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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The most common way in which we can re-conceive of the economics of gold open access is to think of the publisher as providing a service to the author. After all, in an academic environment (where open access is most likely to flourish) authors are not usually writing their books to receive huge financial returns; they are, instead, paid through their salaried position. The services that academic authors usually want are accreditation (through the coordination of peer review), amplification (i.e. dissemination), copyediting, proofreading, typesetting, preservation (digital or otherwise) and (sadly) prestige for promotion etc.

Some publishers dispute that this is a good idea. Steve Cohn, the Director of Duke University Press, with whom I sat on a panel at the National Humanities Center in March 2015, claimed at that point that the value of the Press was in forcing authors to make their arguments more intelligible and in selecting high-quality material, which he consider services for readers (who are the Press’s paying customers). Cohn stated, as I interpreted it, that inverting the logic, so that publishing becomes a service to authors, would lead to a situation of declining quality (as well as expressing scepticism over the viability of OA business models).

There’s something in this that’s worth thinking through a bit further. I do not agree that it must be the case that serving paying authors instead of paying library customers (“readers”) must lead to a decline in quality control; OA publishers can still use their reputation for publishing high-quality material to deliver an excellent experience to readers. Under an open access mode, they simply do not have to do so by excluding people from reading based on price. However, on the other hand, if work fails a peer-review process (my qualms about what peer review actually denotes aside – a post for another day), even in an open-access environment, then the publisher was not providing a service to an author; it was a service to readers who will not have to read work that a small selection of peers deemed unworthy. I don’t think I would consider a publisher’s rejection to be a service to me, if I submitted work, for instance. The gold OA mode, then, perhaps actually represents a split in service provision. Readers are served by filtering processes that publishers coordinate and to which academics dedicate their time. Authors are served by typesetting, preservation and prestige. Both groups are served by dissemination, copyediting and proofreading (Cohn thought this was more an advantage for readers as academic authors often believe their own manuscript to be flawless).

This all boils down to the fact that academics are split individuals in all systems of scholarly publishing. As Richard Fisher of CUP has often put it, nobody complains of having too little to read. At the same time, most academics believe their own work should be published, usually for accreditation and careerist purposes. To appropriate The Beautiful South: don’t publish her, promote me. But publishers in the current subscription/sales environment also have a confusion over what their academics represent. On the one hand, they are authors, suppliers. On the other, they are readers, consumers. Sometimes, they are customers (although it is primarily the academic library that fulfills this role). Academics are readers and authors at different times, libraries are customers.

From this thinking, I will probably back away from the singular description of gold open access as a “service to authors”. A subscription mode is a service to the academy, as only academic institutions (and not all of them, for sure) can usually afford to purchase material (thereby paying for publishing). Gold open access is likewise a service to the academy, but also to society, for which the academy pays. By using this terminology of a “service to the academy and society”, we avoid the problem that academics have split personae when interacting with publishers and we need not see a conflict between unlimited dissemination and serving readers.