Espen Aarseth

Editor-in-Chief, Game Studies.

The Battle for Open Access Publishing - And how it affects YOU

by Espen Aarseth

Taking place right now is the most fundamental change in academic publishing since the inventions of desktop typography and the World Wide Web. It occurs quietly, with most of the people directly affected -- people like you -- not knowing what is at stake. It is a cold wargame being played by the large academic publishers on the one side, and research funders and policy makers on the other, and currently, for the users or pawns -- you and I -- it is not going well.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you say, “you and I”? “I may be a user or reader, but you, aren’t you an editor? A publisher? One of Them?” And yes, I am the publisher of this Open-Access journal, but no, I am not one of them, I am one of you, or should I say, one of us. Because for me, this is not a business, and my interests are aligned with yours, not with theirs. If you follow the money, you won’t find me, since I am not making a dime (or any other type of national currency unit) on this, and never have, and never will. (But before you think I am a saint of some kind, please know that the real saints are the journal’s reviewers, who work hard and anonymously, without even recognition from the people they help the most, the authors. Their selfless effort is the secret ingredient that makes this work.)

Let’s follow the money. But first, let’s clarify what open access publishing (OA) is, and what it does. The core idea is very simple: Let everyone, through the internet, have access to peer-reviewed research publications, for free. Let there be no monetary obstacles to anyone in the world in accessing the latest, cutting edge research, or the dusty articles of yesteryear.

So far, so good. Open Access benefits not only the readers but also the authors: it lets authors reach many more readers than the closed subscription model does, and this is very good news for the authors' citation numbers. If we look at two random Game Studies issues, 01 from 2006 and 03 from 2011, we see that the average article is cited 60 and 49 times, respectively. This is what open access can do. This is real impact. But at what cost?

Since the work of academic editors and reviewers is (or should be) free, what is left is the technical cost of publishing (which is trivial) and management and copy editing (which is not). So how do we finance this? Game Studies is financed through Nordic science councils, and through student assistants paid for by the IT University of Copenhagen. We could calculate the cost of producing a published article by dividing these expenses by the number of published articles in a year, but this is not really a relevant number, as the benefit of having a journal like Game Studies extends beyond the published articles, and includes the feedback to authors who are not published. In terms of the reviewers’ unpaid work (and in light of our 85-90% rejection rate) most of it goes to rejected authors, and it has some real value to most of them. So the main efforts and results of peer review journals (all, not just OA-journals) are or should be research feedback, without which researchers would be poorer and less wise. There is also great benefit to the academic readership, who will be able to read a refined version of the research, and, thanks to the rejections, avoid sifting through material that is below the quality threshold. (This last point is of course debatable - - does research need gate keeping? But that is another discussion, and concerns peer-review, not open access.)

Open access journals on the internet have existed since 1990, from the first issue of PostModern Culture. And more than two decades later, politicians have woken up and seen the blindingly obvious: Open Access is an amplified continuation of the idea of public libraries, and a universal good. Furthermore, if the research is paid for by the public and carried out in public institutions, why give it away to private companies to sell? Let’s move all new research results to open access platforms!

However, it is not that simple. Commercial (and idealist) closed publishing has been around forever, and is an entrenched and often valuable part of the academic world. And the commercial presses are not sitting still and waiting for the lucrative library access deals to dwindle away. So what is their strategy, and how can they possibly win?

It is not uncommon to distinguish between two kinds of open access publishing, Green OA and Gold OA. Green OA is when researchers publish their texts either before the commercial publication (as a pre-print), in parallel with it, or after a quarantine period of 6 months to 2 years. Typically, a public organization such as a university creates and maintains a repository where research texts are stored and accessed. On the plus side is the fact that this costs very little, and will (eventually) make the research available. On the negative side is the fact that it often creates two versions of the text, one copy-edited, one not, and also at least two ways to cite it. And it is only possible if the copyright holder says it is.

Gold OA is what you are looking at right now. An article is made instantly and globally available (later today, as I write this), free of charge for readers, and ready to use for the public. A Gold OA journal is, to many, the ideal: one repository, one URL, one context. Publish and forget, as it were.

