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The future of open access publishing is in our hands

I have been thinking about open access publication ever since I became interested in intellectual property rights twenty five years ago. There are all sorts of issues with the current standard system of academic publishing, not least of all that an oligopoly of journal publishers have maintained a system (albeit that has changed in its details) that sees them effectively profit from free inputs which are sold (or now, often digitally rented) back to universities. Academic institutions pay twice for research: once for it to be done and again to access the results through authorised publication.

This system is neither inevitable nor (now) universal; the hard sciences are perhaps furthest along a route out of this situation and have developed a number of strategies collectively and individually to free access from the formal constraints of copyright. In Politics and International Relations (PIR) we have been much more reticent in embracing open access, with still around 80% of our publications appearing in (access controlled) proprietary outlets.

One way of understanding this lack of use of open access alternatives is to focus on our academic literacies. Decisions about choosing forms of outputs and (publishing) locations are driven by a range of factors including the desire to share work, and the development or maintenance of a researcher/author’s reputation or profile. While the acceptability of open access publications may be growing, the reputational benefits claimed by the major publishers still factor into too many decisions about where to publish. When citation is a key metric (including specifically, impact factors for journals), and where managerialism foregrounds such research productivity measures, movement away from the major journals is likely to be slow. It is only when our assessment of research clearly favours open access that more work will be published this way. It is only when the shape of academic literacies shifts profoundly that we will see a significant move in publishing. It is not so much an issue of the availability of open access platforms, journals and opportunities but rather how they fit into (y)our own understanding of our academic lives.

So, to effect a change:

  • Senior colleagues who sit on appointments and promotions committees need to work to normalise open access publication as conveying recognisable and valued academic achievement;
  • We need to continue to expand our use of alternative (open access) communication routes and early non-formalised publication such a blogs;
  • Institutions using & publishing open access work need to offer clearer guidance about their quality assurance for content and process of review;
  • We also need to see the appearance of similar work, research or analysis in multiple locations (with different access protocols) not as ‘salami slicing’ of research but the recognition of the variegated ecology of publishing.

The future of academic publishing is in the hands of the academic communities it serves and if we in PIR are saddled with high subscription prices and/or constrained access, then in the end we only have ourselves to blame, as we have not done enough to change a system which remains in our control even if those who profit from it have done their best to obscure this fact. The scientific community has recognised this and acted and so should we!


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