Daniel Lemire's blog

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Open Access: just for articles!

Many funding agencies and some universities require researchers to publish their articles as open access. That is, research articles must be available to all, freely. The main argument in favor of these policies is social justice: why should publishers acquire the exclusive rights of work funded by students, governments and other benefactors?

Professor Steven Shavell goes further: we should abolish copyright for academic work altogether. At first, I was confused: once your research articles are under open access, what more is there? Quite a lot, it turns out.

You see, these compulsory Open Access policies target exclusively research articles published in journals. These policies exclude: books, book chapters, conference proceedings, reports and so on.

Why? My colleague and Open Access leader Stevan Harnad explains:

Books are still largely preferred by users in analog form, not digital-only—journal articles are increasingly sought and used in digital form, (…) It is not clear that for most or even many authors of “academic works” (…) the sole “benefit” sought is scholarly uptake and impact (…), rather than also the hope of some royalty revenue

Using the economic model as an argument is the stance of publishers resisting Open Access. To them, we answered: your financial well-being is not our concern. Yet, a researcher writing a book—with funding from the government—should be allowed to ignore the ideals of Open Access for his own profit? Hardly fair, I say! Anyhow, I have written tens of articles in conference proceedings and I have edited a couple of books but I never received a penny. Professors do not edit books or write book chapters for profit.

Consider the larger picture. Would our arguments change if paper books were replaced by Amazon or Sony ebook readers? And what happens if publishers start paying authors for research articles? Would our arguments in favor of Open Access melt? Yes, paper is expensive, but Open Access policies do not prevent publishers from charging anything they like! They just have to make sure it is cheaper to buy the book than to print it locally.

What is the real reason we want to exclude books, book chapters and proceedings from Open Access policies? For-profit non-academic publisher already make available ebooks for free. What is our real excuse?

Note: I hold no grudge against the big publishers such as Springer.

Further reading: Is Open Access publishing the solution? Really?