But here comes the confusion: “Gold OA” does not refer to one model, but to two, which only resemble each other somewhat, and one of which is almost indistinguishable from the commercial publishing industry’s preferred Open Access model. This latter is what is referred to as the “hybrid” model, practiced by “hybrid” journals, that is, commercially distributed, closed-access journals where authors, for a one-time fee, can unlock their own articles, thus making them open-access. A hybrid journal will have both open- and closed-access articles, and you still pay for the closed ones. Hybrid journals offer authors the opportunity to buy their articles free, typically for 2-3.000 USD. This price is meant to be more or less the cost of producing an article, and to that extent it is not an unfair deal. A current problem, annoying but perfectly solvable, is the phenomenon called double-dipping; that is when a hybrid journal also charges standard subscription fees for an issue where one or several of its articles has been freed.

The real problem with hybrid access is the author-side cost. A price of 2-3.000 USD for every journal publication would make the most prolific among us highly unpopular among the research administrators, and siphon up our available expense funds (if we even have such things) before our second, or perhaps even first, article of the year is out. Take a look at your Department’s output and do the calculation. This is not a viable solution, unless serious money is diverted for publication. Currently, libraries and academic institutions are still paying ever-increasing fees to the large journal publishers, so where will the money come from?

Money for author-side fees does exist, and is coming from somewhere: Funding agencies. Large funding bodies such as the EU and the Wellcome Trust set aside cash to pay for publications from their funded projects, as part of showing their sponsors how prolific and successful their funded research is. The EU now has a strong drive for Open Access, and they are willing to pay, as long as you have an EU grant. Thus they encourage the use of author-side publication funding, for their own authors. What is wrong with this picture? Well, if you are lucky and have major funding, you will get published. If you are working in the less-endowed end of the sciences, or perhaps in the non-western part of the world, or perhaps as an independent researcher, or student, what then? Some charitable journals and publishers offer rebates or exemptions, but presumably only as long as they can afford the expense by having enough well-funded authors to pay for the whole thing. But this is not a fair system of equal opportunity, if you belong in the research sectors where funding is hard to come by.

As mentioned, “Gold” OA is really two different systems, not one, with two very different funding structures. One, known as “Gold OA”, will evaluate all submissions and publish only those that pass peer-review, with no fees incurred by the authors. The other system, also known as “Gold OA”, will review submissions and then charge so-called APCs (article processing charges) when an article is accepted. These charges, like the hybrid-journal unlocking charges, vary, but are also in the 2-3.000 USD region.

In other words, in one system the authors pay nothing and are published if their research is found acceptable, in the other, they will be accepted if they pay a fee. The interesting difference to the hybrid model is that there, the decision to pay rests with the authors (unless their sponsor obliges them to unlock), while with the “Gold OA” (version one) they have to pay to get published. Proponents of APC-Gold OA claim that this does not mean that what we have is a vanity-press-system. But in terms of ethics, the system is clearly problematic, as the lure of taking money and publish will always be present, and subconsciously put pressure on the journal editors. APC-Gold is therefore an unethical system, regardless of the moral fibre of the individual editor. In the hybrid model, interestingly, there is no such unethical pressure, as the decision to accept or reject is made independently of the decision to receive the APC.

This is a battle for the heart and soul of open-access publishing. On the one hand we have the opportunity to create a better system for the open distribution of knowledge, and replace the old model, where research already paid for by public funds has been packaged and sold by commercial actors. But on the other hand, policy-makers are seemingly not able to distinguish between a system not much better than a vanity press that privileges certain elite research sectors, and one where research is published based on perceived merit alone. The clever and under-the-radar hijacking by the commercial publishers of the concept of open access as one where costs are transfered to authors is a huge problem. It is also a solution which large sectors of the academic world cannot afford. Worse still is the fact that policy-makers, under the banner of open access, are de facto endorsing vanity-publishing as the default solution, by not distinguishing between APC- and non-APC-Gold, and assuming APC-Gold as true Gold. In reality it is a much worse alternative, just as costly as hybrid publishing, but corrupt in addition. Today, and tellingly, while most OA journals are not APC-based, most OA articles are published via APCs. Mass publication is the business-model, and it drives itself. Until sound policies are in place for how to support OA journals that for good reason will not take money directly from the authors, and not publish just to turn the wheels, the public benefit of open access has drowned in the public cost of APCs.

Open access publishing should mean free of charge for all, readers and authors both.

©2001 - 2016 Game Studies Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the journal, except for the right to republish in printed paper publications, which belongs to the authors, but with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.