Open Access and the academic gift economy

No, I’m not arguing that everything should be free. Just academic articles. And I mean really free, in most senses of the word.

Last week, the University of Oslo organised a conference about publishing, with a special focus on Open Access and the Creative Commons. Like many institutions, UiO has an explicit policy in favour of open access publishing, and new employees have to sign a contract where they vow to make their publications freely available, if at all possible.

The ‘if at all possible’ caveat is an interesting one, and I’ll return to it very soon.

Open access comes in three main flavours – gold, green and hybrid. Gold means freely available to everybody. Green means that the author has placed the original manuscript, but not the pdf of the publicatoin, in an open archive – at UiO, it is called Duo. Hybrid means that the author pays a non-open access journal to make their publication freely available.

However, if you look closely, it soon becomes apparent that ‘gold’ is less golden than it may appear at first glance. According to the librarians, who should know, 60 per cent of the open access journals are completely free. They are produced either for free by enthusiasts or idealists, or have institutional support enabling them to cover costs. The remaining 40 per cent are commercial ventures, where the authors pay, sometimes significant sums, to get published.

In other words, in spite of the apparent open access revolution, the large academic publishers still laugh all the way to the bank. During the conference, the paleontologist Jørn Hurum pointed out that academic publishing now has a larger turnover than the music industry, and with this funding model, that may well continue indefinitely. Libraries no longer have to pay indecent sums for journal subscriptions under the OA model, but instead, academics have to pay indecent sums to get published.

The question that really needs to be raised is, do we need the publishing houses?

The answer is complicated. Notably, a distinction needs to be made between academic publishing and general, or trade publishing. We academics do not write for the money, since we usually write on a salary, temporary or permanent, and the aim for every academic who writes is to be read, preferably by as many as possible. Naturally, the situation is qualitatively different for the novelist or the essayist. Also, publishers often carry out a gargantuan job in making a book come about. The term ‘ghostwriter’ is a relative one and can often, with some justification, be applied to a good editor.

I’m not talking about academic books either. I rather like my books to be bound in cloth or paper, I’m happy to pay a reasonable price for them, and don’t see why the publishers should not be able to make a living producing them.

With academic articles, the situation is different. As our Rector, Ole Petter Ottersen, pointed out at the conference, academics work relentlessly and without payment for the big publishing companies, as editors, members of editorial boards and, not least, as peer reviewers. (He has also written about this in his Norwegian-language blog.) In fact, we do virtually the whole job as contributors to the academic gift economy. So why do our journals need publishing companies?

In a recent past, the publishers took care of marketing, layout, printing, subscriptions and distribution. However, now that journals are mostly electronic, neither subscriptions, printers nor much by way of paid marketing is necessary. The layout of a standard academic journal is also relatively basic. On this basis, the question needs to be asked again – why do we continue to take the detour via the publishing companies, when P2P – peer to peer – publishing would have been a simpler solution?

The answer remains complicated. In the last few years, I’ve sometimes asked younger colleagues whether they’d be keen to publish their work in an open access journal. The answer is nearly always no, and the reason is simple. It is true that academics are usually not paid money to publish their work, but they are paid in symbolic capital and prestige which may later be converted into a tenured position. Thus, Ph D candidates and postdocs cannot afford to publish their work in OA formats. They are entitled to worry about their future.

The best and most prestigious journals are still either not open access at all or paid/hybrid. The system is objectionable, unfair and should be abandoned. In the past, scholars in the global south could publish in the metropolitan journals, even if they couldn’t afford to read what they had themselves written. The current situation is, to some extent, the opposite: They can freely read the journals, but cannot afford to write in them.

Many of the best journals do not belong to the publishers, but to professional associations or foundations. There is no good reason why we shouldn’t take them back and turn them into genuine open access journals. It would not be costly to do this. The technical production of an electronic journal is easy, and the software facilitating submission of articles, referee reports etc. can be purchased once and for all.

Of course, academic publishers would not be enthusiastic about this kind of development. Your electricity provider is unlikely to encourage you to go off grid with your solar panels. They might instead offer to install solar for you, for free, provided that you continue to buy your electricity from them. But why on earth should you?

By and large, there was agreement among the contributors to the conference – who came from different faculties at the University – that the academic communities should take command of their own journals, and that the ultimate aim should be to share knowledge, not to make profits. And this is already happening. Hundreds of thousands of articles are already being shared on websites such as and ResearchGate, and they grow fast. These are in all likelihood intermediate, temporary phenomena. Organising the academic gift economy in the best possible way is a collective task of the greatest priority, and this particular adventure has only just begun.