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Some thoughts on why open access is doomed

Earlier this week, I had a series of tweets about OA and the means of production. It was sparked by someone’s happy post about publishing an OA monograph. Monographs are one area where OA hasn’t made a great deal of inroads. OA has done better with serials and with the sciences, which is kind of interesting given that I imagine your average person might be somewhat more interested in reading stuff in the humanities or social sciences than an article on physics…1 The humanities are still very much monograph focused and so there is just a lot less OA discussion and materials.

But when I read that article and it noted that the cost to publish OA was over $10K, I was just… This is patently ridiculous. Really. I’ve said before that I think gold OA is bullshit, but this is a great indication for why it is bullshit. This is truly an absurd amount of money to pay, especially when the author isn’t going to be making any financial gains from royalties. At this point, not only have you done a great deal of uncompensated labour (writing the damn book), you are also now paying more than half of my annual income to for the great honour of publishing it with a company that only cares about making money. And, for that matter, will still make a profit from your OA monograph.

Now, the main argument usually provided for why these publishing costs are need (or why we need the publishing industry at all) is the value-add on services like editing, cover design, book design, and so on. Which… okay… but what I don’t understand is why people think that the only editors, book designers, graphic designers, and so on work for publishers. What would happen if we took OA funds and, um, you know cut out the middleman? Why not just pay other human beings directly to edit your book? To design it? To create a cover? I can understand needing publishers if they only way to access these services was through them. But this isn’t the case…

So what is the actual issue here?

Credentialism/elitism/and related notions.

One of the primary reasons why closed access journals continue to thrive is that all the ‘best’ ones are closed. Academics must publish in those journals because of the name brand effect. We can try to dress this all up into the endless discussions about bibliometrics and impact factors, but this is really about brand names. This is also why university rankings are critical. It isn’t about the relative quality of your education, but about the brand name you are able to slap onto your CV. Likewise, you need to publish via a publisher because of the brand.

What these brands serve to do is to impart a sense of quality and luxury to your academic work (and CV).

And these brands live on because, well, the academic world only gets increasingly more niche, siloed, and complex, so the brands allow people to judge value via the association rather than an critical assessment of the content.

One thing that always strikes me as wonderfully hypocritical is the academic assertion that they care about the free study and dissemination of ‘knowledge’ but if you ask them to read a self-published work on critical theory…. Especially if that self-pub’ed work has errors or whatever, all they’ll be able to concentrate on is these superficial details.

I experience this on the blog all the time. People who think because I don’t care to re-read and edit my posts, leaving them with grammatical errors, typos, and so forth, that it impacts not only my credibility, but the quality of my ideas.

As the academy becomes increasingly organized by neo-liberal principles, the importance of brands will only remain constant or become more more important.

The problem with OA is that it attempts to address one of the symptoms but nothing about the causes of the crisis in ‘scholarly communication’. I mean, why tell people to publish in industry journals and presses at all? Given the state of technology and the networked environment where we currently work, we could easily just sidestep the publishing industry.

Obviously, things like the PKP projects for Open Journal Systems and Open Monograph Press attempt to do this, but they still require some centralized management. And it still, ultimately involves relating yourself to a brand (since most instances are tied to an institution of some kind).

But why not self-publishing for academics? Write a paper? Just post it on your academia.edu profile or website. Write a book? Create the pdf and epud and likewise post it. Want to make a little money from it? Set up a gumroad account and charge a small amount of money (while still having an OA version). You’d likely make more money this way than going through a press.

But where do libraries fit into this? Or the rest of the publishing ecosystem (reviewers, etc.)? No idea. And the sad thing? Neither do libraries.

Not too long ago I remember reading something about how difficult it is to get libraries to consider buying your self-pub’d book (but let’s stick to OA). So how would libraries get and acquire OA books? Given how reliant collection development is on reviews and other things contained within the publishing industry, it is hard to see how libraries could possibly start extricating themselves from it. Even as there is a clear demand for non-traditionally published works (remember that kickstarter campaign for just such a service?).

The question though, strikes me: why aren’t libraries even trying? Again, because of the brand name issue. In an era of limited budgets, it is generally better to go with what faculty want (luxury brands) because they want it and because (when they don’t) it is a ‘safer’ way to spend your funds and time. You also have to make fewer decisions for collection development. Buy this self-pub’d book or one published by Oxford University Press?

I think my basic problem with OA is that one of its underlying assumptions is that ‘scholarly communication’ is primary about disseminating knowledge. This doesn’t appear to be the case in reality and in practice. Scholars care about disseminating knowledge, but they don’t particularly care how it gets disseminated. Scholars care about accessing knowledge, but where the knowledge comes from matters more than the knowledge itself.