Whatever happened to the Academic Spring? (Or the irony of hiding papers on transparency and accountability behind a paywall)

Is the Academic Spring running out of steam, like its Arab namesake? Last year, there was lots of talk of opening up access to academicbye bye paywall papers. Both DFID and the Wellcome Trust took some welcome steps to push the recipients of their research grants to open access.  Following the death of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself because he was being prosecuted for conspiring to publish paywalled journal articles, the editor and editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration resigned en masse because they had a “crisis of conscience about publishing in a journal that was not open access”. It seemed that a long overdue revolution was upon us.

Yet this week I had a depressing exchange with the (usually wonderful) ODI about their journal, the Development Policy Review (no link for reasons I’ll explain). The latest issue of DPR covers transparency and accountability initiatives, and (oh the irony!) it is hidden behind a paywall: if I want to read more than the abstract, I have to fill in online forms, pay a few $, then go through the hassle of reclaiming it through Oxfam’s expenses system and anyway, I balk at paying before I know if it’s any good.  The result is (and I suspect I am fairly typical) that I move on – I either write to the author to scrounge the piece, find someone who has access eg through a university or, as in this case, read something else instead (it’s not as if development wonks are running out of reading matter).

When I complained via twitter, ODI directed me to an FAQ page on their website which explains:

“ODI does not hold copyright for articles in ODI’s two peer-reviewed journals, Development Policy Review and Disasters, so cannot directly publish these with open access. However, articles can still be accessed through the following methods:

Free access in developing countries. Both journals are available to qualifying institutions for free or low cost through the HINARI, AGORA and OARE initiatives. In 2012, 5,116 institutions were able to access our journals via these initiatives.

Author-funded open access. OnlineOpen is available to authors who wish to make their article freely available to all. This form of open access is mandated by a number of funding organisations, including Research Councils UK and The Wellcome Trust.

Author self-archiving. All authors can publish an electronic version of unpublished articles on their personal website, their employer’s website/repository and on free public servers in the subject area. The final accepted peer reviewed article can be put online in the same ways 24 months following publication in Development Policy Review or Disasters.”

or maybe not
or maybe not

But while some people can therefore access DPR without hassle (if they have the right institutional affiliations), this does not include ‘users outside academic institutions and in the developed world.’ i.e. me, or anyone else working for a northern thinktank, NGO or on their own account.

Does this matter? Well yes, for me – I would quite like to skim the latest DPR, (and will do so next time I’m at the ODI office, and probably try and steal a copy as well). But also more broadly, because it means the journal is cutting out large chunks of potentially influential readership (in this case, a lot of organizations working on transparency and accountability!). The reason for sacrificing so much impact is to cover the costs of peer review and publication by Wiley – but is the trade-off really worth it? Is the review of peers really worth more than the readership of mere mortals? And is Wiley, like most journal publishers, operating a form of highly profitable knowledge rent-seeking?

What to do (apart from whinge on twitter and here)? A few suggestions, in ascending order of bravery:

  • Ask DFID or other funders of ODI to investigate: if they are paying for the research, it should be open access. If DPR is running at a loss (as one insider tweeter claims), then it is being cross subsidised by other ODI activities, much of which are funded by DFID, so the same argument applies.
  • Alternatively DFID/ some other funder could work with journals to extend access to non-profits, North and South (or the journals could just decide to do it – if my behaviour is any guide, they wouldn’t lose much revenue and would gain a lot of kudos)
  • We should all refuse to peer review papers for gated journals (as Owen Barder does) or to link to them in our blogs (hence no link to DPR in this piece)
  • As I understand the ODI page, they are entirely within their rights to contact DPR authors, suggest they self-publish their final drafts, and thenAcademic Springpublish those links on the ODI site. You up for that ODI?
  • Or they could try and get a better deal from Wiley – Oxfam hosts the Gender and Development journal and has a deal with its publisher, Routledge, that you can get its content free via the GaD or the Oxfam Policy and Practice websites.
  • Or someone brave (i.e. not me) could blog the executive summary of each DPR paper and challenge Wiley to sue
  • Or someone even braver (and who doesn’t mind putting off readers) could publish the whole thing.

So who wants to be the Julian Assange of development research?

By the way, twitterati may have spotted that I originally suggested co-authoring this with transparency guru Owen Barder, but in the end we agreed that co-ranting is just too difficult. He did ask me to include this line though: ‘Publishing academic articles behind paywalls is more than an inconvenience: it limits the spread of knowledge and ideas to already rich and powerful institutions and people.  It belongs to an era in which printing and distributing journals was an expensive business. Limiting access to the world’s intellectual resources on those grounds in the digital era is having a legacy tail wag a modern dog.’

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


13 Responses to “Whatever happened to the Academic Spring? (Or the irony of hiding papers on transparency and accountability behind a paywall)”
  1. Gerry

    You say “The reason for sacrificing so much impact is to cover the costs of peer review and publication by Wiley – but is the trade-off really worth it? Is the review of peers really worth more than the readership of mere mortals?”
    Are you suggesting that ODI give up the peer review of the journal? Isn’t peer review pretty important? It seems to be a constant refrain of those pushing back on climate change deniers, for instance, that they usually have no peer-reviewed science to back up their claims. Or are you simply suggesting that Wiley charge too much?

  2. Hi Duncan,

    I’m sure you will agree that these issues affect all of us who are trying to generate and share knowledge for poverty reduction. Your readers can’t download your book for free and Owen Barder has just this month published an article for the Journal of International Development which is behind a paywall. I know the background papers are available for both (just as they are for the DPR theme issue here on the Transparency Initiative website, as well as the DFID and IDS websites: http://www.transparency-initiative.org/news/review-impact-effectiveness-transparency-accountability-initiatives ) but I guess this goes to show that there are no easy answers to these questions for any of us.

