When in conversation about our journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning¸ I am often somewhat uncomfortable at the irony of producing a publication that devotes itself to widening access yet is not openly accessible to all. We operate a business model in which in return from subscriptions provides access to the new and existing content.
Yet all about the news, both mainstream and specialist, there is much hollering about the good and the bad of open access. Broadly speaking, those that would see open access—the free availability for all to scholarly research outputs— as a good thing often advocate the inequity of allowing publicly funded research to be hidden behind paywalls generally to the inclusion only of the academy (and those oddballs interested enough to pay) and the exclusion of the rest of us. The argument has found traction and is gaining momentum.
If it is a bandwagon, then some important passengers have already boarded. Research Councils UK set out its stall on 16 July 2012 with an Open Access Policy, bolstered by powerful statements such as the of Profssor Douglas Kell: “Widening access to the outputs of research currently published in journals has the potential to contribute substantially to furthering the progress of scientific and other research, ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in these fields. I am delighted that, together, the Research Councils have been able both to harmonise and to make significant changes to their policies, ensuring that more people have access to cutting edge research that can contribute to both economic growth in our knowledge economy and the wider wellbeing of the UK.” And hot on RCUK’s heels (or perhaps just coincidentally) the following day the European Union proposed that scientific funding distributed in the period 2014-2020 should be published only through open access outlets.
I find myself in strange position in this debate. There’s not a bit of me that believes any information for the good of humankind should be kept locked away. I’m an advocate for openness of education and knowledge in all its guises: I use open access software wherever I can (bah, I’ve just realised that I’m using proprietary word processing software to write this!). I actively support the development open educational resources. I like to write openly and publish ‘works in progress’ in public places and invite comments and critique. I loathe clicking on a link to an interesting article or report only to find that I need to pay upfront or prove somehowb that I have already paid. Yet this journal that we labour over is not open. First we make people pay and then we let them see.
But here’s the problem, we are able to sustain the production of this journal only through the revenue it generates. And small journal titles cannot of themselves generate large revenues. The costs of managing articles through the process: peer review, copy-editing, designing, printing and hosting the journal, all add up. And that’s not even accounting for the people time (even outside the Editors and extended Board who give of their time freely and generously). If we were to produce the journal as open access, we would need to broach the gnarly question which is essentially at the practical heart of the debate around open access—who pays? If no revenues can be generated from point of use (subscriptions models), then the journal needs to look elsewhere to cover costs. And so we look to the authors themselves, who could contribute a suitable sum to support production costs. So let’s paint a picture of ‘average’ authors contributing their time to publishing in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning: university teaching staff who are concerned about policy and practice that appears to lead to inequality in the access and success of both their students and students in general. Ideas for research projects have formed, extensive reading in a subject area (often not aligned to their primary academic specialism), a methodology outlined, data collected and analysed, article drafted and offered to the journal. No, or little support from the institution—in cash or kind—has been received, except perhaps grant of the use of study leave time.
Salvatore Babones in the Times Higher recently made a most relevant point: that ‘most research is published in low-status, not high-status, journals. Most articles have low impact, not high impact’. This is undoubtedly true in our case and must surely be true also for somewhat larger publications. At this end of the academy, we are not talking big science, not even nearly. Nor often are we talking about research funded by the major, or even minor, research councils. In terms of relative impact, titles like ours will never come close to those like Nature. But that does not mean that they are not useful to society, nor that they do not advance humankind in some way.
If one looks at the major pronouncements in support of open access, they are usually talking specifically about science research. So what of the rest of us? The action researchers, educational researchers, arts historians and the like. I suspect freedom of scientific disciplines to decide their own fate in terms of access to research is a luxury other cannot afford. If we want to publish, we need to charge someone and the only ones with money are institution libraries. Although they themselves increasingly have precious little resource.
But there are some small ways we can make a contribution. We have ensured that since we took over publication of the journal in 2012 that we produce at least one open access special issue every year. We will have two this year and hope to sustain this in future years. And perhaps in the future we can contrive a way of producing a journal so that it is visible and viable and free for all—producer and consumer. Fingers crossed and comments and thoughts welcomed.