Some Thoughts on Open Access Publishing

Last week Graham Harman posted an interesting set of thoughts about the importance of open access publishing (here, here, here and here). I came to Harman’s comments via Stuart Elden’s comments here (Stuart has also posted links to some really good comments by Jo Van Every here and here). One of the important things that both Elden and Harman note is that the opportunity to move to blog postings for dissemination of work has much to do with context – both the career stage you are at and the national Higher Education ecosystem you work in. I don’t see much to argue with in either set of comments and Harman is right – we should aspire to knowledge being as available as possible. As an editor of Politics we have been keen to have a rolling set of our articles available outside the paywall for a limited period of time in recognition that this broadens the potential audience.

The exchange prompted me to finally jot down some things that I have been meaning to note about open access publishing. In short, I think there are some bits missing from the present discussion. The debate seems to be polarised between the ‘knowledge wants to be free’ (both without cost and free-to-roam) camp on the one side and the increasingly beleaguered publishers on the other. The publishers are increasingly being cast as the academic equivalent of bankers. It all reminds me of the state vs transnational forces polarisation of International Relations in the heady days of globalisation theory. The problem with polarisation is that it forces either/or decisions and thus some nuances get missed.1 Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see all of my work out from behind paywalls. In fact, as a matter of principle, I think that work paid for by the taxpayer should be free to consume by the taxpayer.2 Even putting that principle aside, I would be a strong advocate for open access since it increases profile of research and facilitates wider, more informed readerships and the fortuitous engagements that might come out of that. Indeed, I’ve blogged about this before.

That said, the present discussion seems to assume that if we move to open access everything will be exactly the same, but free. However, there are some costs to some of the central things about journal publishing that I suspect most of us (including readers) would want to retain. In short, I am not sure we can have our cake and eat it. And here are 4 important bits of cake:


  1. Peer review: much has been written about the nature of peer review and it is clear that there are some things that could be changed about the system. That said, it still remains a valuable tool not only for quality control, but also for improvement of published work. All of my published work has benefitted from peer reviewers’ comments. Of course, you can run peer review without cost on the basis of professional obligation, but this sidesteps the issue of how the administration is paid for. At present many journals have editorial assistants or managers that run this process and increasingly they are using platforms such as ScholarOne to keep track of reviews. All of this requires investment and ongoing cost.
  2. Proof reading, copy editing: as an editor I very rarely see pieces that need no attention to their language. Some pieces need a very large investment by reviewers, editors and authors to correct problems with language. All rely on the publisher to do a final copy edit and proof read. Indeed, my work has benefited from the careful attention of professional copy editors. Again, this costs because it is skilled, professional work.
  3. Stable, formatted objects: My blog exists as long as I pay my hosting fees. I could have a free wordpress site, but then I am bound up with the fate of wordpress the organisation and my blog only exists for as long as they do.3 Ultimately, most blogs are not stable. A case in point would be a symposium on my Urbicide book that was hosted by the Complex Terrain Lab ( formerly at This site no longer exists (it morphed into Current Intelligence) and the symposium is no longer online. But more than this, authors want not only stability but formatting – the object needs not only durability but form. Consistently, authors want to post the final version as it appeared in the journal, not a word/pdf version that is word-for-word exactly the same (and which many licenses allow you to post at some stage). Ultimately, I think this comes down to the fact that the journal puts care into arranging the text, giving it the aura of authority. You can see the importance of the form of the academic object in the care that goes into some of the current open access outputs – beautifully formatted books like this. Ultimately, someone has to pay for durability and form.
  4. Publicity, marketing: Finally, we need to note that way in which publishers invest time in promotion of their products. Politics has a managed presence and over 3000 institutional subscribers. This is because Wiley-Blackwell spend a lot of time promoting and selling the journal (often as part of a package) to libraries. Of course, it is probably right to argue that they are drawing too much profit from a system essentially supported by UK taxpayers and academic institutions and that such packages are an unfair way to sell journals, but it would be hard for me to achieve this audience alone. Some people are fortunate that their reputation draws traffic, others manage to put a lot of time into attracting a large amount of readers. But for the rest of us, posting is like dropping a very small pebble into a very deep well….

So for me the discussion isn’t just about access, it’s about the kind of object that the author has access to. Of course, we can argue that the added value of these services provided by publishers is not enough to continue the present model. I agree – there should be change, a more open system. But I am not sure how we square the circle and provide readers with open access articles that are also peer-reviewed, copy edited, stable, formatted and publicised. On the whole blogs cannot provide this. The question is how we come up with a system that allows for these things without paywalls.4 Thoughts on this would be welcome.

  1. To be fair, Harman notes that it is not an either/or decision and a blend of blogs and books are his preferred avenue for dissemination
  2. Though it’s important to note that the taxpayer is now paying for very little of my research as a result of the present government’s shifting of the burden of cost onto students and their families.
  3. Don’t get me started on the problems associated with working with University IT services to establish a  blog
  4. Which reminds me of another thing that doesn’t often get said – but something I tell my students all the time: paywalls are virtual, not absolute – next time you find yourself locked out of a journal, try emailing the author. They will usually only be too happy to let you have a copy according to the terms of the licence they have signed – and then you’ll know their email address so you can send them comments as well.

Tags: , , ,

8 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Open Access Publishing”

  1. […] the author or author’s institution paying an upfront Article Processing Charge or APC). I also perceive there to be a lack of detailed understanding of the whole infrastructure that lies submerged behind academic publishing: from peer review to the […]

  2. […] the author or author’s institution paying an upfront Article Processing Charge or APC). I also perceive there to be a lack of detailed understanding  of the whole infrastructure that lies submerged behind academic publishing: from peer review to […]

  3. […] interesting thoughts here. Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailMoreDiggPrintStumbleUponRedditLinkedInTumblrPinterestLike […]

  4. *Digital Commons (woops)

  5. Stability is a huge issue…with any new project the trust required to be taken seriously is difficult to acquire. Integrated publishing platforms (ie. aggregate creative commons) have provided a safety net for open access ventures.

    Your paper won’t go anywhere and will still be indexed and searchable…which is the primary long-term concern.

  6. Eileen Joy says:

    Dear Martin: thanks for this very sensible post regarding open-access publishing; I think you’ve covered here some of the most important issue relative to the *stability* and editorial *care* that we need to think about more when fomenting, founding, and planning longer-term futures for our open-access publishing projects. I have long been on record as regards the amount of time and $$$ that open-access publishing ventures require if they are to have any sort of stability, professional legitimacy, and even aesthetic allure [which is more important than many people realize]. Thank you also for your kind words regarding punctum books. Best, Eileen

  7. […] Coward has a thoughtful post HERE, pointing to some of the upside of the traditional publishing […]