    Just because the answers are not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find them and those of us working on these issues at ODI think you are raising some really important questions here about open access and how changes in the industry continue to affect us. We hope you will let us respond to them more fully on the blog.



  3. Cynan

    The peer reviewers are doing it for free anyway. ODI could cut Wiley loose and I have no doubt still attract the services of excellent peer reviewers to an open access, self published journal. Find a nice foundation to co-brand and cover ancilliaries, like an editor salary.

    More and better reviewers too perhaps from a more diverse audience..?

  4. Paul Harvey

    As the ex managing editor of the Disasters journal I’d certainly agree with you that Open Access would be hugely desirable and it would be great to enable the massive expansion of readership that it would provide. When I managed Disasters I thought long and hard about how to achieve it but couldn’t because it’s hard.
    The problem in getting there is with the economics of journal management which your blog simply gets wrong. Peer review is free – a great act of collective altruism on the part of the academic community. The main costs of running a journal are in staff time. Disasters needed 30 to 40 days a year for the managing editor to read 100s of papers, allocate peer reviewers and feed-back comments to authors (an under-budgeting that meant lots of weekend and evening work). It also needed part of an administrator’s time to allocate papers between 3 editors and correspond with authors and a large chunk of a copy editors’ time to edit the accepted papers.
    ODI doesn’t have any core funding so all of that staff time has to be paid for and, at the moment, that comes from ODI’s share of the subscription revenue. So to get to Open Access you’d need to find about £50,000 a year from somewhere. And it would need to be a long-term commitment because Disasters has been running for 36 years – the subscription model achieving one of those development holy grails – sustainability. I did try and find donors willing to make a 10 year + commitment of £50,000 a year but that’s a tough sell.
    So it’s not a ‘trade-off’ – I wasn’t trading off income and readership – but simply a financial impasse.

  5. Ian

    Duncan – great that you are bringing attention to this topic. I think it’s particularly problematic when a development organization chooses to a closed access model for its in-house journal (as opposed to publishing an article in someone else’s closed access journal) and I know ODI is not the only culprit.

    Producing a journal is of course not free and so the costs need to be borne somewhere (e.g. for peer review the main expense is in the administration of the review process which I know is quite time consuming having organized a number of internal peer-review processes)

    In early 2011 I wrote a short blog on different potential funding models for journals that would help find a way to cover the costs of open access – I looked at a few models – but I think the comments were the most interesting part. Here it is:


  6. Jon

    Hi Duncan, bit late to this discussion but good to see it being tackled and some good points made here and in the comments. There are lots of discussions rumbling away on open access, both in the publisher and the development world. It’s important not to miss the role of individual researchers here.
    If they’re committed to making their work open – and many of them are – they can already do this a number of ways: as you note, put a copy in an institutional repository (at academic institutions in any case, but probably applies elsewhere) or decide to pay to publish OA (which applies to those who can access the funding to this from the medical funders, or through DFID grants etc). Not a perfect system, but there are options, and how many are taking up the self-archive route? Not so many. It’s libraries and other university offices doing this for them in lots of cases. So rather than just railing against the publishers, we need to make the case to researchers too, understand the obstacles, and why relatively few do make use of these existing routes. Probably something around academic incentives to unpick here – which might also relate to your post on impact and how these policy shifts start to change the imperatives within research/practice relationships.

    What’s also been evident is that while most researchers agree with OA in principle – making their work more widely accessible to all who might want or need it – there are real worries about how this is done, and what this might mean for the quality of research (we don’t to be swamped with lots of less-good stuff to sift through) and freedom to publish (eg if universities control these OA publishing funds through some kind of central committee). Some worry that this could result in some stifling of important work. Whether justified or not, they’re real concerns we need to tackle. And some concerns relate to people’s careers – established researchers can probably ride out most changes in research funding policy, but bright young academics just starting out on their careers are pretty vulnerable. They need to get published to advance their careers, so can’t risk not publishing in ‘best’ journal(s) in their field to go OA instead. (They can of course publish the old way and self-archive – so we need to do explaining around that).

    And of course what we do here has enormous impact on fragile research systems in the south. They might get to read everything we produce if we make it all OA. But their own national journals – an important part of national and regional research communities – often depend on subscriptions to remain afloat. If we force everything OA too fast, these could founder, and then we lose that all important Southern academic autonomy and voice. It’s a tricky set of issues. It reminds me of your post today about NGO staff and salaries – people with families and cars and taking holidays. The same is true here of researchers – they might want to change the world, but they also have these concerns too, so we need to bring them with us on this, not make them fear for their careers and security. No easy answers, just more concerns and questions to resolve…

  7. Bill Savedoff

    I want to thank Paul Harvey for putting a clear price tag on this issue. As someone who has edited books and been on an editorial board, I know that the costs of reviewing, editing, problem-solving, fact-checking etc. can be enormous. The voluntary nature of peer review paradoxically creates its own additional costs – of tracking and cajoling experts to fulfill their commitments. Frequently these costs are subsidized invisibly from organizations whose staff use their fixed salary time, computers, internet connections and offices to do the Journal’s work.

    I’m not writing this to excuse paywalls. I think they should be abolished. £50,000 a year is a pittance relative to the benefits of some quality-control process but it has to come from somewhere. Ian and Duncan’s suggestions are a start. Let’s do it.

  8. Carol Ballantine

    Coming late to the conversation, I’m also going to make a fairly tangential comment – but it’s important. Aaron Swartz didn’t kill himself “because” he was being prosecuted. From the Samaritans guidelines on reporting suicide:

    “Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes.”
    Sorry to lecture, but us NGO people love tools and guidelines so we’d better use them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *