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Unbundling Academia—It's Not Just for Cable Anymore

So-called "open access" academic publishing saves money and has political backing. But is it a good idea?
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The campanile at the University of California-Berkeley shrouded in fog. (PHOTO: D.H. Parks/FLICKR)

The campanile at the University of California-Berkeley shrouded in fog. (PHOTO: D.H. Parks/FLICKR)

Talk about “unbundling” and you’re probably talking about telecommunications, paying just for the cable channels or online services you want. Just today there was a flurry of hope that HBO, with shows from Girls to Game of Thrones, might be made available without taking on any other channels at all, and especially not yucky channels that aren’t showing Girls or Game of Thrones. No such luck, exactly—the offer comes only if you bundle it with Internet service. Better luck in Canada.

In a new paper, a social scientist at York University—in Canada—analyzes the “unbundling” of higher education. Specifically, Richard Wellen looks at the rise both of open-access publishing and of massive online open courses, or MOOCs. Whether these are maladies or therapies for what ails higher education is an unsettled matter, and Wellen’s piece is more a diagnosis than a prescription.

Over the past decade Wellen has written extensively about issues in higher education, from tuition to faculty disenchantment to university governance. In this article he outlines the disruptive effects that open access and MOOCs have brought to academe, and the combined market and political forces that are intruding into the commons. The paper (click here to read it) provides a fairly comprehensive overview of how academic publishing works, what it costs, and the reasons it has thrived. It’s a worthwhile read just for that insight, especially if you’re looking for a thoughtful primer on open access.

Open access is already well established, more so in the science and technological fields, where shelf-life is an issue, and less so in the theory-heavy social sciences and humanities. Wellen cites figures that 17 percent of current papers appear in open-access journals (authors pay a publishing fee, which supports the costs), while another 25 percent are placed in open archives by their authors even as the paper appears in a traditional journal.

“Openness is more than a high-minded principle implicit in academic work and research or a value implied by treating higher education as a public good,” Wellen stated in an interview with his publisher. “Openness in a digital age implies that more academic services and content will be portable and that, for better or worse, this changes the kind of policies and institutional forms which are available to academic communities.”

And it’s not, if you will, just an academic question.

“There is now near unanimity among national research granting councils – and the politicians that oversee them – that OA can help ensure the maximum economic and social impact for publicly funded scientific research,” Wellen wrote. In April, a United Kingdom policy requiring that all publicly funded research published be open access took effect, and in the U.S. the Obama administration is examining mandating free access to most federally funded published research within a year of its initial publication.

While these are fairly dramatic changes in the system, Wellen argues policymakers hope to reform, not disrupt, the existing ways academic knowledge is diffused. As with all change, expect winners and losers.

Unbundling arises because these “open” sources of academic material break the unofficial monopoly that universities had on higher education. Traditional institutions still have a role, really a pre-eminent role, in setting the academic agenda, but the terms of that (hopefully) benign dictatorship are increasingly open to (hopefully) democratic reform from beyond the ivory tower. Inside the academy, faculty members who instinctively value openness as a cardinal virtue are confronted with the collateral change their stance leads to.

“It is perhaps not surprising that recent surveys show that members of the academic community embrace open access and the demise of artificial scarcity as an ideal,” Wellen writes, “but are concerned that such developments might jeopardize the system of peer review.” Criticisms of traditional peer review are common, although as John Bohannon’s expose earlier this year illustrated, the open-access world has problems too:

From the start of this sting, I have conferred with a small group of scientists who care deeply about open access. Some say that the open-access model itself is not to blame for the poor quality control revealed by Science's investigation. If I had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, [University of Pennsylvania biologist] Roos told me, "I strongly suspect you would get the same result." But open access has multiplied that underclass of journals, and the number of papers they publish. "Everyone agrees that open-access is a good thing," Roos says. "The question is how to achieve it."

In a sort of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss moment,” Wellen asks if getting rid of the traditional gatekeepers of academic information won’t just shift the function to a new group in the private sector. That group inevitably will have its own issues and inefficiencies, and still have to navigate the minefields of sustainability and prestige that create problems in the existing regime.

Wellen himself doesn’t really take a stance on open access, except to suggest it won’t replace the top traditional journals anytime soon; those journals still provide prestige and imprimaturs. In a career field that’s always been described as “publish or perish,” prestige has played an outsize role, and the “impact factor” of a journal, however flawed a metric that may be, is eagerly followed by both author and publisher. Still, in an OA world where a professor can pay $99 and pass a perhaps less-stringent filtering system to be published, surely appearing in Nature or Science would still count for more.

Then there’s the question of equal access.

One of the reasons cable companies bundle channels, the purveyors argue, is to allow the less popular ones to survive. So Breaking Bad and Colbert subsidize weaker channels (all of which somebody watches).

That’s in a capital-driven market, and if I don’t get the Golf Channel anymore, so be it. What happens when unbundling appears in a public-benefit market and philosophy is on the block? One of the reasons obscure journals (but from major publishers) appear in university libraries is because they are bundled, like cable TV channels, in a package deal. Wellen asks if a publishing model that is directed by an a la carte “market” in effect would squeeze out less popular disciplines.

Would this, as Wellen asks in a slightly different context, “conflict with the collegial ethos and the logic of collective provision which is a hallmark of the academic commons.” Noting that some liberal arts fields are already squawking about the threat to “ heterodox fields or niche areas” that can’t pony up authors fees, he adds, “The [social science and humanities] community is less concerned about boosting research productivity than it is about avoiding a pattern of publishing reform in which the market would dictate scholarly priorities and resources would be managed in a way that upsets the level playing field between more and less affluent disciplines.”

Compare that with this statement: “Consumers have more than enough choice,” the chief operating office of 21st Century Fox recently said. “The priority should shift from quantity to quality. We’d rather have a bouquet of great channels than acres of mediocre channels.” Is that where academic unbundling could lead?

Wellen’s article itself appears in SAGE Open, an open-access journal produced by Pacific Standard’s biggest benefactor, SAGE Publications. (As such his “author publication charge”—the fee open-access journals assess for publishing an article—would have been $99.) SAGE Open is dubbed a megajournal, alongside similarly placed online publications like Scientific Reports, Springer Plus, or perhaps the best known one, PLoS One, which all accept a wide range of academic papers from almost all disciplines, straddling the distinction between an archive and a journal.

As Wellen explains in his paper, “Megajournals accept articles for publication based on a simplified threshold while the peer review process is accelerated, screening only for accuracy, validity and scientific soundness rather than novelty or importance.” While at first blush this might seem daft—what publisher would forgo novelty or importanc?—the pursuit of those very traits has created a lot of questionable research in pursuit of fame and citations. Citing PLoS One specifically, Wellen writes, “Its publishers assume that relevance and importance can best be judged after publication, especially since reliable methods for aggregating informal assessment are already flourishing.” These measuring systems, such as "altmetrics," in part use traffic and engagement statistics that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to any website.

In an open access world, if a sociology paper appears in a journal and no one downloads it, was it published at all?