APCs and the Independent Scholar

As Katie Shamash says in her recent review of the impact of article processing charges on libraries, “We’re part way down the road to open access.” This road has been long and perilous, and like most roads leading to terrible unintended consequences, paved with good intentions.

The dream of open access academic publishing has been to facilitate scholarly communication and open its channels to wider participation. Subscription charges to academic journals were (correctly) identified as one of the major barriers to participation in research and targeted for elimination. It is a testament to the goodwill and energy of many in academia, publishing, and the tech industry that massive quantities of research and other data are now freely available in ways that could not have been conceived only ten or twenty years ago.

Research, however, is not free to produce, and so can never be truly free to distribute. If the cost of its production isn’t being made up at the consumer’s end in subscription fees, it gets made up at the producer’s end in article processing charges (APCs), paid by the author of an article to secure its publication. This model is called “gold” open access, and represents an ever growing share of the total academic publishing market. As gold open access has grown, APCs have grown also. As Shamash notes, “The current average APC is £1,737, up over £100 from £1,632 in 2013.”

Most of the analysis has revolved around the problems this poses for libraries, with budgets not keeping up with inflation being spliced in the midst of the open access transition, still having to shell out for subscription costs to journals on the old model while also coming up with money for APCs. This is because most universities have treated APCs as an institutional cost to be funded out of the budgets libraries already held for securing access to research through subscriptions. It costs over 1700 quid to see your article in print but, if you hold a tenured post, that doesn’t come out of your pocket.

An ever-increasing number of faculty are adjuncts, however, with slight and shifting connections to the institutions that employ them. Fully 76% of all instructional positions in the US are now contingent. These are people who, as Lee Hall writes, are generally not even included in faculty meetings, let alone covered for their APCs out of the university’s research budget. I know many of these people personally; they are my fellow members of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS)—a mutual aid association for all of us clinging to the margins of the academic community. The NCIS struggles along on the donations possible from people working multiple jobs to make, generally, less than $30,000 a year. Every once in a while, we manage to toss someone a couple hundred dollars to help get them to a conference. We certainly can’t cover 1700 pounds sterling a piece to help them get published.

For an ever-increasing share of the academic community—indeed, a share that quadrupled between 1975 and 2011 and has been growing quickly ever since—gold open access is a cone of silence. It is a door slamming in our faces, scattering the pages of our carefully researched articles all across the floor of hallways in colleges that will not hire us for even two to three thousand dollars a class unless we can show publication credits and engagement in research, but which will never pay to help us publish that research, no matter how long we serve or how many students we take on. It is a new kind of gap, strikingly parallel to the digital divide, which increasingly makes the generation of knowledge, and with it the opportunity to define the terms of our societal conversations on a plethora of issues, an exclusive province of an ever-shrinking élite.

What is the answer? I don’t know yet (green open access has its own issues). All I know is that I will keep looking, but also that, when I do find a solution, I won’t be able to afford to let anyone know.

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