Open access will mean journals closing because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, argues Richard Hoyle

Open-access advocates are utopian thinkers whose ideas work only if you ignore the costs of journal publishing, argues Richard Hoyle

June 20, 2013

A recent issue of Times Higher Education featured a journal editor’s view of open access. The author, Gabriel Egan of De Montfort University, is all for it (“Green-eyed, no monster”, Opinion, 6 June). Indeed, he looks forward to one of the journals he edits, Theatre Notebook, becoming “an online-only, open-access offering”. Egan’s future is entirely digital. For this journal editor, however, this is an entirely implausible prospect.

At the moment, journals are confronted with the prospect of one of two options if they publish work that comes from the UK university community. They can accept article processing charges in return for which papers will be made available for free online from the moment of publication. Or where the charges are not forthcoming, they will be compelled to publish under the “green” open-access route, in which case papers will be made available for free online after an embargo period elapses.

Most papers will come to us under the green route and this is what journals should fear, especially if a short embargo period is forced on us: why subscribe if it is all free? However, as most British journals publish work from outside the UK university community, a proportion – perhaps a high proportion – will not be covered by the rules. The journals will be entitled to make these papers available on their own terms.

So the only way for readers to see the whole contents of a journal at the point of publication will be to take out subscriptions, the very thing that open access is intended to make unnecessary. This is why university libraries seem to expect their spending on periodicals to remain the same in the future.

Journal subscriptions will be with us for a long time: this is why open access worries me less than it does other editors. But let’s leave this point and pursue Egan’s argument. He wants everything to be green whether it is a government requirement or not.

“Some will say that by promoting the green route we will ultimately put ourselves out of business by undermining readers’ incentive to subscribe,” he adds. I am one of them.

Egan continues: “But what do we need an income for when the editors and peer reviewers of the journal receive no payment for their labours and when online dissemination costs nothing?” This simply isn’t true. Journals do need an income. Let me explain why.

I don’t see why editors can’t receive honoraria, and if Egan doesn’t then his generosity is to be commended. I swapped my honorarium for an editorial assistant cum business manager, who now handles much of the journal’s production side for a modest fee. She also manages the web side of the publication. Perhaps Theatre Notebook is run on such old-fashioned lines that the editors give their time for nothing and do all the work themselves – sending out articles to be refereed, doing their own copy-editing, reading the proofs and mounting abstracts online. But if they do, I think it is a waste of their time as academics.

My journal employs a company that takes word-processed text and lays it out to a higher level of sophistication than authors using Word can achieve. Theatre Notebook too, I imagine, still uses “printers” for layout. That’s a cost that will have to be paid even if the journal exists only as a PDF. The notion that server space costs nothing is plain wrong. Even the URL is a cost. If you sign up with an online publishing platform such as Ingenta, you pay a fee. My journal still does old-fashioned things such as printing leaflets occasionally to advertise its existence.

And we could go on. It simply isn’t true that you can run a journal, even an online one, without an income stream. Where is that income to come from if not from a paywall? We could even call this “society membership”.

Digital open access is a utopian idea. It works only if you ignore the context in which academic publishing takes place and delude yourself into thinking that publication is costless. It isn’t. What is proposed is a dog’s dinner that promises to be all expenditure and no savings. Hopefully it will dissolve under its own contradictions, but countering it is not helped by zealots who advocate it while ignoring the realities of journal publishing.

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