Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Bill Hooker has written a fine piece on open access. His exposé of the benefits of open access is convincing (not that I needed to be convinced any further). Unfortunately, he does repeat some of the misconceptions that have crept into the debate.

Open access is easy enough to arrange. As a researcher, you just deposit your article in an open repository of some sort and, as they say in England, “Bob’s your uncle!” So far, so good – no publisher involved. So where’s the problem? Well, it’s here: “[large publisher] won’t let me use their pdf versions…” Duh, as my teenage kids would say. Why would publishers let you? Or the question that should come before that: why did you bother a publisher with your article in the first place?

“Well, if I don’t have it published formally in a journal, then I won’t get the recognition I need for my tenure and future funding prospects” you might be inclined to answer. Right answer! After all, it’s ‘publish or perish’. So, ‘giving away’ your article to a publisher is not entirely without ulterior motives, it seems. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s be honest about it, you are not so much ‘giving away’ anything to a publisher than asking for a service: "please organise for my article to be peer-reviewed and published in the journal whose title will make it worth a lot more for me than the not-formally-published version could ever be."

And what does the publisher get in return for doing that service? Ideally, he should simply be paid for it, after which the formally published article, with the imprimatur that gives it ‘authority’, is as open as you, the author, choose. This concept is known as Open Access Publishing and is now (hooray, finally) offered by many a publisher, large and small, society-linked or independent.

But, as long as there are many authors who like to have the imprimatur and the formal publication, but don’t want to pay for it, it’s offered as an option. For those who don’t wish to pay, there still is the old way of paying, namely by transferring their copyright (or exclusive publishing rights, which amounts to pretty much the same thing). The publisher can then subsequently sell the article (mostly via subscriptions) and recoup his cost that way. This concept is known as traditional publishing, basically a relic of the print era, when it was realistically the only possible way and libraries indirectly paid the publishers for publishing services rendered to the authors. Allowing you to freely post the formally published pdf, is not a good idea in that model, certainly not without a reasonable embargo. Traditional publishers have already gone quite far by allowing the authors’ versions to be posted with open access.

Many publishers, though, are offering the open access publishing option – so it’s time, dear authors, for you to choose.

Another misconception in Hooker’s piece is “For you as a taxpayer, this means that you are denied access to information you've already paid for (since I've always been funded by government grants).” The publisher doesn’t ‘deny access’ to the information. If anybody does, it’s the author. What stops an author from just posting the research results on some freely accessible repository and let the taxpayer have the benefit he deserves for putting up the money that sustains the author’s research? If he pays the publisher for the service of organising peer-review and attaching the formal imprimatur of a journal to his article, to give it the credibility and certification it needs, then he can also post the formally published pdf anywhere he likes. Payment could come out of the research grant. After all, publishing research results is part and parcel of research itself, so the cost of publishing is logically part of the cost of doing research. If the author ‘pays’ by means of transfer of copyright, then he must understand that such ‘payment’ can only be meaningful if the publisher is able actually to sell the article. Unless he believes, of course, that publishers ought to do whatever they do for nothing. This concept is known as the proverbial free lunch. Or as ‘cloud cuckoo land’ (after Aristophanes' classical fictional Nephelokykkygia or Nephelococcygia).

Jan Velterop


  1. This:

    Duh, as my teenage kids would say. Why would publishers let you? Or the question that should come before that: why did you bother a publisher with your article in the first place?

    feels a bit unfair. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have published with Elsevier -- and I don't even mean the gun-running, I mean their price gouging and underhanded opposition to OA. Same goes for this:

    The publisher doesn’t ‘deny access’ to the information. If anybody does, it’s the author.

    Yes, I played my part in that -- by choosing my publisher unwisely. I won't do it again.

    I can really only repeat what I said in the essay itself:

    Online publishing is much less expensive than its print-only ancestor, but it is not free; the big question of OA is how to pay the bills that do remain without charging access fees.

    As I've remarked before, I don't really know what is a fair price. (It would help me decide, if publishers would be open about their expenses... but no one asks that of other businesses, so perhaps that's unfair.) I do know that "paying by transfer of copyright", given what it does to the body of knowledge, is far too high a price.

  2. It may perhaps have felt a bit unfair to Bill. But I really don't think it was. What I was hoping to do is to dispel the erroneous notion that authors must 'give away' their articles to publishers. They don't. They submit them in the hope of getting their articles formally published, which, if successful, is on the whole of great value to authors, since without having formal publications to their name they won't be taken seriously and can usually forget any career or funding prospects. They 'must' publish. Publish or perish. Now that may be a bit unfair, but if so, that has to be changed by academia itself, not by publishers.

    Jan Velterop