Open-Access Publishing and Academic Freedom

Open-access publishing will make research findings freely available. But what will happen when researchers have to pay to get their own results published? Researchers’ freedom of choice regarding publication channels may become severely restricted if this issue is not taken seriously.

7066675199_8aed931933_bTwo weeks ago, a working group appointed by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research published proposed National Guidelines for Open Access to Research Results (in Norwegian).

We need these guidelines to be implemented in a critical and considered manner if we are to avoid serious consequences for academic publishing.

Scandinavian University Press (Universitetsforlaget) is Norway’s main academic press and one of the largest Nordic publishers of open access journals and books. The press has been keenly anticipating the working group’s report, which is concerned primarily with the publication of articles in journals.

Open access means making academic articles freely available in digital form. This entails changing an economic publishing model that has existed since the 17th century. Whereas previously it was readers who paid for content via subscriptions, the cost of publication is now met either by the author herself or by her employer. The fee per article may vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

Stumbling blocks

The working group has consisted mainly of researchers and has been chaired by Torkel Brekke. In my opinion, the report is clear, easy to read, and ambitious. It contains draft national guidelines and suggestions for concrete measures to achieve rapid change in the Norwegian models for academic publishing. In 2015, 16 per cent of published Norwegian research was open access (p. 1). However, the report supports the newly adopted EU goal of full open access by 2020. There are two key measures: open-access publications should be awarded points in the so-called “tellekantsystem” (a Norwegian bibliometric system for assessing the impact of academic publications); and Norway should establish a central, open-access repository for academic publications.

All experience suggests that the former of these two measures will be far more effective than the latter.

The discussion in the final section of the report shows that the working group has taken on board a broad range of information, from both national and international sources, in a brief period of time. The report is rhetorically successful in its acknowledgement that the transition involves complex problems and a number of stumbling blocks. However, the working group most likely had neither the time nor the will to really delve into the issues involved. The report is pervaded by the superficial attitude that yes, open access does pose challenges, but everything will work out in the end.

In my opinion, the most problematic aspect of the report is its failure to shed light on the consequences of transferring the source of funding from the recipient to the sender. What happens if you have to pay to get what you have written published? If you are employed by a Norwegian university then all is well: you can apply for funding from your local “open-access fund”. But how will you obtain funding if you have just submitted your doctoral thesis, or are a local historian, a researcher in a country without open-access funds (i.e., most countries worldwide, including, for example, Denmark and Finland), a psychologist, a master student or a researcher at a museum? This is a democratic issue and also, ultimately, a question of freedom of expression. It is paradoxical that the new trend for openness will, in practice, exclude many people from entering the scholarly dialogue and the academic debates.

Money and academic freedom

Publishing costs money. Fortunately there is a dawning realization of the important work that is conducted after the researcher has written and successfully submitted her article: language editing, proofreading, typesetting, file conversion and publication. In addition, the export of meta data and search-engine optimization is essential in order to ensure that articles are easy to find and in practice accessible to a broad spectrum of readers. Finally there are the costs of archiving and of maintaining websites to ensure that articles and research results are well presented, comply with universal design criteria (to facilitate access by disabled readers), and are also compatible with new web browsers and viewing on desktop, mobile and tablet devices.

At Scandinavian University Press some of our authors have already experienced situations where publication channels are ranked according to economic, rather than scholarly, criteria. Two of our authors applied for open-access funding, in both cases for books, but the fund administrators (at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and the library at the University of Bergen respectively) recommended that the authors not opt for an international publishing house or Scandinavian University Press, but instead should publish through academic institutions, since doing so would be “free”.

A library or university department can, when acting as a book or journals publisher, elect to conceal its costs by allocating them to other budgets. As a result we are seeing the emergence of a strange new market. Should researchers’ choice of journal or publishing house be guided by the size of the relevant institution’s publishing fund or the fund administrator’s preferences? Researchers’ freedom of choice regarding publication channels may become severely restricted if this issue is not taken seriously.

National considerations

It is clear from the report that it is important to consider specific national considerations. The global open-access movement is motivated largely by frustration over the subscription practices of leading international publishers. In Norway, however, budgets for the publication of academic journals are both low and mostly transparent. There are no huge, hidden margins in Norwegian academic publishing.

The Research Council of Norway has decided that all journals that receive research council funding must be freely available to the general public from the beginning of 2017. Accordingly, all journals must make the transition to open access during the course of 2016. We are talking about fewer than 40 Norwegian journals. In the wake of the Research Council’s decision, the Joint Committee for Nordic research councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS) is imposing the same requirement on the journals it supports, albeit from the beginning of 2019.

The Research Council of Norway will fund up to 50 per cent of a journals’s budget. The rest has to be funded from elsewhere. At Scandinavian University Press we have been working for many years towards a solution that would avoid a situation where each individual researcher has to find funding for each article. Accordingly it is very gratifying to read on the final page of the report the working group’s recommendation that “(…) the Research Council of Norway’s publication funding will be agreed as a lump-sum grant and the rest of the funding will be elevated to an institutional level based on an annual calculation of each institution’s scope of publication.”

A collective solution

This type of collective approach resolves many difficulties. Firstly, researchers who want to publish their results will not be deterred by bureaucratic and time-consuming application processes. In some circles, for example, within natural sciences and mathematics, open access has emerged as a grassroots movement. But in most areas of the humanities and social sciences, the transition is being orchestrated from above.

Secondly, a collective settlement will avoid the potential exclusion of authors who are not employed by institutions with publication funds. If the Norwegian higher education sector is willing to fund contributions from Indian Ibsen researchers and outstanding master’s students, the democratic issues relating to a radical transition to open-access publishing will fall away for Norwegian, and hopefully also Nordic, journals.

Thirdly, such a solution may contribute to the retention of material that is not scholarly (and accordingly that does not earn points in the “tellekantsystem”). Many of the relevant journals are in themselves important arenas for public debate within particular disciplines. They are institutions where academic debate is conducted through opinion pieces, essays, book reviews and commentaries. It is utterly essential to retain these arenas to ensure the continuance of academic discourse, development and identity.

Open access is about social responsibility, and it is an obligation that parties including the Scandinavian University Press – as a long-standing academic publisher – take very seriously. We are also more than willing to contribute to developing solutions for open-access publishing in Norway that will address concerns relating to quality, academic freedom and democracy.

  • A Norwegian language version of this text was published at Ublogg 17 June 2016
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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