Are We Trading Quality for Affordability? Concerns for Open Access Gold

During the recent #OAT14 in Cologne, the 8th annual Open Access Days of the German speaking countries, a niggling doubt crept into my overall impression of progress and streamlining in Open Access undertakings. Regardless of the distance we may have covered over the last decade or so, I am beginning to wonder if we are all too ready to trade “quality” for “affordability” when producing Open Access Gold publications.

The conference’s contributions demonstrated that open access is growing up. And that is good! The panels may no longer be filled with starry-eyed calls for change. Instead, discussions now focus on issues of long-term prospects and feasible (read: slow) next steps.

And yet, and yet. As open access gold takes these next steps I wonder how much is left behind to accomplish them. Take books, for example. There has arguably never been a comparable opportunity in the history of mankind’s pursuits in the humanities and social sciences to expand and redefine its preeminent genre. And arguably, the very raison d’être of all academics is to produce the best possible intellectual work based on the most thorough research that in turn follows the most rigorous analytical standards. I assume, perhaps naively, that those involved in open access gold publishing are not only aware of these two premises but that it informs their work. I further assume that this includes the custodians of knowledge, i.e. librarians, who now face the tremendous challenge and opportunity of giving academic publishing a home on campus again. But something about this conference gave me the impression that my assumptions are just that: assumptions.

What I realized during these two days in Cologne is that frugality may very well end up overriding quality standards. Most open access pursuits in the publishing of books seem to include everything but content: platforms, layout, metadata, DOIs, archiving, distribution, amazon – it is all there, except editing, which, apparently, is no longer the job of publishers, but authors, book-editors, or series-editors. They are the ones who are supposed to look after “publishability” (if there is such a word), peer-reviews, copy-edit, and proof-reading. And while this is certainly one way of imagining it, my experience tells me that it cannot work. Again, it may be a case of naivity, but editing is – at all these levels – not something anyone can do on the side; it is a profession. A good editor is crucial if a text is to reach its full potential.

Besides, today’s academics already have to wear too many hats: they teach, research, are in committees, publish articles, books, funding-applications for projects (which, if the bid is successful, they also have to run); they convene and participate in conferences, review, evaluate, advise, administer and, sometimes, they even get the time for field-work or explore a new field. At the same time, the pressure to get a job is getting increasingly intense as is the pressure to perform outstandingly in all areas if you want to keep the job you have (beyond the expiry date of your contract) or to get the next gig. Can we seriously, on top of all this, expect academics to also perform as their own editors (press-, series-, book-, managing-, copy-, and layout-)? That smacks of passing the buck and ignoring the elephant in the room: publishing is not just broken in terms of pricing. It is also broken in terms of production and quality standards.

Many trade-publishers have shaved off editing not because the manuscripts have, miraculously, become flawless but to maximize profit-margins. Today, most “editors” are merely making sure the cogs of the (mostly automated) publishing process stay oiled and cheap. The development of the content has fallen by the wayside in favour of profit. Astonishingly, this amputation has apparently remained unnoticed judging by the fact that academics, somewhat sheepishly, accept this lack of engagement with their texts along with the ridiculous over-charging and the loss of their rights as authors. Somehow we bought into the deal that if we want a well edited text, we need to organize and pay for it ourselves while the publishers ensure the happiness of their share-holders.

What troubles me is that it seems as though this fiscally motivated lack of quality assurance is now being adopted by our new open access publishing-models, the main objective being: keep the costs as low as possible, even if that means replicating the abysmal editorial quality that we have grown accustomed to. What concerns me extremely is that very few in open access gold publishing seem to question any of this.

We are at a turning point not only in the technology that informs our research and the way academic communication functions on an infrastructural level; we are also at a crossroads regards the standards that we want our academic output to fulfill. Books are but one example. As Wolfgang zu Castell showed in his #oat14 contribution “Open Access – mehr als nur eine Frage der Kommunikation,” (Open access – more than just a question of communication) comparable issues plague the very data that we base this output on. He pointed back to Anthony Chang’s “The Dangers of Cargo Cult Data Science,” warned of the pitfalls of opaque data-analysis, and called for transparency of the entire data-pipeline; in fact, he reminded everyone in the room of the scientific method for good measure, something I found equally appropriate and shocking.

Our age should not be remembered for missing the opportunity to combine technological innovation with excellence in publishing quality. It will take boldness to avoid such a legacy. Academics must be bold and publish their work in open access and funders must be bold by providing the funds necessary for the transition (don’t forget the Willinsky doctrine: the money to publish open access is already in circulation). Last but not least: the libraries have to be doubly bold: not only to redirect their budgets to house new publishing outlets but to also invest enough in producing excellent works.