There’s no good way to write this. I’m going to hack off someone, just because this is a horribly charged issue—even saying I read the Finch Report on open access is going to lose me Twitter followers. All I can do is refer you all to my disclaimer and hope nobody with the power to hire, fire, or ask for revisions ever reads and takes issue with anything here.
Furthermore, anything negative I accidentally happen to imply about STEM* journal publishing should in no way be construed as reflecting on any publishing or editorial enterprise I’ve ever been a part of—humanities journals are, by and large, run pretty ethically by any reasonable standard. Humanities scholars have no idea what a “page fee” is, for instance, and tend not to believe you when you tell them what (and how much) they are—simply put, we don’t pay ’em. They try to have you committed when you tell them how much science journals charge for subscriptions—even those that charge page fees and run ads. It drives our STEM cousins nuts when they hear about life on our side of the divide.
Alright, enough ass-covering, it’s time for diplomacy. If the State Department’s hiring, I hope they’re reading this.
My first reaction to the report? STEM researchers already pay page fees; an author pays model is already more-or-less in place. Yes, typical open access fees right now are on the exorbitant end (usually between $1250 and $2000, though sometimes as much as $5000); however, given that up-front page and publication fees for, say, a 5-page article without color figures often cost about half that amount, trading subscription costs for open access charges seems like a fair deal. While it might be argued that this would penalize labs and working groups that are especially productive,** I’m pretty sure the overall social benefit of allowing access to the general public, independent researchers, and smaller higher ed institutions would outweigh the costs.
Second reaction? They really expect book publishing to adopt an OA model. Not gonna happen. I don’t care how cheap you think e-publishing is, a single-author book is not a journal article. With journals, you can at least spread the pain among several labs and groups at different institutions who are receiving grants from several funding agencies; with a monograph, you’ve got one author, twice as much material as your average quarterly journal, and the distinct problem that humanities researchers don’t usually receive significant grant funding. I’ll put it this way: if it costs $1500 to fund a five-page article, you’re not going to find many assistant professors able to support a 300-page book.*** Will new technologies bring publishing costs down? Probably not that much, but let’s act like they might. No author or humanities grant agency is going to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to publish one book.**** The old user-pays model is still the best way to spread the pain among as many people as possible. No, we don’t especially like the $70 price point either, but we’d rather sell a hundred people one book each than charge one person a hundred times that amount.
I’m also not convinced by the report’s optimism regarding technology keeping costs down. Okay, sure, I’ll grant that it helps—making journals available online sure makes distribution easier, to say nothing about color figures. However, the good folks who keep JSTOR, Web of Science, the Philosopher’s Index, and all the other databases and article delivery services academics depend on don’t (and shouldn’t!) work for free. Even when the material cost of paper and binding is removed, you still have to pay a skilled staff to keep your databases up to date and running smoothly. There’s a whole back end to publishing and distribution that most people rarely think about, but still performs essential services for researchers. Sure, just doing raw text dumps of pre-review articles into archives may seem cheaper, but good luck to anyone trying to find your research without the vital metadata tagging JSTOR and the like do. There’s a big difference between the Library of Congress and the world’s greatest pile of books and artifacts, and I know which I’d rather work with. Research is hard enough as it is, even with publishers doing their best to keep things organized, tagged, accessible, and properly formatted.
Thus, I’m pretty sure that, at least for STEM journals publishing—which, really, is where you’ll find much of scholarly publishing’s activity and money—open access, with a grant-funded author pays model, is probably the way forward. For the humanities, though, with their emphasis on books, a complete transition to OA is a long way off, and might just be impossible.
*Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—or, really, “all things sciencey”
**That said, if you’re publishing so much that you’re paying more in publication fees than journal subscriptions, I’m pretty sure funding agencies are applying to you.
***Given that the median salary for an associate professor in the US is about $70,000 . . .
****Yes, I’m aware of OAPEN. I’m also aware of how many philosophy books it has—fewer than the Baltimore/Washington area academic presses put out each year. I’m also aware of how likely you are to get grant money to publish with them, especially if you’re in the US.