Good (and bad) news from the Open Access front

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

I recently wrote a short ‘comment’ for the American Journal of Bioethics. The piece is 1788 words long, the names and affiliations of my co-author and myself included. So that will make for 3, perhaps 4 printed pages, right? Now, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of the AJoBE offered the possibility to make this piece Open Access. Price: $2,950. I say: ridiculous. One of my colleagues said: Obscene. Sure, you might say, but they need to pay the editorial office who guards the refereeing proces of the target article to which we respond. But who did the refereeing? Indeed: two (or three) scholars, for free. And where does the net profit of all this goes? Right, not to the author, not to the referees, not to the universities, not to the taxpayers in the case of publically funded research. I know it’s practically very difficult to boycot this commercial Open Access model, but my little revenge will be in making some free advertisement below for two wonderful Open Access initiatives.

The best news from the open access front that reached my desk is that Open Book Publishers, the Cambridge(UK)-based open access publisher (where – full disclosure- I also have a book under contract), has published its first philosophy book. And not just any philosophy book, but a book by the very eminent philosopher David Velleman, called Foundations for Moral Relativism. As with the other books published by Open Book Publishers, it can be read online for free, or bought as a PDF for a few pounds or bought at a low price as a bounded copy via print-on-demand. I love this model, and perhaps should go off the internet completely until I’ve finished my own book that will also be open access. In fact, if I can raise 3500 UK Pounds, I can make the PDF available for free too. I think that’s a much better way to spend (public) funds than $ 2950 for a 3 or 4 page piece.

But equally good news comes from Axel Gosseries and Yannick Vanderborght, who published a year ago a Festschrift for Philippe Van Parijs, called Arguing about Justice. The book was published in paperback by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain, and now, one year later, is available online, here or here. At a conference a few weeks ago, Axel said that this is what he negotiated with the publisher when they published the book with them a while ago. So that’s an Open Access model too — individual negotiation – that some of us can consider to pursue. In any case, the Van Parijs Festschrift has lots of interesting and provocative pieces, well worth browsing and subsequent reading. Enjoy!



Neil 05.17.13 at 2:01 pm

Sage is introducing a $99 OA fee for papers in humanities, in recognition of the fact that authors in the humanities do not typically have large grants to fund this kind of thing. I am aware of several other big publishers considering following suit. Not a magic bullet, but a step in the right direction.


Matt 05.17.13 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for this, Ingrid- the Van Parijs book looks really interesting. Just the other day I noticed it for the first time and was disappointed that Amazon did not, at that time, have the “look inside” feature for it. This is obviously much better. It’s a very interesting line-up, and I like the idea of a large number of fairly short contributions.


Billikin 05.17.13 at 3:08 pm

Here is something about the copyright questions involved:
(HT to Mike The Mad Biologist: )


Jerry Vinokurov 05.17.13 at 3:38 pm

Hah! I recently submitted a paper to a conference whose proceedings will be published by Elsevier; suffice to say it was on such a niche topic that hardly anyone outside a small group of people would be interested in it. Nevertheless, I was still offered the option of “making it Open Access” for a sum well north of $2000. It’s a complete absurdity, and anything that damages the outrageous profits of these vampires gets an A+++ from me.


Chris Bertram 05.17.13 at 3:43 pm

The Van Parijs volume has a particularly interesting paper by Andrew Williams that inter alia addresses the conundrum of how Rawls’s difference principle might be consistent with his enthusiasm for Mill’s stationary state.


Rich Puchalsky 05.17.13 at 3:51 pm

This sounds so strange — what exactly does “making something Open Access” mean, exactly? Putting it on the Web through a searchable interface, with keywords? The arxiv doesn’t charge anything, as far as I know.


ralph 05.17.13 at 4:01 pm

Yeah, I don’t really understand. You write the post because it’s obviously absurd, yet you say it’s difficult to boycott. You could of course just release it on the web, and not give the copyright away. They of course could refuse to publish. This might affect your academic standing, of course: but likely the culture that supports the old form of “standing” is changing and will continue to change quite rapidly. Aren’t you kind of calling yourself out, here? Doesn’t “be the change you would like to see” sort of fit? I mean, you ARE a timber blogger, and not just some community college person somewhere…. not that it makes you Wonder Woman(TM), but it’s not nothing….


Jerry Vinokurov 05.17.13 at 4:07 pm

Rich, making something “Open Access” means basically releasing it to the public, so that people who don’t subscribe to the journal can still read the article. The stupidity here is Elsevier, among others, requiring you to pay them to allow your work to be disseminated for free, despite the fact that Elsevier basically does nothing that adds any actual value to the whole process.


John Quiggin 05.17.13 at 4:16 pm

I was President of a society whose journal is published by Blackwell. They have a similar deal, and (knowing our circulation), I could work out that the pricing made sense only if you assumed that, once the articles were online, no-one would join the society.


