The UK is moving rapidly toward an open access model for journal publications, planning to require it for REF 2020. Sounds good, right? Information should be freely available to all, shouldn’t it? Well, yes. But the way this is being done is really worrying. It looks like the plan is to charge hefty sums to authors.
Academic freedom is compromised by a ‘pay-to-say’ system, because institutions and academics will have to bid for the funds to publish their work. This means for academics that unless they are rich enough to pay for the publication of their own research, they will have to convince non-expert committees of the value of pre-published work, and compete against other University colleagues for funds. They will be restricted as to what they can publish and where. It is clear that Institutional Publication Committees will have to ration funds in line with pressures for REF and impact, meaning that lots of potentially valuable work will go unfunded.
This approach also assumes that such funds are available in-house; for the majority of cash-strapped universities they will not be, meaning that many of their academics may simply not be able to publish at all in the journals of their choice. Additionally, many non-UK journals may not be Open-Access compliant, preventing UK academics from publishing in them. UK journals will also be under pressure to select research according to whether APCs can be paid, instead of simply taking the best quality research. Overall, a ‘pay-to-say’ system undermines the core principle that expert peer review is the primary filter for publishing in academic journal….
Under the ‘pay-to-say’ system, it is the wealthiest, rather than the best, individuals and institutions who will be able to dominate publishing. This poses serious problems for the overall quality of research output, which is currently underpinned by the principle that the best research emerges on its own academic merit. This will become more deeply entrenched as subsequent rounds of the REF become geared towards the ‘pay-to-say’ model.
More substantially, it poses enormous problems for the academic ‘poor’ – the early career researchers writing PhDs, retired academics, independent scholars, NGO researchers, and anybody at an institution without the inclination to pay for their research. This will suppress the development of academic talent in the long run, suppress the publication of the excellent work that emerges post-retirement, and suppress the work of any scholars outside identified ‘research-intensive’ institutions. This will entrench a plutocracy rather than a meritocracy in the publication of academic research.