February 3, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell
Chapter 7 of Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age really struck a chord with me. The question of pricing on scholarly research is something highly discussed in an academic setting, but vitally important far beyond academia. As Rosenzweig points out on page 118, “professional historians routinely complain that their students and neighbors pick up ‘junk’ on the Internet, but the don’t adequately consider that the best online scholarship is often only available to paying subscribers.” This immense barrier to entry into the world of high quality, peer-reviewed scholarship creates what he calls the “secondary digital divide” and adversely affects a broad range of people and organizations. Non-profit organizations, students of all levels, and even teachers suffer from the prohibitive costs attached to this research. But how would reducing the cost of subscription, or even making it free, affect the business and budget of the organizations putting together these publications?
Many critics of open-access publication say that organizations won’t make any money if they don’t charge for subscriptions. While it’s true that taking away the cost of subscriptions will inevitably damage the bottom line, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. First off, much historical research is conducted under the financial support of the government. Should government support research not belong to the public that funded it? Not to mention, many of the organizations in question make money not solely from subscriptions but from society membership. Many scholars who are members of these professional organizations would have electronic access to the organization’s publication through their sponsoring institution regardless of their personal membership status. Therefore, the creation of a free subscription should not affect their interest in membership. Besides that, there are several options and compromises available in the open-access realm.
Self-archiving is the first option Rosenzweig lists. This included authors storing or publishing copies of their own articles- whether it be in an institutional repository or archive or on a personal website. This option is a simple work around, but some would argue it places undue burden on the author. Is it the job of the author to make sure his work is accessible? I would hope that authors putting that much work into a piece would want to ensure accessibility, but then what is the role of the publisher/publication at all? And without the publisher, how will the peer-review process work? Without peer-review, the research loses an important facet of its scholarly nature.
Another option is charging the author instead of the reader. My instinct reaction is to be overwhelmingly opposed to this option as it seems outrageous for an author to put in so much work to not only go unpaid, but actually have to pay for inclusion. It would place a massive barrier to entry on young or new scholars. However, upon thinking about this option further, I think it may have some reasonable possibilities. For example, it seems like it should be possible for new grant systems to be set up to sponsor authors works for inclusion in publications. It seems like it would be much easier to give one lump grant to a single author to publish a work than to give a multitude of institutions grants to gain access to the work. This also seems to play into the claim that many institutions make that they have already paid for the scholarship through professors’ salaries, and therefore should not have to pay again for a subscription fee. Grants for publishing could possibly go through sponsoring institutions. It would be an extra expense, but it would ultimately lower the necessary budget of the library for subscription costs.
Two other options are delayed and/or partial access. Delayed access is highly relevant for scientific or medical journals. The idea being that many institutions and individuals will still be interested in subscribing for instant access to new research and discoveries, while larger public awareness can come later. However, historical research is generally not so time sensitive. There would likely be little incentive to have instant access to many of the articles in question. Partial access, however, holds more potential in the field. The suggestion is that peer-reviewed articles be made available electronically through open-access, while other parts of the journal, editorials, reviews, etc., be left only for subscribers. This would allow easy access to research for the general public while maintaining a level of subscription incentive for professionals and institutions who would still be interested in the other portions of the journal.
A fifth option is electronic-only journals. This option significantly reduces the publishing costs of journals. It does not, however, reduce the overall operating costs or salaries of employees. E-Journals should unquestionably be cheaper than print journals, but does the printing cost really justify a cost-less subscription? In the digital age, I think it makes sense to consider the cost benefit of online only resources, but I don’t think I’m convinced it justifies free access completely.
The last suggestion made in Clio Wired is for a new kind of cooperation between publishing organizations and libraries/subscribing institutions. Libraries are constantly battling budgets and suffering consistently from exorbitant subscription costs. In the proposed model, publishers would give discounted rates to libraries in exchange for promises of long term support to their organization. I think this option is very reasonable and alleviates a significant problem in the current price structure of academic journals. It does not, however, help a large portion of the greater public audience. Helping provide access to universities and libraries is important, but what about those outside the academic setting? What about private citizens trying to do personal research? Small local libraries seldom subscribe to organizations like the ones in question, so what about their constituents? Don’t they deserve access?
It seems to me that the solution to the financial issues around open-access is not a quick fix. It will likely look differently for different organizations and institutions, and it will likely be a combination of the options listed above and ones not thought of here rather than one option to fix it all. It is a complicated problem that will merit a complicated solution, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. As stated on page 123, “the benefits of broad and democratic access to scholarship — benefits that are within our grasp in a digital era — are much too great to simply continue business as usual.”