university’s mission statement has language similar to that of UNC-CH’s, and as not-for-profits, education institutions are required to have the public purpose that is described by such mission statements. Demonstrating that public purpose in action by an institution’s assisting in opening up access to content, content that can (among other things) be used to accelerate innovation and encourage economic growth, might become a compelling argument that might begin to reverse the troubling trend of state funding being siphoned from education for other “more important” priorities.

        The “public good” argument might not be particularly compelling to presidents, provosts, and deans, but ongoing accreditation is. Increasingly accreditation, which ensures that federal money continues to flow to the institution, is based solely on student outcomes and on lifelong learning. (The recent changes to the Middle States’ accreditation criteria that eliminate all mention of libraries and only mention “research” once — and that in the context of graduate students — are part of this trend.) That is why my argument that the adoption of serious steps to ensure OA to scholarly content will permit lifelong learning will become increasingly important to administrators and to faculty. The provosts and deans with whom I have talked have been very receptive of this argument — one that focuses on their students and their alumni — even if they have not been swayed by the argument for OA as a public good.

        As for your question and observation “Would you have UNC require that faculty publish only in OA venues? If so, I think there’s a major academic freedom issue there. I would not support a policy that prevents faculty from publishing in the best journals, or those most appropriate for their work, unless those are OA,” I would again agree. The goal of the Open Access Network (OAN) is to provide the funding needed to shift existing closed-access journals to OA (but we’re also looking to fund all types of research output), so faculty can publish where they wish to publish without any concerns as to the business model that funds that publication. In the world envisioned, all venues are OA. We at the OAN are looking to support the infrastructure for publication, which includes existing platforms run by existing publishers as well as new platforms that arise. We are thus not supporting content but rather the content creators and their publication partners.

        I understand what we’re doing is audacious and difficult. Changing the status quo always is. I don’t expect you to become a sudden convert, but over time I hope you’ll see that OA is actually of critical importance indeed. And worth funding.


      2. I agree, it is going to be harder then heck to get schools to just write a check. This is why I say instead ask for computing resources which they already own. The cost of band with is buried in the overall band with budget. Much easier sell. Plus if you start with a customized Bit Torrent (obviously you name it with a different name and it may bot be Bit Torrent but something similar) initially the computing resources start out very small, hardly noticeable, doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Plus it is kind of cool, our school is a repository of needed research. The movement would start slow not be a resource drain, require no capital outlays on the part of the schools and business.

        That new OA Journal that Kirnan is on, that would be a perfect one to implement into “sorta” open access, open if you agree to save a few files on your schools computer system. You just need one, just one Journal to start. Free to the scholars but the scholars gotta go talk their schools into saving a few files on their schools computer. It can be done. Move the ASA Journals on to it, everybody who publishes a study has to get their school to contribute computing resources, store a few files provide server access to the files when people want to read them. Develop a very very easy package for the schools IT departments to implement. Make it 1-2-3. Heck the schools already have massive computer departments and expertise. Even community colleges have IT departments.

        That is the way you build it, the people who have been approved to get their study published, you have them go carry your message to their schools. You better believe they are going to work hard to get their school to agree to save a few files and access to their servers (safely) and the IT department to implement an easy peezy install. AND the public access to the research does not give anyone access to other parts of the schools computer system, just like bit Torrent doesn’t. Approval of getting your study published is conditioned on you getting your school to participate in distributed computing and here watch this video see how easy and SAFE it is for your school.

        The video of course drives home the altruistic reasons also why the school should participate and the names of other schools who are participating. You don’t have to go out and recruit schools, they will come to you every time a scholar wants to get published. It will grow naturally, slowly over time. And it will be global. And overhead should not be expensive hardly at all. Maybe you can get the US government to pay the overhead of the small administrative staff.
        It will be paradise :-‘)

        The beauty of doing it this way is because you start with one major Journal and a small OA Journal, and because you are starting small, a few dozen with each issue, you work out any bugs before it grows and grows and grows and gets massive as more Journals are added.
        This would work. This would work.
        You need 3 things
        #1 a good video explaining it at high level, this is the sales material the study authors need to go out and sell it to their schools for you.

        #2 A second technical video for schools IT department. This would be a technical video, think of it as a sales pitch to IT video. “See IT Manager it’s not so hard, you only need to do this this, and this.”

        #3 a good IT person to talk with the school’s IT person.

