by Dr Helen Kara, author of Research and Evaluation for busy practitioners
Helen Kara has been an independent social researcher and writer since 1999, and is also Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham University. Her background is in social care and the third sector, and she works with third sector organisations and social care and health partnerships. Here she writes about the Open Access to journal articles debate which has been growing over the last few years.
I support the principle of Open Access, i.e. that reports of research funded with public money should be available for any taxpayer to read. But I am worried that the planned implementation of this in the UK may lead to unintended censorship.
For those who may not be fully up to date with the progress of the Open Access movement in the UK, let me recap briefly. A group chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch, of Manchester University, was asked to make recommendations on how access could be broadened. The Finch Group reported in June of this year, recommending that the UK work towards ‘gold’ Open Access, where authors rather than readers pay for publication. In mid-July the Government accepted the Group’s recommendations, and is now working on their implementation.
People often conflate censorship with redaction, where parts of a publication are blacked out or removed. This is one overt form of censorship, but there are also covert forms, which are more insidious because they’re less obvious. I believe that Gold Open Access will lead to at least three different forms of covert censorship.
Gold Open Access will save institutions money because they won’t have to pay for expensive journal subscriptions. However, in these days of cuts and squeezes, there are no guarantees that money saved will be used to cover the costs of staff who want to publish their research. The existing cuts and squeezes are already causing some forms of censorship. That could become much more widespread because, as a result of Gold Open Access, there is likely to be fierce competition for publication funds within academic institutions. This is the first form of covert censorship, because any academic who loses such a competition will be unable to publish, regardless of the merit of their work.
Under the Gold Open Access approach, the cost of publishing an article is expected to be around £1,500, which is a significant sum even for institutions with sizeable research budgets. And it is completely prohibitive for most individuals. Therefore the retired academic, the unemployed academic, the postgraduate student, the practitioner-researcher, the independent researcher, will all be unable to publish their work in academic journals – which is a second form of covert censorship.
Researchers from outside academia can bring valuable perspectives. Of course I would say that – I’m an independent researcher – but the academics who choose to work with me seem to agree. So do journal editors, as it appears that around one in three authors of articles in academic journals are retired, unemployed, students, practitioner-researchers or independent researchers. Therefore the move to Gold Open Access could also see some journals disappearing, as their submissions dry up from both academic and non-academic sources. And that’s a third form of covert censorship.
I’m sure censorship was not at all what the Finch Group intended. And let me restate my own support for the principle of Open Access. But even the UK Open Access Implementation Group has acknowledged that the transition to Open Access will not be straightforward. I think care must be taken to make access truly open, for writers, editors and publishers, as well as for readers.