Once upon a time, when people wanted to read an academic journal article they had two choices: subscribe to the journal or go to the library to read it. Today, no one subscribes to academic journals. They read them at (or more likely on the websites of) the library.
Of course, not everyone has access to a first-class academic library with a comprehensive set of journal subscriptions. Nor does everyone have access to all the books, newspapers, movies, television shows and music they might want. Right or wrong, that's life.
Many people believe there should be open access to everything that can be put online. There are strong arguments for and against. The arguments for making all academic research free to the public are strong indeed.
One well-known argument is that the public pays for research conducted at government-supported universities, so the public should have access to it. Another is that intellectual progress is held back by the paywalls that limit access to academic journals. And of course many academics just want more people to read their work.
The British government recently announced plans to move UK academic publishing from the established pay-to-read model to a pay-to-publish one. The fruits of academic research will be free for all to read. Publication fees will be paid out of research grants or by universities hungry for recognition.
At first blush, this sounds like a great leap forward. The government, through research grants and university budgets, will pay to make academic research available to everyone. Nothing could be more liberal.
Journals will charge academics a processing fee of £1,000-£2,000 per article to cover the costs of online publishing. Since most government research grants run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, fees on this scale are a nuisance, not an obstacle. The Dame Janet Finch-led Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings cites the Wellcome Trust to estimate that publishing fees will consume about 1 to 2 per cent of the typical research grant.
And academics have every incentive to pay the fees. As the Finch group says, they "are interested in securing publication in high-status journals which maximise their chances of securing high impact...and their chances of winning the next research grant".
There's the rub.
Most research is published in low-status, not high-status, journals. Most academic articles have low impact, not high impact. And most academics go through their careers without ever securing a government research grant.
The pay-to-publish model works just fine for top-flight medical research funded by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute for Health Research and the big drug companies. But what about research into the everyday lives of Victorian coalminers, or the use of blank verse by John Milton's lesser-known contemporaries? What about research into the mathematical foundations of formal philosophy (never mind Marxist and other heterodox research on the economy)?
In theory, universities will be able to use the money they save on journal subscriptions to pay up front for the publication of research. In theory, anyone can grow up to be an astronaut. At least in space, no one can hear you scream.
In today's austere environment, many claims will be placed on those university pots of gold that will come from discontinuing redundant journal subscriptions. At least some of the savings will go towards paying publishing fees for research that is not grant-funded.
The best guess is that universities will set up competitive internal mechanisms for publication support. Cash inevitably will go to researchers who have secured spots in the journals with the highest "impact factors". All other researchers - and journals - can go rot.
The pay-to-publish model works only for elite-level, grant-funded Big Science. Its consequence - intended or unintended - will be the destruction of the arts, humanities and social sciences. Local and niche journals will be ruthlessly snuffed out: so will many worthwhile and hitherto productive academic careers.