In light of the formalisation of core aspects of the open access regime by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) on 1 April 2013, there was an interesting piece by Curt Rice on the LSE Impact blog last week. He argues that open access will enhance academic freedom. While I would agree that his argument is plausible in theory--and I have presented similar arguments in favour of open access--his position completely ignores the institutional context that is shaping how open access is being implemented in the UK.
In fairness, Rice is based in Norway at the University of Tromsø. Therefore, it is uncharitable to expect him to understand and account for the pathologies of the British higher education system.
Nevertheless, my argument is that open access requirements will become a means of supplementing the quotidian forms of monitoring and managerialism that plague UK universities. As discussions thus far have concentrated on 'greedy publishers', the value of peer review, and the future viability of disciplinary societies, I fear that the negative impacts on academic freedom catalysed by open access are going to blindside many colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
I take the definition of academic freedom offered by the UCU as my starting reference point. But it is not wholly sufficient. Beyond the standard 'freedoms to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty', academic freedom should also encompass the freedoms to:
- conduct research that adheres to your methodological and topic-area preferences based on your own evaluations of your expertise;
- and pursue opportunities to place your research where you believe it will have the biggest impact on the audience that you are trying to reach.
I would also argue that academic freedom includes the freedom from being professionally evaluated by managers on the basis of crude metrics that do not engage qualitatively with the substance of one's academic work.
Open Access and Three Threats to Academic Freedom
Unfortunately, there are three ways that open access in the UK will threaten academic freedom in the arts, humanities, and social sciences:
- First, although HEFC mercifully backed down from demanding that all post-REF 2014 eligible research be gold open access--i.e., authors pay journal publishers to have the accepted copy-set version of an article immediately available to the general public on a CC-BY license-- gold access will catalyse more intensive forms of managerialism. Senior research managers--who invariably look for quick measures of research quality that do not require reading articles--will use gold open access publications as a proxy for quality. Their assumption will be that gold pieces must have received UK Research Council funding as there are not sufficient funds to pay for gold open access from internal sources. Given that strike rates on awards in the arts, humanities, and social sciences range between 5-20% depending on the scheme, the use of this short-hand does not bode well for most colleagues.
- Second, it is often American-based journals that are considered to be the 'best' in individual fields based on reputation and ranking metrics. As the United States has the largest national research sector in the Anglo-European world, these measures of quality are often reflections of the size of the epistemic communities advocating for the merits of specific outlets and citation patterns within communities that reproduce ranking hierarchies. However, UK research managers have a tendency to go with ranking metrics because these make monitoring 'academic performance' easier for them. The position of a journal in a ranking system--generally the Thomson-Reuters ISI--is said to capture the quality of any individual research article published in the journal itself. Thus, research managers routinely pressurise academics to publish in these journals even when their areas of expertise and methodological commitments mean that the chances of acceptance are next to nil on the basis of fit--regardless of the quality of the work itself.
- But the threat to academic freedom will be more pernicious with open access. I have already heard rumors from well-placed sources that US-based disciplinary journals are not going to offer open access options that meet HEFC guidelines and/or will operate an unofficial policy of rejecting all articles from the UK that come with open access requirements. In particular, many American editors and disciplinary associations are worried that colleagues based outside of the UK will perceive gold open access as 'paying to publish'. They are not prepared to wage the information campaign that will be required to convince people otherwise. When it comes to green open access, editors and publishers will be loathe to have to navigate the production of different licensing agreements in order to cater to UK academics. The easiest solution will be to eliminate the problem through desk rejections.
- And here is where a perfect-catch 22 will arise. For those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences who have funding that will allow them to pursue gold open access, placing their work in 'top outlets' based in North America may well become impossible. And when they seek access to their research funds to obtain open access licenses for other outlets, they are going to have to convince sceptical research managers--who control how research monies are spent--that they should be given access to these resources. And one can only imagine the bureaucratic regime--and accompanying paperwork-- that will be instituted to evaluate these requests across UK universities. UK academics--whether funded or unfunded--will lose.
- Third, open access will also lead to a significant impact on the amount of research funding available as the size of grants--particularly smaller grants like ESRC and AHRC doctoral studentships--are adjusted to provide resources for securing gold open access licenses. Given the current allocations of funding and the broader austerity drive, these adjustments will reduce the total number of awards that can be given. They will also narrow the scope of research that is funded away from non-responsive and inquiry-based initiatives towards specific topics and themes that are determined by funders--and influenced by government ideology.
For these reasons--and others that will likely become manifest in the coming months--open access is going to directly--and indirectly--erode academic freedom in the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the UK. It is on the principles of academic freedom that colleagues and disciplinary associations should be demanding that open access requirements be reformulated to avoid these negative externalities.
[full disclosure: I am an editor-in-chief of the UK Political Association's journal Politics, associate editor of the journal Critical Studies on Security, and co-editor of the Popular Culture and World Politics book series].
Image credit for '9(the birth of control)': Derrick Tyson