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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I've been mightily impressed by the role of crowdfunding solutions in recent days. I think it's great that these projects allow initiatives to get off the ground via people who like what's being proposed. I was particularly interested, though, in app.net's approach.

App.net, for those who don't know, is an attempt to re-make Twitter, but with open API access and no advertising. They propose the following:

We believe that advertising-supported social services are so consistently and inextricably at odds with the interests of users and developers that something must be done.

Thus, to avoid the cliché that if you aren't paying, you are the product, app.net have decided that a pay-to-use service is the way around this. Good on them, in many ways. That said, I think there are some valuable points to be taken for the world of academic publishing that is seeing a similar shift in the funding mode. It used to be the case that academics submitted their work and libraries bought it back from publishers. As far as the academic was concerned -- because, let's face it, most live in research cocoons -- they got access and they submitted work. They were the product.

Eggs for sale

The new Open Access model switches things around. Publishers are now seen as providing a service to academics and so, as the old adage goes, Article Processing Charges (APCs) are required to pay for the service before the scholarly material is generally released.

There is a problem, though. The crude binary assumption that "if you don't pay for something, you are product" neglects models of true altruism. I've always contended that the Open Access movement owes a lot to the free and open software movements, but let us consider what happens here. I don't pay for my operating system (Gnome on top of a Linux distribution), but I'm not the product. In fact, the true problem here is that there isn't a "product", there is a thing: a piece of software or a typeset/copyedited article. The one thing I think that the app.net campaign has inadvertently reminded me of is that: it doesn't have to be the case that in every human interaction there is a "product".

Scholar-publishers can run OA journals in much the same way that the open software community runs itself. Some people are paid by foundations who benefit from the work to maintain it, but many contribute because they believe that their work does good and they want openness. This is certainly why I run Orbit.

I appreciate there are problems with this. The unpaid aspect of it sounds like a right-winger's dream-come-true. Furthermore, isn't there a risk of publisher job losses? I'm not so sure. Jobs are already being lost in under-funded HE, but it's academics, because so much money is spent boosting the for-profit aspect of scholarly publishing. If we work to move those jobs in-house, paid for by the academy, cutting profit out, I think that good things will happen with little job risk. The scholar-publisher activist route can be seen, therefore, as the regulative extreme that, I hope, will work to make that a reality.