Open access – the nuclear option

Universities do, of course, have one option in the open access war that the publishers may not be considering: they can go it alone. As a lapsed sub-editor, a line I bring out at dinner parties only slightly more frequently than “as a former tax assistant”*, I have mixed feelings about this passage:

Yet top universities could organize their own conventional peer review processes economically and effectively, much as they do for PhD examining in the UK, using a system of mutual service and support. All the rest of the piece – getting articles publicized by twitter and blogs, providing a well-edited product, delivering the article to any PC, phablet or colour printer in the world – can be done easily and cheaply by universities themselves. Online communities are already doing the work of developing more and more research, so for universities to directly organize and publish their own peer reviewed journals, monographs and books is a natural next step. In my view only a dramatic fall in journal OA prices can prevent this transition in the next ten years.

As far as peer review goes, this is absolutely true, and indeed why the hell not? But as regards publicising, copy-editing, sub-editing and technical delivery, it depends what you mean by easily and cheaply. Anyone who has ever produced their own e-book, never mind worked in publishing, knows that we are some way off all these processes being entirely human-free, or error-free where they are, and it would be a mistake to reject this consideration wholesale just because it’s one of the arguments employed – with bells on – by the publishers.

I do understand the tendency among those who’ve sweated away at thinking big important thoughts and writing them down to take a somewhat reductionist view of the process that follows. But I’ve made use of self-archived material that was missing (which it claimed not to) some pretty critical graphs, because successful palaeo-archaeological scholarship does not necessarily select for the ability to detect an enormous gap on a page. Slips like that should not happen when a competent sub is on the case. The sub is like the homemaker; you think the whole show is running smoothly by itself until they aren’t there any more.

So “easily and cheaply” at the cost of a couple of non-academic posts, yes. Is that cheap? Maybe, depending on the volume of the material the institution wishes to produce, how much they fork out in subscriptions now, and how many more non-academic posts they are willing to countenance as a matter of principle in lean times.

* I don’t go to many dinner parties. You can probably tell.


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