In response to my last post, Kent Anderson says:

August 24th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I think you missed Phil’s point, Stuart.

What Phil was saying is that libraries can’t control the disbursement of open access fees precisely because of academic freedom, which makes these fees more susceptible to unchecked growth and possible abuse. If they establish an OA fund, librarians will be on the horns of a dilemma — allow unchecked spending or violate academic freedom. Since they won’t violate academic freedom, their only option will be to allow unchecked spending.

I think you’re responding to a misinterpretation of Phil’s post.

via » Three good things: open-access funds, fiscal responsibility, and academic freedom The Occasional Pamphlet.

Yes, that’s exactly how I understood the argument, so perhaps I didn’t make my own view clear. Let me try to clarify it. (The issue is important enough and my response long enough that it makes more sense to devote a post to it than to place it in the comments thread.) Just so that my conclusion doesn’t get lost below, here is what I am saying: What libraries will do is check spending but without violating academic freedom. The dilemma as stated is a false one.

Kent says “libraries can’t control the disbursement of open access fees precisely because of academic freedom”.  The premise here is that any method an OA fund uses to control disbursement must if effective necessarily cause a change in behavior of authors, for instance encouraging them to publish in less expensive journals over more expensive ones ceteris paribus. This much is true. Furthermore, there is an implicit assumption that any such policy that causes behavioral changes in where authors publish is coercive and a violation of academic freedom. They are not “free” to publish in any location because some are financially more attractive to them than others.

But no. Academic freedom means that faculty can study what they want, and publish the results where they want.  It doesn’t mean that the university must cover all costs for doing so, nor does it mean the university cannot cover some costs and not others in ways that redound to what the university sees as the benefit of its constituencies.

Let me provide some examples in the area of “studying what they want”. Harvard has policies about what kinds of grants its faculty are allowed to take.  They can study what they want, but they can’t take money to do so if the grants violate university rules. For instance, university rules disallow grants that must be kept secret. (See Principle 2 of the Principles Governing Research at Harvard.) Nor can grants restrict investigators from publishing their results (Principle 4). And so forth. The fact that the university disallows investigators from taking certain grants is not a violation of academic freedom, even though it affects the financial support of certain research activities.

As a second example, the university itself provides funds to some researchers (but not others) to pursue research projects. (See examples here, here, and here.) It is itself, in a sense, a research funder. By playing favorites, and choosing among the applicants for these funds, is it violating academic freedom? No. No one brings up the horns of a dilemma between the university  funding every single application for research funds or violating academic freedom.

Faculty must be allowed to publish where they want, but it is not a violation of academic freedom to monetarily support some venues over others. As a third example, universities have been systematically supporting subscription fees over processing fees for decades by paying the subscription fees, but not processing fees (page charges, figure charges, etc.), through their library budgets. Universities could have provided funds for these additional charges and have generally chosen not to. Some journals charge only subscription fees; others charge both kinds of fees. It has not constituted a violation of academic freedom that authors are out of pocket $0 for the solely subscription-fee journals but must pay the additional processing fees to publish in those journals that charge them.

A final example: My colleagues in the History of Art and Architecture department publish articles that typically contain large numbers of figures reproducing the artworks that they are studying, the reproduction rights for which can come to many thousands of dollars per article. These charges are not reimbursed by the university, and grants to cover them are hard to come by. The fees typically come out of the author’s pocket. Some topics of research end up, by happenstance, to require very low rights clearance fees, others quite high fees. The differences in fees among these research topics may, for all I know, cause researchers to vary their research topics. But the fact that the university does not pay these fees does not constitute a violation of academic freedom. Scholars are free to study what they want, and to pursue funding to cover expenses to do so as available, and the university is free to support that research how it sees fit.

The fact that funds are differentially available for this or that purpose around a university may seem wrong, or unfair to one or another constituency, or well-balanced, or whatever, depending on where you sit. But the current apportionment is not fairer just because it’s been around a while. And raising the specter of violation of academic freedom in these cases belittles the importance of this crucial concept. If you want to see violations of academic freedom, read the AAUP’s Committee A annual reports.