Alex K. 05.17.13 at 4:17 pm

Ralph, it’s easy to understand why junior academics are trapped into trying to publish in reputable journals that charge outrageous prices.

There are, however, some things that are indeed puzzling:

1) Why do we not have yet a “reviewer’s guild,” an organization that ideally has most of the star academics (eventually, virtually all academics) and that does not provide its free services except for journals that are either reasonably priced or have reasonable open access fees (if you want dead tree forms of distribution)?

2) Why is tenured faculty still publishing in monopoly priced journals?

These two questions are indeed puzzling.


John Quiggin 05.17.13 at 4:18 pm

My guess is that the revenue Elsevier and the others have gained from this so far is less than the cost of dreaming up the policy and setting up the technology necessary for access. It’s more a way of saying “don’t worry about open access, we already do it”, without actually changing anything.


Jerry Vinokurov 05.17.13 at 4:20 pm

Alex, I think the answers to both of those questions is “inertia.” Anything that deviates from the established system is going to require more work, and given that academics tend to have enough work as it is, the incentives for deviation are very small, especially for tenured faculty. There are admirable movements out there to fix this problem, but for the most part those academics are in the minority, although in math and physics, for example, more and more people are coming around.


Rich Puchalsky 05.17.13 at 4:28 pm

ralph at #7: “You could of course just release it on the web, ”

No, I don’t think that that works. Then you’re implicitly indexing it with Google. Google doesn’t have the specialized tools required to let other academics find your article within a context of other, related articles. You probably want to release it within a database of articles with a specialized front-end search form (and which is also Google-indexed, because why not).

As far as I remember, the arxiv got around all of the journals by officially being a database of pre-prints. Presumably your last-updated preprint is exactly the same as your journal article. I’m not sure whether academic fields outside math, physics etc. have successfully convinced people that they can’t send out pre-prints.


Jerry Vinokurov 05.17.13 at 4:30 pm

The question is actually whether you’re legally allowed to release it on the web at all. Part of the problem is that publishers require you to sign a copyright transfer agreement, so if you release your work, you may be in violation of that agreement and thus liable.


AcademicLurker 05.17.13 at 4:34 pm


One reason for the success of the arxiv is that math and physics had a widespread culture of sharing and circulating preprints for many years, first through regular mail and then through email. The arxiv took off quickly because it just made it easier to do what most people were already doing.

I’m not sure how difficult it would be to get a similar system widely adopted in other fields that didn’t already have a long standing tradition of sending out preprints.


LFC 05.17.13 at 5:19 pm

Re Arguing about Justice: it appears to be necessary to download the entire book but I was wondering if perhaps there is a way to download particular essays instead of the whole thing.


Billikin 05.17.13 at 6:55 pm

Jerry Vinokurov @4

I had a similar experience with Elsevier publishing the proceedings of a conference some years ago. The only restriction was having to wait one year before making the paper generally available non-commercially. I guess now that Open Access is a big deal, they are charging through the nose for it.


Mark English 05.19.13 at 3:02 am

The point has already been made that the (publication) culture of physics, etc. is different from the arts and humanities culture. But the point could also be made that scholarly articles in the arts and humanities are generally a very different kind of object from articles in the so-called hard sciences – their value is a different kind of value. (More subjective, basically.)

Often (especially when the work has no potential for practical applications) that value actually depends on the existence of (and is assessed in the context of) a relatively small body of interested scholars.

This worked well enough when there was a core of recognized prestigious, printed journals, as the quantity of available quality material was limited. Removing this limitation (as digital publishing inevitably does for economic and other reasons) may lead (may it not?) to a situation where scholars in the same area are not reading and reacting to the same works in the way they once did. This matters, as you could argue that such reading and reacting to a shared core of material helped to define and give coherence to various disciplines.


Mary McCurnin 05.19.13 at 6:01 am

Seems that ANYTHING that can have a price tag-will. Money is eating us alive.


QS 05.19.13 at 5:29 pm

@ 14

I’m seeing authors more and more releasing their own version of their published article (without journal layout, masthead, etc). A way to circumvent the dissemination restrictions, I think.


Moby Hick 05.20.13 at 5:35 pm

Just a couple of weeks ago, I got a similar offer from a different journal. The article is already free on PubMed. They wanted me to pay $1,000 so that people who aren’t at a university, and thus not even able to cite me in a context that helps me, can read it with better formatting. I assume some consultant went around selling this to journals as “free money” or that they all decided to start huffing paint thinner.


Peter Erwin 05.21.13 at 11:10 am

Rich Puchalsky @ 13:
ralph at #7: “You could of course just release it on the web, “

No, I don’t think that that works. Then you’re implicitly indexing it with Google. Google doesn’t have the specialized tools required to let other academics find your article within a context of other, related articles.

