Open Access and the Benevolence of Multinational Corporations

As with much of its history the academic library is at a crossroads. The exploding budgets for journal subscriptions which are necessary to the living and breathing research institution is slowly strangling libraries. This, of course, is obvious and much maligned and talked about. Getting back to the perceived roots of librarianship and the values of intellectual and learning freedom is an increase in open access publishing and learning in the minds of our left-leaning colleagues. The narrative has been pretty simple; open access moves the dissemination of information away from large corporate publishers and into the hands of “radical” faculty members who use their clout and expertise to provide information for the masses.

Gold open access (journals which publish fully open with little or no strings attached) is hardly the norm, and is outpaced in all metrics by Green open access (the self-archiving of pre or post print versions from non-open access journals). Gargouri, Larivière, Gingras, Carr, and Harnad (2010) found that unsurprisingly that subscription-based journals dominated STEM fields for publications, and only about 21% of their articles were available by green open access means. At the time of their study, only ~3% of publications were fully open access, evidence suggests this number has grown but not by much. While this number has surely grown in many fields, currently OA is dominated by Green and the dreaded hybrid journals.

Oftentimes, green OA is only possible with copyright strings that make it difficult for scholars to keep straight the versions, the citations, and the identifiers necessary to comply with author’s agreements. The burden is on the scholar to provide the necessary versions to libraries or other disciplinary repositories for the green model to work. While this can be seen as an open path set forth by the publishers, the hurdles and the arcane rules behind it makes the benevolence more of a blind eye. Some scholars I’ve spoken with do not want work viewed as “unfinished” or “unpolished” out on the internet, which is a far assumption to make. The “pre-print” especially because of its lack of peer-review and editing is very unappealing in some disciplines, while others, with long standing histories in open science have embraced it (looking at you Physics). On a practical side, how do we cite pre-prints and post-prints? I’m a librarian and I’m not actually sure the best action on that. When a journal owns the copyright on the very page numbers, how can I cite a passage I glean from an IR?

This has led me to often wonder whether green OA operates under the assumptions that overworked faculty and librarians will not follow through on the rules and therefore keep the article behind subscription walls.

The present and future of Open relies heavily on the benevolence of corporations to provide avenues for their content to be openly accessible. The success that libraries and scholars have had with green open access is limited by the rules set up by journals as well as the initiative of individual scholars. With many of the larger publishers showing anything from reluctance to open hostility to open access measures, this is a precarious proposition for libraries. Pressure from researchers and the past Presidential administration has made OA an important part of the scholarly communication environment yet we as researchers and as librarians are at the mercy of the large publishers to make this happen and need their partnerships and the continued patiences of our patrons to make this happen. Publishers, knowing the field’s love affair with open, have provided for open access in a pay-to-play model known as “hybrid.”

For many librarians, hybrid journals are seen as double dipping. Institutions are asked to provide extra money on top of growing subscription fees to make locked access articles fully open. APCs, the most common way to pay for these articles to be made open, range from a couple hundred dollars to upwards of $3000 depending on the field. For libraries chaffing under the threat of rising subscription fees this is not something many are willing to pay for no matter what our good intentions are to do. The elitist and competitive nature of publications and tenure requirements reinforce the need to publish in certain journals published expensively by certain publishers. The best journal in your field will allow you to have an open access version with rules that are complicated and impossible to understand or with the low price of several thousands of dollars make it gold open access for you. Wealthier scholars will soon pay the APC rather than jump through the hoops of green open access, if they know such a path even really exists.

What we are left with is a system that is built to perpetuate the subscription crises without any real and easy solution to full open accessibility. We either pay for subscriptions, pay for APCs, or pay for both. International and national boycotts, like the ones striking Western Europe  hurt the bottom line of publishers but harm faculty who need the journals to survive in this current scholarly climate. Pirate websites prey on our log in systems to provide “open” access to every published article but put our institutions, as well as researchers, at risk. While green avenues might be appealing, they are only the most common method of providing open access materials because of their inherently difficult nature. A journal wanting you to pay their hybrid fee would be happy to provide you with many hoops to jump through for a post-print. Relying on faculty to provide the correct versions is like relying on faculty respond to your Friday afternoon emails during the Summer; some will be pros at it but most will ignore you.

For now, we wait with baited breadth for the benevolence of publishers like the cave children who could be saved by Elon Musk’s submarine.






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