        This is much better than asking for money. Dr. Perrin is right about asking for money. I bet you could get a start up grant. I think I know who I would ask to help fund the initial stages of the project, call it the exploratory stage. You need a little money to explore the idea as you will need IT Pros to advise you. But actually I just thought of another idea on that end as well.


  9. I don’t see why it is so far-fetched that, if research universities are already paying well over $1.5M for journals — Harvard paid $3.5M in 2012 according to — then there isn’t a forthcoming world in which open-access ends up taking that $1.5M out of revenue presently going to journal publishers.

    One example mentioned in previous comment was “vast stock of previously-published papers.” Sure, maybe in sociology and the humanities, where people have a fondness for looking at articles that are 20+ years old from time to time, this stock may have high enduring value. But this isn’t where the big journal money is anyway, and I would be very surprised if in hard sciences the rate of intellectual depreciation isn’t much faster. In any event, the higher proportion of good work presently published in open-access journals, the lower the value of the stock behind a paywall in the future.

    How I think this will ultimately work out is open access will prevail in medicine — where the moral arguments are simply overwhelming — and then it will complete its victory in hard sciences that have a strong pre-print culture already, and eventually the university administrators will be increasingly irked by the level of expenditures of social sciences and humanities on journals relative to how much money those fields generate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But Jeremy – the problem is how to get from here to there. For some period of time (I suspect at least a decade) institutions will have to be on the hook for both the legacy journal subscriptions and the OA fees. That exacerbates what is already a profound free-rider problem: why will cash-strapped institutions pay extra for material that is available free? I suspect they won’t — which will tend to prolong the life of legacy journals, thereby further increasing the transition cost.
      Are the moral arguments really that compelling in medicine? Leaving aside the international/developing world question for a moment, how many people in the United States who could understand the science in medical journals are unable to access it through institutions where they work or libraries that are open to the public, as many public university libraries are?


      1. Hi, Andy. I don’t actually know how accessing online journals from public university archives works as a legal matter. That is, I know many public universities let muggles use their libraries and presumably their computers, I have no idea whether this means that, legally, muggles can print and download articles that they access.

        The moral arguments turn on — regardless of whether they can understand the science or not — whether patient activists, parents of kids with rare illnesses, folks convince they are in the throes of some unknown illness, citizen-critics of clinical trials, etc., want to give it a go, and, if so, what would be the grounds for telling them no. My understanding, and somebody can correct me if they know more, but that this sort of activism was important to the mandates that established PubMed Central.


      2. I figured out how to get from here to there, and it is beautiful.
        Take the 500 most cited articles, and simply have the authors re-submit them to the Open Access Journals. Go through peer review again, and if you have to change them a little bit so be it. Start each study published in thre new OA Journals with “Updated in 2016,” then basically republish the same thing in OA journals.
        There you go, you get from here to there.


  10. Andy is right that at some point it will take a little leadership to get over the hump. I would hope the faculty would be there to help give it a push, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about that, especially regarding sociologists. In the slate of candidates for ASA Pub Comm this year, only one really even said something about publishing.

    As for the free rider problem, I’d like to see the flagship journals exclude submissions from faculty at R1 universities that don’t contribute. ASA could pay for ASR-OA if it fired Sage and charged 500/year to R1s (round numbers). No university payment, no pubs. Just one of many possible bold hump-hopping maneuvers the associations could take – if that’s what they wanted to do.


  11. I have not had the time to really engage the substance of the financial proposals, but I want to toss on the table that a lot of the library budget money these days is going to Proquest and EBSCO and Lexis/Nexus — the article aggregators. My library quietly cut a direct subscription to Social Problems because it could be obtained through the aggregators then suddenly found itself with no access at all to recent issues of Social Problems when Proquest or EBSCO (I forget which) unexpectedly dropped it. I imagine that, in turn, happened in some sort of struggle between the journal publisher and the aggregator over fees at that level. Trying to get a handle on who is making how much money on academic publishing at what level can make your head spin.


    1. This is not an accident. Transparency is the natural enemy of the paywall. My own librarian thinks we subscribe to Contexts because it’s bundled (with a moving wall) in something called Ethnic NewsWatch, which neither our Sage manager nor ASA publications staff knew about.

      Naturally, it costs them more to administer rights to access journals than it does to produce and distribute journals. Libraries that try to opt out of individual journals to save money are often stymied by byzantine pricing schemes and noncomparable choices.


      1. I use Ethnic Newswatch. Its original core is ethnic newspapers. Good source for getting outside the mainstream [White] press. They’ve been adding random other stuff too it since EBSCO took it over.


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