April 5, 2013

Will open access revolutionize academic publishing?


“Major players in the world of commercial scholarly publishing have little shame,” says Bryn Geffert, librarian at Amherst College and the man behind the new Amherst College Press.

Fed up with a scholarly publishing industry that, Geffert says, does “far more to lock down information than to disseminate it to those who need it,” Geffert spearheaded Amherst’s effort to endow an open access university press. The venture is described in Emily Gold Boutillier‘s article in the Spring 2013 issue of Amherst Magazine (which is, of course, free to access).

Geffert has been thinking about this for a while. In 2011 he penned a plea for shotgun weddings between libraries and presses, and described in that article an effort between a consortium of small colleges to found a joint liberal arts press.

Last year’s “academic spring” campaign against Dutch giant Elsevier, covered extensively by this blog, offers ample evidence that Geffert is not alone in understanding the urgency of reform. Many academics have been incensed that scholars around the country give the fruits of their research to commercial presses — for instance, by providing intensive peer review for free — but then have to turn around and pay in order for their own library to have a copy of the works in question, or else risk breaking copyright laws. Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC-Berkeley, called this “a ridiculous transaction” in a recent article in Nature.

So there’s been a wave of open-access presses, perhaps capped by the UK’s determination (which we covered here) to make all publicly funded research open access by 2014.

Amherst’s is the most open access of the new presses in America, but it is not alone; similar efforts have been underway at Utah State, Penn State, and NYU for several years. Rice University also experimented with open access publishing in 2006, but shut their press down in 2010.

The open access solution isn’t elegant; it has no easy answers on the questions of funding. The Amherst press, for instance, will employ two full-time editors and a director, and will also have to pay operating expenses. How can Amherst sustain the cost of editing and producing high-quality digital books without the profits they generate? This is a question many critics have, and there’s evidence to back it; a study in Nature showed a positive correlation between an article’s average publication fee and the average influence of its articles, also noting that open-access journals are often far less selective (PLoS ONE, for instance, publishes 70% of the articles submitted).

The idealism of these open-access efforts is heady, though, and Geffert and his allies speak eloquently; the work they publish may speak more eloquently yet.


Jay McNair was an intern at Melville House.