Joe Esposito’s contributions to Scholarly Kitchen are always well-argued and present an argument from a business-informed point of view that is mercifully free of much of the sloppy thinking around academic publishing. So it was very disappointing to see how negative he was about open access in his most recent contribution.  How could he miss the point?

Esposito’s argument is that open-access has never been justified, because the only possible justification is to see that OA has had the effect to “increase scientific communication and thereby accelerate scientific discovery”.  The rest of the post then claims that because nobody has demonstrated this, OA is therefore not worth doing.

I have two responses to his argument. Firstly, Esposito has here employed an argument that I shall call the “indicator that cannot be measured”. Esposito himself states “Unfortunately, there is no way to do a controlled experiment to test this. What would the world of cancer therapies look like in ten years if everything were made OA today”? Any scientist will tell you that complaining that something cannot be measured because the measure you come up with is not measurable is asking the wrong question.  

Firstly, major publishers have embraced open access not because it is a good thing, but because it makes money. It is clear that the largest publishers are making as much money from open-access publishing as they did from subscription publishing; it’s just that the money arrives upfront, before you even publish. In the case of hybrid journals, publishers are making more money than ever, by charging both the APC and the subscription to the journal –  until alert libraries discover what is happening and belatedly try to rein in this practice.

Secondly, I disagree that there is no evidence of the importance of OA to the academic cycle. As John Sack pointed out in a comment on the same post, there was an excellent session by Rachel Pye of Springer Nature who compared Springer’s own paid and OA book content, and in a controlled trial found that citations were 50% higher for OA books than for non-OA books.  Citations are the very measure that the academic world has chosen to indicate the value of research. An imperfect measure it may be, but the entire scholarly community uses it for paid content – so why should the same measure not be valid for OA content? Esposito makes no mention of this convincing evidence in OA’s favour.

In the comments to his post, there was an argument that Esposito missed completely, and that is probably not measurable using his own criteria.  OA makes content accessible around the world, not just in the West. In my opinion, if you want a justification for making research content available freely, try looking up the famous paper that revealed the thalidomide disaster. It was published by an Australian obstetrician and published as a letter in The Lancet in 1961. If you want to read it, there is no abstract available, but the full letter is available, via ScienceDirect for $35.95.