I took part in an interesting Twitter discussion on Open Access and academia in general that was started by Curt Rice’s article ‘Wall Street analysts say open access has failed due to lack of focus, but their analysis might help it succeed.’
This text includes some interesting observations, although it shares the disadvantage of most blog entries – it is too concise and leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Professor Rice (apparently following the analytics from Bernstein Research) noticed that the Open Access movement faces difficulties rooted in its inner contradictions and, what is more interesting for me, inside of academia. He wrote that “The prestige of some traditional journals is so compelling for career advancement that open access can’t win” and called for changing funding and promotional rules that promote Open Access. At the same time Rice raised another problem “…governments, research councils and universities don’t dare. (About the openness – WK). Understandably so. Researchers would scream, careers would stall out, and professors would take to the streets.”
Politics (of states and universities) answers, more or less, to the interests found within society, or in this case, within academia. Research councils, funders and governmental bodies, representing different approaches to the problems of scientific publishing, have various allies (which are more or less overt) among researchers at different careers levels. Some researchers actively defend a status quo, while others just do what is most comfortable for them.
To understand this problem we might focus for a moment on another interesting topic mentioned in this discussion by Allisson Stelling and Dave Moore. What does “prestige” mean in terms of academic promotion? Nowadays, in the age of a strict efficiency regime, when business management and accounting enter almost every field of life, prestige means principally the various quantitative measures used in the evaluation of academic effort. All of these measures are at the same time means of power that make researchers evaluated by them more likely to perform some kinds of actions and to forsake others. How do these measures impact open access publishing? You can read more for example here on Gabor Zolyomi’s case and his opinions about this problem. These measures exist because some (usually already tenured, thus unaffected) academics support them and others follow to secure their careers, and no one is really interested in changing them.
Some time ago I had the pleasure of reading another interesting text by Helena Gurfinkel, “Redefining Success and Failure: Open-Access Journals and Queer Theory”, who claimed that open access activists should follow queer theorists in their way of rejecting assessment criteria that dominates in society, and even to conduct “conscious acts of counterhegemonic failure”, which means to sacrifice their personal careers with the purpose of challenging dominating patterns and to redefine future ways of understanding success. I asked the author who she thinks is supposed to conduct such acts. As we know, sexual orientation is seldom open to choice and unlike open access it can be a lifelong struggle, whereas it is difficult to imagine academics sacrificing their careers in defence of a publishing format.
Almost everyone (excluding Nobel laureates) wants to publish in high profile journals, which are very often conventional (some of them are not, although a small number of high profile journals are still the main problem of Gold Open Access and even if some of them are very good, they do not necessarily have adequate value for evaluation mechanisms, as I have mentioned before). A large number of researchers still do not even try to publish copies of their toll access papers on-line, because they are not copyright experts, and they do not have the time to familiarize themselves with green open access policies and are simply afraid.
The punchline of this anecdote was written on Twitter by Judson Craft, who noted that “Luckily academia is destroying career advancement on its own” and maybe in this observation hides a perverse optimism. The growing number of PhDs who are not hired at universities or are hired at poor universities do not have to care so much about their careers, and when they write something they just want it to be read. They belong to the generation for which the fact that something is freely available on the Internet is the most common thing in the world, and they do not even have to name it “open access”. Probably they are the Generation Open.
Image: A student production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, emblematizing the joyful persistence of failure. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0.