Goldsmiths conference: 'OA mandates will damage academic freedom'

Goldsmiths conference: 'OA mandates will damage academic freedom'

Academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) voiced concerns that Open Access mandates will damage academic freedom at a conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London, on Friday (24th May). The conference heard that widening the funder Open Access mandates developed for STEM subjects to cover the humanities fields would actively prevent some researchers from publishing, because they would not have access to funds.

A push has been initiated in the UK to require all monographs to be published Open Access to be eligible for the 2027 Research Excellence Framework (REF). Meanwhile under international initiative Plan S, all government-funded research will have to be published Open Access from 2020.

Sarah Kember, professor of new technologies of communication at Goldsmiths and director of Goldsmiths Press, suggested that funder-mandated OA publishing - as opposed to scholar-led OA initiatives such as Goldsmiths Press - could narrow the range of work appearing and damage diversity. 

She cited a 2018 Royal Historical Society list of book processing charges for history monographs from UK publishers, including Cambridge University Press at £9,500, and Routledge at £10,000. "How are universities going to decide what and who to publish? We do not want any more white male monoculture," she said, calling on publishers to join academics in seeking an "ethical and sustainable" route."BPCs [book processing charges] and MVPs [minimum viable products] are not the answer," she said.

Sylvia Walby, professor of sociology at City, University of London, said of Open Access: "The key question is, is [free content] free to readers, or free to write? Our marginal academics - the [formally] retired, the young and those on the margins of institutions -are going to have to pay for their writing [under Open Access mandates]. For our institutional academics, the fact that institutions are paying for them means they are going to claim ever greater rights over their work." She added: "I like the fantasy of Open Access, but the reality is having serious effects on writers, academics and researchers."

Geoffrey Crossick, distinguished professor of the humanities, University of London, and author of the influential Crossick Report, called for a flexible policy to deal with OA and monographs, saying: "Anything other than flexibility will damage research." Meanwhile John Scott, honorary visiting professor at the universities of Exeter and Essex, criticised the use of the Research Excellence Framework to drive policy, saying: "The cart is pulling the horse. The REF should reflect the norms of the publishing system, not be trying to reshape it."

Steven Hill, director of research at funder Research England, said the difference between STEM subjects and HSS subjects "needs to be at the centre of any policymaking", affirming, "We take extremely seriously that there is no 'one size fits all' for OA scholarly publishing."  However the body remains "committed to supporting the development of new models", he said.

The issue of trade books written by academics for a general audience - which has been picked out as a potential problem for publishers, should they be covered by Open Access policies - was a "challenging issue and we need a policy to be sensitive to that," Hill added. "How should we define trade books? Is it the intent of the author or publisher, the price point, the format of the book, such as paperbacks? How do we handle unexpected successes, where there is crossover from the academic market to the trade market? There are some quite knotty questions involved."

And sounding a more conciliatory note than in previous addresses, Hill said he wished to reassure the conference that the policy for the next REF was "developing, emerging, not yet settled and will be consulted on", with Research England "very keen to listen to points being made by all research communities of difficult particular points Open Access may bring."

There was criticism of academic publishers at the conference, when Stella Butler of the University of Leeds library, speaking from the floor, said: "The elephant in the room is that at the moment we spend most of our budgets to provide access to learning resources on subscriptions, and most of that on a [subscriptions to a] group of four publishers. We've been at the mercy of over-inflation in the subscriptions market for a long time. I think the motivation behind Plan S was to address the problem we have with subscriptions." The STEM journals subscriptions market is dominated by Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley and Springer Nature.

But Alison Shaw, director of Bristol University Press, told the conference: "There are some great publishers doing some great work for you, and on behalf of the scholarly community. Let's not do away with that because of the four big publishers and the way they are linked to Open Access." Anthony Cond, m.d. of Liverpool University Press, said: "Three or four publishers have 30% profit margins, but most publishers in HSS books, if they make a profit at all, it wouldn't cover a professorial salary. It's not about greed, it's about giving academics what they want and facilitating that." Academics need to "use their critical skills and vote with their feet" when choosing a publisher, he said. Publishers are "keen to engage on Open Access and new formats," he told the conference.

A report compiled from the conference, which was titled Critical Issues in Open Access and Scholarly Communications, will be sent to funding and innovation body UKRI.