The answer to academic publishing challenges is not always open access

You probably have read about Lingua-gate by now where the editors of the linguistics academic journal Lingua quit their job and journal in protest over publisher Elsevier’s pricing and publishing policy (What a Mass Exodus at a Linguistics Journal Means for Scholarly Publishing).
The very fact that it is discussed so widely in virtual academia is already an indication that this is significant beyond the journal and the commercial publisher in question. And the response to the issue is almost always the same: ‘We need (insert very precious metal) standard open access!’

I am writing my response from a very practical standpoint: I work, research and teach a lot a Swedish university/university college; I am not an ‘evangelist’ or ‘advocate’ for or against anything; I am a small cog in the global academic machine – and increasingly I am getting a bit tired over the ‘open access journal articles will save the world/knowledge/academy’ discussions.

As I wrote before (
), academics tend to overestimate the significance of journal articles in the mediatized landscape of sharing knowledge, scientific progress and engaging with communities outside academia:
The focus on ‘open access publishing’ and ‘better academic writing’ may be overrated when it comes to fostering creative writing, public engagement with research or finding cures to eradicate poverty because the commodity of academic journal articles has limited value outside a relatively narrow circle of academic insiders.
In addition to advocating for more open access publishing we should think outside the box of a particular written genre to ensure that the goals we envision to achieve are truly met in today’s digital world.
And sometimes not publishing another article at all can be the part of the solution, too...
In short, if we are looking for practical, easily-accessible vehicles to create meaningful engagement (reading does not equal engagement!) open access models will not be the holy grail to answer all of academia’s publishing problems!

50 shades of grey – when was the last time you couldn’t access research you really needed for your work?!
You can criticize all you want, complain about ResearchGate Email notifications and discuss the limitations of 20th century copyright models, but at the end of the day you most likely could access the pre-print or working paper version or got the pdf directly from a colleague.
Yes, the world is a complicated place, but a lot of research is accessible to a lot of people through various channels. I am always surprised when I talk to colleagues from universities in the global South how few of them know about legal ways of accessing academic journal content for free, e.g. through the British Library of Development Studies.

What do you REALLY want to get out of a journal article?

Like many other colleagues I have a pdf graveyard on my desktop where seemingly interesting journal articles go to die after they were carefully downloaded from the paywalled garden Eden.
The exponential rise in published material is mind-boggling and journal articles are one of many interesting and relevant resources.

If you ask the optimist s/he will respond ‘I want people to read my article’ and the pessimist would probably respond ‘I don’t care what people are doing with my article as long as they cite it and my H-Index grows’.

I would love to see the link between open access and reading – no, no not ‘clicking’ or ‘downloading’ – and actual meaningful engagement with your 25-page journal article.

Aude Ferrachat just wrote on open access models at Allegra Laboratory:
(...) heightened visibility and accessibility would therefore ensure that the results of publicly funded research are indeed made available to the public.
I completely understand the value of having something available open access for the sake of it and the belief in exploration and discovery, but open access does not do anything AUTOMATICALLY.
You still need to promote your research, you need to present it in ways other than a journal article before your paper goes viral after it was featured on global media.
Open access or not, chances are that your research will not be noticed and most likely not discovered by itself. I often feel that academics blame the current publishing process on something they are equally responsible for: Hiding interesting research behind a ‘wall’ of academic language, boring literature reviews and conclusion that hardly tell mere mortals much about what you actually found out.

Welcome to the open access journal graveyard!

Similar to the approach that the Lingua editorial team chose, the way to open access heaven is paved with new journals. I am sure that many new journals will have lined up 1-3 years worth of articles, but we will likely witness quite a few abandoned journals, or journals with infrequent new article publications in the not so distant future. Other journals are so well hidden on some university library’s or research council’s website that even search engines will have a hard time to uncover them…and quite a few of these new journals will also discover that time/money is not just tied to the editorial, textual process, but also to the digital infrastructure around it: Maintaining an open access journal with a blog, social media features, events, a server etc. will need a strategy and budget.

