Towards academic communism. A naive proposal (with footnotes)

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What follows here is essentially a set of thoughts I had after a very fruitful conversation with a friend who is in the open access line of work. It is, I am afraid, a bit naive and sketched in broad strokes, but worth discussing1.

Here is the thing. The academic system is broken2 (surprise, surprise). There is a lot of talk about revolutions of various kinds in academia: open access, digital and so on. All of them are important and will, in time, change the way the field looks. Maybe I am a bit naive but I really believe it. The problem is: it will take years (if not decades) before it happens.

Academia is political. Every research is political. Therefore, maybe, we should look for solutions also in the realm of politics.

Just recently all 4 major Berlin universities that is Freie Universität (FU), Humboldt-Universität (HU), Technische Universität (TU) and Charité have terminated their contract with Elsevier. Big and good. It shows that things can be done even on a relatively small scale. This step is a part of a larger fight to introduce a country-wide flatrate in subscription fees throughout Germany. If it succeeds it will significantly lower the cost of journal access and possibly of publishing articles in the open access model. Similar moves have been made in the Netherlands, Taiwan and in Finland there is an on-going boycott. As much as it is needed

this is not enough.

Instead of replacing the system those moves just try to fix it. And the system of academic journal publishing is broken. I am not saying that it is beyond repair but it is highly doubtful that such repair is worth the resources that need to be put into it.

It is also highly morally and ethically doubtful if deals with big publishers are acceptable at all. If it costs 5000$ to publish an article in open access and it gets lowered to 500$ or even 100$ it is still 500$ and 100$ too much. Open access means freedom of access to knowledge not pre-paid access to knowledge. That is just shifting the cost. There are even schemes inside universities and grant projects to pay the cost of open access that are used to pay those fees. This is perverse. This money should be restricted only to truly open access publishers and should never find its way to the pocket of journals charging up to 50 000$ for a yearly subscription. At the end of the day it is an equivalent of having to pay your landlord to access books on your own shelf.

Universities, libraries, even larger groups of researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to exert pressure on big publishers. Such pressure is important and beneficial, but to change the situation quickly we need

a political solution.

There is one and it involves a form of academic communism. Its applicability and usability would vary from country to country - definitely easier to enact it in EU countries than, let’s say, in the USA.

A government announces that, let’s say in three years time, 2/3 of the newly published articles in order to count for academic output must be open access and not for profit open access to boot3. This number can be increased over time to reach 100% and at the beginning could involve only selected fields (history, we should volunteer). Since in an European context it is mainly the government that pays for higher education (sometimes at a more local level) it has the ability to withhold the funds spent on those subscriptions. This money comes from taxes, so a move like that might even be presented as a valid campaign promise and by such be spared the fate of a political suicide. In order to make this enforceable a quota of those articles would have to be published in local journals (to avoid a “scientific migration”).4

There are open access journals out there aplenty. They just need a little push. More of them will sprout if the government helps with proper regulation. There are countries (like Poland for example) where a vast majority of journals are published by the universities or research institutions themselves and in effect are either open access or their price point is very low. There are problems with this system, agreed (limited outreach for example), but that can change.

At the end of the day the reason we all don’t just publish in open access is simple: we need prestigious journals for our CVs, for REFs and reviews and job applications. We cannot make those journals go free. The government can by pulling the rug from under their feet.

This all points towards a form of academic communism in which, as funny as it sounds at the first glance, the academic community owns the means of production and controls the production process. Using the government and opting for a political solution is essentially taking a revolutionary shortcut to achieve that. We should then gear towards exerting bigger political pressure. Be honest, when was the last time you wrote to your elected representative? Did you ever write to them about open access? Probably not. You should.

Critics maintain that the paid, large journals and by extension their publishers, are necessary, because only that way a costly system of peer-review can be maintained. Well, really? First of all the system is crumbling already. Second, peer-review can also be taken out of the hands of the publishers and converted into a kind of jury-duty, also coordinated, you guessed, centrally5. By some bizarre reason we let the journals and the publishers coordinate that for us and we work for free to maintain it! By the way centralization would be an excellent moment to include more ECRs in the process. This all sounds great, but

there are problems.

First of all the very enactment of this would require us, academics, to get involved politically. A lot. This is not a call to blame somebody else. This is a call to get much more involved. Like every cause it cannot be furthered by somebody else for us. It means we need to directly influence politics. And be part of it. During the IMC2017 discussion on #publicmedievalism this question has been raised and a greater political involvement proposed. Maybe even academics running for political posts themselves.

Second this is a a large scale operation: it requires state involvement at the highest level and that takes time.6 The topic, although very important, does not resonate well with the general public (yet) - so we need to educate. Both in terms of benefits (faster access to knowledge means faster access to scientific discoveries) and savings (at the end the big journals are paid from our taxes). We need to become a part of the political scene - our research is political and so are our actions.

Thirdly this idea still presumes the continuing existence of the peer-review system. Women are hugely underrepresented in the process as are minorities. I believe that making it first centrally managed and later global will make it fairer and more sustainable, but I am afraid that the very system is responsible for the lack of inclusiveness. So

does it all make sense?

I believe yes. Open access needs a political push. Boycotts and negotiations are good stopovers on the way to victory but they will never fix the problem completely. We need a political solution to make knowledge what it should be: a common good. Branding it academic communism might seem divisive to some but that is exactly what it should be and, when you think about it, it is not so controversial. Why should people who have sometimes so little to do with academia at all control it?

Follow me on twitter @Calthalas

  1. I hope… 


  3. Speaking of REF 2021 open access policy (thanks to James Harland for bringing it up!): it is a bit of a trick, really; first of all it leaves the onus on individual researchers; second: your articles still can be embargoed (up to 24 months in case of Humanities) and “outputs still under embargo can be selected for the next REF provided that the date of first publication is still within the REF reporting period.” That basically still perpetuates the hegemony of the journals… 

  4. How could that happen? Think diesel bans in Germany and plans to introduce it in other countries

  5. Firstly on a national level, than maybe on EU level and in the world of the future on a global, UN level. Sounds naive and non-obtainable, but that CAN happen. 

  6. Possibly even EU intervention and we all know that it will take ages… 

Written on July 20, 2017