Of course, if a university capriciously forbid publishing in this or that journal, that would be another matter, but no one is suggesting that. The suggestions, rather, are for support for certain kinds of charges for certain journals. Authors can avail themselves of these funds or not as they see fit, freely and without prejudice.

Just to make the OA fund proposals more concrete, let me list a few methods that allow for controlled distribution of OA fund fees without restricting academic freedom. (I’ll couch them in terms of the amount of reimbursement an author receives from a fund to cover processing fees for an article in an open-access journal, but funds may choose to disburse funds in other ways than reimbursement of authors.)

  1. Cap the total reimbursement per paper.
  2. Pay all but a fixed amount of the fee, that is, institute a “co-payment”.
  3. Cap the total reimbursement provided to a single author per year. This method, discussed in my PLoS Biology paper, has the advantage that it forces authors to trade off the services that they receive from the publisher (including journal imprimatur) for the fee that they charge, providing exactly the economic market signal that the current system lacks.
  4. Pay all but a fixed percentage of the fee, a percentage-based co-payment. This similarly provides an economic motivation to the author at the cost of placing them out of pocket for some costs for every article.
  5. Steve Shavell, an economist at the Harvard Law School, proposed to me the following clever scheme: For each article, reimburse up to x dollars. If the fee f is less than x, some percentage p of the excess will be paid to the author (that is, p(xf)), perhaps as an augmentation of a research fund. This provides a direct motivation for an author to search out high-value journals for each and every article, at the cost of increasing the total cost of running the fund.

None of these methods violates academic freedom (nor does removing all restrictions, as we’ve essentially done for subscription journals, but this could lead to hyperinflation of processing fees mimicking the subscription case). Several of them have the potential to introduce a self-correcting market signal into the payment scheme, thereby leading to controlled costs, rather than the runaway costs we see in the subscription model. I am not suggesting that all of these methods are equally good or effective or will solve the problem of sustainability of OA processing fee costs. They do not exhaust the possibilities; I am sure there are many other mechanisms that could be explored for setting up a properly functioning funding market for scholarly articles.  The only limitation is our creativity.

Here is a dilemma for you: Do we continue the status quo, which involves only supporting a business model known to be subject to uncontrolled inflationary spirals, or do we experiment with new mechanisms that have the potential to be economically sound and far more open to boot? To me, this seems like an easy choice to make. Academic freedom, thankfully, doesn’t enter the picture.

6 Responses to “More on academic freedom and OA funds”

  1. Academic Freedom and Open Access « Says:

    […] 1, 2009 · Leave a Comment Stuart Shieber has a new post responding to discussion surrounding academic freedom and open access. Shieber argues that academic […]

  2. Stevan Harnad Says:


    Stuart asks:

    “Do we continue the status quo, which involves only supporting a business model known to be subject to uncontrolled inflationary spirals, or do we experiment with new mechanisms that have the potential to be economically sound and far more open to boot?”

    The answer is simple: The only reason the uncontrolled inflation of journal subscription costs is a problem at all (and also the the reason the upward spiral continues uncontrolled) is the university’s inelastic demand and need for access to the journal articles.

    Hence the solution is for universities to provide Open Access (free online access) to those articles, by mandating that they be self-archived in their institutional repositories.

    Universal OA self-archiving moots the problem of uncontrolled subscription-cost inflation by putting an end to the inelasticity of the demand: If your university cannot afford the subscription price for journal X, cancel it. Your users will still have access to the OA version.

    There is no need for universities to try to reform journal economics directly now. What is needed is universal OA self-archiving mandates from universities. Focusing instead on journal reform is simply distracting from and hence delaying the fulfillment of this pressing need.

    Harvard should focus all its energy and prestige on universalizing OA self-archiving mandates rather than dissipating it superfluously on journal economics and OA funds.

    Once OA self-archiving is universal, journal economics will take care of itself.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age, pp. 99-105, L’Harmattan.

    ABSTRACT: What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community’s access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because publishing will have downsized to just peer-review service provision alone, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

  3. Stuart Shieber Says:

    I have an earlier post pertinent to the issues that Professor Harnad raises here: “The argument for gold OA support”

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    […] Shieber, architect of Harvard’s OA Mandate, asks: “Do we continue the status quo, which involves only supporting a business model known to be […]

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