Academic publishing needs more ‘disruption’ than more open access
As a junior researcher cog in the academic machine I have to look at short- and medium strategies: A well-established journal (probably with one of the global commercial publishers) with an impact factor will deliver short-term gains, recognition and ‘metrics’; and I am also aware that nobody will do the ‘legwork’ for me: I will still have to share, blog and promote my research if I want engagement beyond downloads, reads and maybe the odd citation.

And longer term? In addition to better and affordable open access options we need to challenge ourselves, disciplines and funders more on finding alternative valid and validated outputs in addition to a 100 Dollar edited book or a journal article hidden behind a paywall. Just turning the book into a 300-page pdf file and the journal article into an unformatted document on your website will not do the trick-or cure cancer...
The answer to the question about the future of publishing is more complicated than shouting ‘open access! and starting new journals!


  1. There are some good points here but I think you're missing the wood for the trees.

    Many of the issues you're saying Open Access can't fix, ARE still to do with the general framework of journals and grudging / difficult access.

    For example, I'm not in academia any more. I have no access via any kind of library. But I'm a heavy user of the Q&A site Quora. Sometimes I'm in a debate with someone about something and I go to Google looking for further research on a point I'm trying to make. I often hit publishers firewalls.

    Now, if I were a professional academic in the field, doing real research, I'd perhaps look for other routes to access the paper. But I'm not ... I'm a participant in a fast moving, fairly casual public debate. I'm not going to make that effort. OTOH, if the paper WAS freely available at the click of a button, I'd open it up in my browser, scan through it quickly (more than just the abstract) to see what it said on the issue and the conclusions it came to, and post a link, confident that everyone else would be able to read it too. That information would flow into a more public sphere. Without the paper being just "casually" available in that sense, it's not going to flow into public consciousness.

    I agree that making knowledge available to a wider audience ALSO benefits from researchers writing differently and perhaps in different granularities than traditional academic writing ... but don't presume that the online community is incapable of digesting and finding its own uses and value even from the traditional academic formats.

    Similarly you point out that global South academics don't know the subtleties legitimate access via BLDS. That just proves that the barrier is too high for this to be a suitable solution. On the internet there is no justification for any research to be further away than a visit to a named publisher and a click of a link.

    Finally, yes, it's absurd that "open access" seems to involve creating an entirely parallel structure of new journals all competing to establish the prestige of the older journals (and will likely fail). It *should* just be the older journals that become open. Why isn't it? Because the owners of those prestige journals are still trying to hang on to their advantage.

  2. Thanks for your comment, phil-and sorry for my delayed reply!
    If I could wake up to tomorrow and discover that all the paywalls were gone I would be very, very happy! But I still have doubts that your average academic journal article is able to deliver what you describe; research suggests that most articles never get cited and especially in social sciences and humanities most articles would not help you in your Quora debates. Chances are the a lot of your questions can be answered by Think Tank papers, publicly available working papers and other quality material openly accessible online.
    My main peeve is that many academics seem to believe that openness will *automatically* deliver huge benefits and that all of the sudden 'the taxpayer' will read their research, it will be covered by mainstream media and everybody is happy. So while academia engages in a long-term and slow fight over the future of publishing I think academics need to be more proactive-maybe join Quora, contribute to a project like The Conversation blog or engage online differently (US academics writing for Washington Post or Foreign Policy)-yes, even write an article less because of blogging or other forms of engagement! Realistically, we will see more openness in the near future, we will see more hybrid models where publishers lower processing charges and we will see interesting disciplinary variations: Anthropologists recently turned Cultural Anthropology into an open access journal ( & HAU books ( is an interesting model as well. In the meantime, if you ever need information from behind a paywall I am happy to have a look at our digital library and see what I can do :)!

  3. I agree that Open Access is not the solution for all problems. What academics need are options that are available at reasonable prices with an equitable profit sharing model - open access or otherwise. We are going to do exactly this space.


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