Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Yet another example of why APC Open Access should be a non-starter

Posted: Oct 04, 2013 10:10;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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I hope to write something more detailed about the fundamental ethical problems with APC (Article Processing Charges) models of Open Access.

The short version is that they are basically a subscription charge that preserves all the bad things about paywalled access to knowledge and preserve none of the good.

  1. User subscriptions are “pay to play” in the sense readers need to pay to access the knowledge; APC charges are “pay to play” in the sense that authors need to pay them or the knowledge to get published. Either way, access requires somebody to cross a paywall. Subscriptions are better because they spread the cost more widely (and hence make access cheaper on a unit basis). Moreover, subscription doesn’t prevent the dissemination of knowledge, it only restricts access; APC restricts the dissemination to those who can pay to publish. The second is much worse and far more unethical.
  2. User subscriptions involve trading cash for assets in the sense that libraries that pay subscriptions end up with an asset they can then use—access to the knowledge. APC charges are basically extortion: universities and libraries are told that their authors will not be allowed to publish if they don’t pay somebody to let them. The end result is that the library is poorer in terms of cash and not richer in terms of assets.

But the real evidence that there is a problem with the APC model is the existence of predatory journals. The basic premise—pay us and we’ll publish you—is far more open to corruption than the alternative—pay us and we’ll let you read our content. In a subscription model, the press has an incentive to keep quality high—readers will not pay for garbage; in the APC model, presses have an incentive to lower quality since authors will pay to print garbage.

That subscription models are more ethical than Open Access APC charges does not mean that Open Access itself is unethical or a bad idea. The main issue is how public money is being spent. If libraries and universities that are currently willing to risk public money going to scam artists instead used those funds to support Green Open Access journals we’d be able to have the best of both worlds: free access to freely disseminated research. That would be a good use of public funds—and it is much harder to scam.

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