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Martin Paul Eve

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

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As I’ve written before, Learned Societies are one of the biggest barriers to open access. They derive revenue from publishing that they then use to pay for disciplinary goods (scholarships, prizes, public engagement etc.) Fear of new economic models for scholarly communications sometimes, although not always, drives them away from open access.

I have never thought this was a good way to pay for these aspects of our academic practice. It funnels the costs of such activities through covert library channels, for one thing; channels that can barely afford to cover them.

But the other thing that has struck me recently is the set of inward-looking economic assumptions that sit beneath the promotion of such payments. I was particularly hit by this as a field in my discipline has just started a new subject association… and the main membership benefit is the journal, which is subscription based (although I can see no mention of any partnership with a press).

Why, at this particular moment in time – when open access is becoming increasingly important to funders, universities, and academics who want to be read – would one resort to such a strategy?

I suspect it’s because there is a set of classical economic precepts at work behind the scenes. That is, I hypothesize that most academics, like most of the population, conceive of of the payment for goods as an exchange in which they are unwilling to pay if others can gain access without paying. In other words: free riders are unacceptable. So, the assumption seems to be that: “if we don’t make the membership benefit include something that our colleagues need, they will not be willing to pay, either personally or institutionally, to cover the disciplinary goods that societies can provide”.

Yet, if one queries most humanities academics about the benefit of higher education, they will tell you that they believe the benefit to be intrinsic. That is, we teach the humanities because the arts are, by their very nature, good and worthy of study. Aesthetics and its studies should not, under such reasoning, be made into a utilitarian economic good.

What I see here, then is a conflict. On the one hand, we argue for the humanities on the basis of its public good, claiming that the disciplines should be funded because it is right and proper for a civilization to respect and study its aesthetic heritage without expectation of economic return (even if there actually is one). On the other hand, when dealing with our colleagues, we harbour a suspicion that if we asked for money from them to fund something to which they would not have exclusive return (i.e. an exclusive economic benefit), our friends and colleagues would not pay.