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As the heads of progressive university presses on two sides of the North Atlantic, we support open and equitable access to knowledge. If history is any guide, however, the new policies may unintentionally contribute to greater consolidation in academic publishing — and encourage commercial publishers to value quantity over quality and platforms over people. Unless the new open-access policies are accompanied by direct investment from funders, governments, and universities in nonprofit publishers and publishing infrastructure, they could pose a threat to smaller scholarly and scientific societies and university presses, and ultimately to trust in published knowledge.
As Robert Merton showed in his influential 1936 essay “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” good deeds commonly go awry despite the best of intentions. The antithesis of knowledge that is open to all is privatized knowledge. Without meaning to, many putatively open-access policies could further privatize the results of academic research. Aided by platform technology, some open-access models risk turning published research — paid for by universities, funders, and publishers — into profit-making content, the value of which is reduced to the data that can be extracted from it and sold.
Academia.edu, for example, is a free-to-use service that encourages researchers to upload articles, book chapters, and even whole books that have already been published. The revenue generated from the use of that research ($4.4 million annually) is not shared with the authors, publishers, or universities that initially invested in it. Today’s artificial-intelligence chatbots are actively mining published research, both open and not, without consent or credit — let alone compensation. Appropriately, academic publishers are now seeking greater transparency in how large language models are trained, as well as looking for ways to protect authors’ copyrighted material.
The open-access movement has its roots in the practice of self-archiving (also called “Green” open access), wherein scholars deposit prepublication versions of their work in university repositories or community-owned preprint servers that function (to the extent possible) outside the economic strictures of formal publishing. Publishers effectively co-opted the movement by promoting instead models in which authors or their institutions pay publishers for the privilege of openness (also called “Gold” open access). As a result, open-access policies that enforce openness at any cost, under any model, have paradoxically, and against the intentions of policymakers, furthered the commodification of knowledge.
Tragically, this neoliberal framework is effectively endorsed by a grass-roots and often scholar-led movement holding out for a wholly other set of values — equality, diversity, inclusivity, experimentation, and genuinely democratic access. One error at the outset of the open-access movement was to imagine academic publishing as a monolithic enterprise engaged in exploiting researchers and overcharging libraries — in other words, a single bad actor. But academic publishing is incredibly diverse, ranging from small independent presses that barely get by on grants and institutional contributions to corporate giants. Open-access reforms were initially designed to challenge the profiteering practices — unethical in that they exploit free labor and extract resources from the academy — of a few big commercial entities.
Occupying the middle ground are university presses. Their mission is to safeguard the diffusion of knowledge from market forces, supporting the publication of vital knowledge that might be too narrow or obscure to be published by commercial outlets. To fulfill that mission, they require supplemental revenue streams, grants, endowment funding, or institutional support. Such support has never been easy to sustain; in the current economic climate it is scarce indeed.
Open-access mandates place an additional burden on university presses, which tend to keep their prices low and don’t have the resources to pivot quickly. Somewhat gallingly, commercial publishers have already succeeded in turning such mandates into yet more profit. The leading open-access models involve the payment of an article-processing charge, or APC, by the authors or their institutions to the publisher. A lack of price sensitivity in the open-access market has allowed larger publishers to charge high — and increasing — article-processing charges. For example, the APC to publish Gold open access in Nature is $11,690. In Cell, it is $10,100.
The largest journal publishers (Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Sage) have also embraced open access through hybrid models in which they retain subscription revenue. Indeed, some science journals charge exorbitant subscription fees — for example, the Journal of Co-ordination Chemistry, from Taylor & Francis, currently charges $21,352 for an annual institutional (print and online) subscription. The growing costs of scientific journals have drained funds from university libraries, which subsequently have less money to buy books. At the same time, hybrid journals charge fees to authors and institutions to make articles open. Remember, too, that the article’s content is subsidized by the academy, which pays researchers to research and write, and that reviewing and editing are often uncompensated.
Where the paywalls are coming down, it is often through lucrative “Read-and-Publish” deals (also referred to as transformative agreements) between the larger publishers and universities. A Read-and-Publish agreement is one in which the publisher receives payment for access to content (reading) and the writing of new articles by members of the subscribing community (publishing), bundled into one contract. The details of such agreements are generally not made public, but the Max Planck Digital Library provides a registry that tracks scores of such deals — for example, one between the Universities of the Netherlands and Springer Nature. In those cases, an institutional subscription guarantees that authors at the subscribing institution will have their own contributions made openly accessible. The arrangements typically cost institutions more than traditional bundled subscription licenses — all this while library budgets have been shrinking, not growing.