Not to mention the problem of impermanent web sites. Making the paper accessible from your own web page is fine (and a good idea, for various reason), as long as you can offer some guarantee that your page will last more than a few years. But if you change institutions, or leave the field, or switch hosts, or die, then your paper will likely vanish. That, at least, is the advantage of formal journals or sites like the arxiv: the possibility that articles will remain findable and accessible.


Matt 05.22.13 at 3:55 am

Bad news: Google, frenemy of open access

I love the Google Books mass digitization effort but I’m disturbed how Google is controlling access to the public domain materials they have scanned. Google’s own Books site is very conservative about the materials that it shows in full as part of the public domain. It generally does not allow full viewing of materials published by the US Federal Government, though those are born public domain, or of hardly any material published after 1922, though there are millions of volumes published 1923-1963 that never renewed copyrights and are thus in the public domain in the USA.

Fortunately, the libraries that partnered with Google to scan books have set up their own library consortium with public access at The HathiTrust is far more aggressive about copyright clearance: they use human review and Library of Congress records to open access to many publications that simpler automated tests would classify as still under copyright.

Unfortunately, the open access from HathiTrust is not really open. You cannot download full copies of books without an institutional partner account, though you can read them through the web as long as you are online. This makes many kinds of reuse and transformation difficult or impossible. Downloading is prohibited not because it overtaxed the HathiTrust servers or was too technically difficult, but because Google required that the HathiTrust restrict access in this way.

I know because I wrote a tool called that used public HathiTrust APIs to automate retrieval of complete volumes. It respected rate-limiting hints from the server and ran without trouble for a few years. I personally downloaded hundreds of volumes over that time. I wrote it to retrieve old issues of scientific journals, while other groups like the International Music Score Library Project and Wikisource used it to enable curated access to a variety of public domain materials. What a fool I was for thinking that a public retrieval API providing access to public domain scans indicated that the data was intended for the public.

The end of openness came last year — announcement from March 2012:

Over the next several months HathiTrust will be implemeting security enhancments to the Data API. The enhancements will require developers using the API to acquire an OAuth 1.0 access key that identifies them, and a secret key that must be used to “sign” URLs to retrieve HathiTrust resources via the Data API. HathiTrust will also provide a Web client that employ’s a user’s login credentials as a proxy for these keys to facilitate non-programmatic uses. In March, staff at the University of Michigan integrated 2-legged OAuth into the Data API and began to develop the Data API client. Once OAuth is released, there will be an approximately 6-month transition period, ending October 1, 2012, during which signed access to the Data API will be possible but not required. After October 1, all requests to the Data API will need to be properly signed with an access key retrieved from HathiTrust. Complete documentation of the security enhancements and methods of obtaining keys and accessing the Web client is forthcoming. OAuth is planned for release in April 2012.

As the HathiTrust itself says in promotional material for the HathiTrust Research Center,

Of the 10.2 million volumes in the HathiTrust corpus, 62% are subject to copyright laws and the remaining 38% in the public domain are subject to Google terms of access. With the access controls that exist on the HathiTrust volumes and will exist for some time, complicated legal agreements have to be executed just to get access to the public domain works.

The HTRC is a complicated way for authorized people to go back to the status quo ante, like anyone had in January 2012 with hathihelper.

I’m afraid that the Google Books effort is not really going to make the public domain accessible, due to contractual restrictions imposed on partners and even worse limitations on the official Google site, but at the same time it is going to harm parallel efforts. Why should someone invest a lot of effort scanning old documents for the public when “everyone knows” that Google already did it? At least the Internet Archive is still doing it, and doing it right.

I’m angry at the partner universities — especially the public universities! — that gave Google such free access to their libraries and meekly accepted Google’s fetters on the data. I’m angry, but should I be surprised? Years before Google Books started, the University of Michigan scanned long-out-of-copyright materials for the Making of America Project. They too had a very proprietary attitude toward the scans: no transformation, no rehosting. I don’t know if imaging a page from an old book is transformative enough to qualify for copyright protection, but I respected UMich’s wishes at the time.

There is one last disturbing chapter to the HathiTrust/Google Books saga, though it is conjectural at this point: revenue-shielding collaboration with publishers. I mentioned that I started using the HathiTrust to get old issues of scientific journals. Some prominent titles like the Journal of the American Chemical Society didn’t start renewing copyrights until the 1950s, so there should be 20 or 30 extra years of public domain texts at least viewable through the HathiTrust compared to the offerings on the main Google Books site. But despite aggressive copyright clearance elsewhere, none of the ACS journals in the 1923-1963 window are visible to the public. I suspect this is because the American Chemical Society has digitized its own back journals and has been offering them commercially since the early 2000s; it looks like some sort of gentleman’s agreement not to undercut commercial archival access.

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