In response to my last post, Kent Anderson says:

August 24th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I think you missed Phil’s point, Stuart.

What Phil was saying is that libraries can’t control the disbursement of open access fees precisely because of academic freedom, which makes these fees more susceptible to unchecked growth and possible abuse. If they establish an OA fund, librarians will be on the horns of a dilemma — allow unchecked spending or violate academic freedom. Since they won’t violate academic freedom, their only option will be to allow unchecked spending.

I think you’re responding to a misinterpretation of Phil’s post.

via » Three good things: open-access funds, fiscal responsibility, and academic freedom The Occasional Pamphlet.

Yes, that’s exactly how I understood the argument, so perhaps I didn’t make my own view clear. Let me try to clarify it. (The issue is important enough and my response long enough that it makes more sense to devote a post to it than to place it in the comments thread.) Just so that my conclusion doesn’t get lost below, here is what I am saying: What libraries will do is check spending but without violating academic freedom. The dilemma as stated is a false one. Read the rest of this entry »

Just as I posted a response to Philip Davis’s item on why open-access funds are putatively overly favorable to commercial publishers, out came another post by Mr. Davis, this time arguing that open access funds putatively violate academic freedom.

This new post, however, is so transparently spurious that it makes one wonder what Davis’s agenda is. Nonetheless, at the risk of giving the post more credence than it deserves, I’ll succinctly respond to the argument such as it is.[1]

In summary, the claim is that open-access funds will either require vast amounts of additional funds, making them fiscally irresponsible, or will require aggressive filtering of claims on the fund, violating academic freedom. In fact, open-access funds are neither fiscally irresponsible nor contrary to academic freedom.

Open-access funds are not fiscally irresponsible

Open-access funds consistent with the “open-access compact” will require tiny amounts of funds in the short term (on the order of tens of dollars per faculty member per year based on extrapolations of current experience). My article on the compact discusses the issue at some length and I won’t reiterate it here.

Once open-access funds require large amounts of money (if ever), it will be because many journals have switched to a fee-based open-access business model, thereby freeing up subscription fees. We know that in aggregate there have been in the past sufficient funds in library budgets to pay journals for the services they provide. Moving the funds from subscription payments to publication-fee payments doesn’t change the macro situation for the worse.[2] To the extent that the publication-fee model doesn’t have the manifest market dysfunctionalities that the subscription model has, it is in fact likely to improve the situation.

Open access funds don’t violate academic freedom

Davis argues that “Authors will view these [open-access] funds as a free lunch, and certainly much more appetizing than spending one’s own money paying those pesky page charges to non-profit society journals.” He assumes libraries will respond by filtering requests based on publication venue, and that will constitute an arbitrary imposition on where scholars can publish that violates their academic freedom.

Academic freedom requires that faculty be allowed to publish what they want, where they want. It does not require that universities pay arbitrary moneys to make that possible. That’s why it’s not a violation of academic freedom that universities don’t pay the thousands of dollars per article of page and figure charges that some journals charge. To the extent that universities add subsidies for some costs, that may change the incentives as to where to publish, but certainly doesn’t decrease anyone’s freedom. Thus, even if funds restricted disbursements, this would not constitute a violation of academic freedom.

Further, there is a variety of ways to set up an open-access fund that does not have the moral hazard that Davis imputes. The key is to make sure that funds for open-access charges are not fungible, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. It simply is false that open-access funds inherently can’t be set up in such a way that a reasonable market for publication charges ensues. On the other hand, we know that the existing market structure for the subscription-based model is broken for just the moral hazard reasons that Davis worries about.

Summary

It beggars belief that providing funds to make open-access journals more accessible to authors decreases their academic freedom, and only a lack of creativity limits setting up funds for that purpose in economically sustainable ways. If you want to worry about problems of open access, these are not the ones to worry about.


[1]This argument about academic freedom is distinct from one claiming that open-access policies of the type enacted at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT violate academic freedom. I’ve responded to that argument elsewhere, arguing that to the extent that the policies have any interaction with academic freedom at all, they enhance rather than limit it.

[2]This macro argument has to do with costs in aggregate. Micro estimates based on extrapolating costs per article over the set of published articles are more problematic. The best known estimate, reported in a Cornell study, makes specific assumptions that indict the conclusions. But more generally, this type of analysis makes a range of assumptions about how contingent economic facts will be maintained despite the hypothesized wholesale shift in business model, for which there is no basis. (See for instance, this discussion about how moving from the subscription-fee business model to the publication-fee model turns complementary goods into substitutable goods, for just one example of how the markets completely differ.) For that reason alone, the sketched macro argument, which makes no such assumptions, is considerably more robust.

My paper on the “open-access compact” is now available from PLoS Biology and at my web site. An excerpt:

Scholars write articles to be read—the more access to their articles the better—so one might think that the open-access approach to publishing, in which articles are freely available online to all without interposition of an access fee, would be an attractive competitor to traditional subscription-based journal publishing.

But open-access journal publishing is currently at a systematic disadvantage relative to the traditional model.

I propose a simple, cost-effective remedy to this inequity that would put open-access publishing on a path to become a sustainable, efficient system, allowing the two journal publishing systems to compete on a more level playing field. The issue is important, first, because academic institutions shouldn’t perpetuate barriers to an open-access business model on principle and, second, because the subscription-fee business model has manifested systemic dysfunctionalities in practice. After describing the problem with the subscription-fee model, I turn to the proposal for providing equity for open-access journal publishing—the open-access compact.