The Read-and-Publish model has been widely criticized for reinforcing inequities in authorship. The deals lock in more of the library’s limited budget, giving the advantage to commercial publishers and large scholarly societies over smaller, more mission-driven publishers. They also disadvantage scholars who wish to publish but who work at less well-resourced institutions, in less wealthy parts of the world, or without institutional support. Read-and-Publish creates an incentive for researchers to choose — out of expedience or cost savings — to publish in paid open-access journals that their libraries subsidize over those their libraries do not subsidize. The nonsubsidized outlets include most journals produced by scholarly societies and university presses.
With paid open access, the academy is being asked, in effect, to subsidize the commercial sector’s use of university-research outputs with no reciprocal financial contribution. Some institutions are better resourced than others, and any additional financial burden can only exacerbate existing divisions. This is especially so since grants tend to be based on previous research performance, creating a race to the top of the open-access money tree. The victors contribute to a monoculture curated by a growing monopoly of commercial publishers and platform providers. The rest will add the burden of compliance to existing, often considerable financial and operational challenges.
The simplistic belief that openness at any cost is necessarily good is perhaps the biggest threat of all. Open access has, in many cases, meant opening public knowledge to the private sector. That is enabled by the incursion of new digital technologies into publishing and the academy, creating new sources of revenue via data extraction. The dominant ideology is neoliberal, subjugating all values to those of the market.
Historically, that false promise is consistent with the “Californian Ideology” described by the British media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron: the coming together, in the 1990s, of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism with the free spirit of hippy culture. The idea that “information wants to be free” underpins the Californian Ideology and now the open-access movement. Combining individualism, technological determinism, libertarianism, and neoliberal economics, it unites the left and right in its challenge to dominant intellectual power and property structures and in its quest for a counterculture in which knowledge and information are equally accessible to all.
A paradox of open-access policy is that it aims to break up the giants of journal publishing but has instead facilitated existing or emerging platform monopolies. Large, already-consolidated commercial players become platform providers and extractors of data. In 2022, Elsevier acquired Interfolio, a system that enables academics to collect and manage critical data for academic hiring, review, promotion, and tenure. Aries, and its Editorial Manager submission and peer-review system, is also owned by Elsevier. Taylor & Francis purchased the F1000 Research open-publishing platform in 2020. In 2016, Wiley purchased the Atypon platform, which now hosts more than 100,000 publications. “Nearly half of the world’s peer-reviewed research,” Wiley brags, “flows through Atypon’s Literatum publishing platform.”
As a result, those companies gain privileged access to surveil and record key activities — promotion, peer review, faculty profiles, publications, research data — and reap the benefits of network effects. In other words, the more users who use a platform, the more valued it becomes to potential users. The platforms outsource labor to universities and publishers, and grow more powerful as more content and data become available to mine. At the same time, they have material impacts, corrupting the process whereby knowledge itself is produced — scholars must increasingly preform their work for an economy based on efficiency, competition, performance, engagement, and impact. A simple example is self-citation. Because the number of citations an author receives is measured for purposes of tenure, promotion, etc., there has been a tendency, particularly among male academics, to indulge in self-citation. For those reasons, many institutions and philanthropic organizations spend most of their open-access dollars with the very publishers that open-access policy was designed to challenge.
If overly simplistic policies are proving self-defeating, how might the future of public knowledge be safeguarded?
The answers, we propose, lie somewhere in that overlooked, undervalued middle ground of nonprofit or fair-profit university-press publishing, mission-aligned with the academy. Many of those presses have been leaders in finding ways to meet the goals of providing both equitable access to knowledge and equitable participation in the creation of new knowledge. These are the publishers that universities should protect, invest in, and make deals with. Perhaps an international network of university-based publishers, libraries, and other public-knowledge providers could work together, balancing paid-for and open research content in a way that is sustainable rather than extractive, and that still values the research itself. Such a network could face down the likes of academia.edu.
Cross-institution collaboration is certainly key to challenging the further corporatization of knowledge, as evidenced by existing consortia such as the Lever Press in the United States and the Scottish Universities Press in Britain, in which participating institutions contribute a percentage of their library acquisition budgets in order to have access to selected texts. MIT Press’s Direct-to-Open program for open monograph publishing recently announced support from 322 participating libraries around the world, allowing it to open 82 new scholarly works this year. More international collaboration, including linked university repositories and, potentially, state-owned, noncommercial platforms, is also needed to turn the false promise of “openness” into truly public knowledge.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors, not their employers.