Meeting report: The implications of the UK Government’s Open Access policy on the quality of academic publications


CSE committee member, Helen Topor, who is travelling in the UK, agreed to attend a meeting in Oxford on 1 August, on behalf of both the CSE and the ANU Emeritus Faculty, at the request of the CSE President, Elizabeth Manning Murphy DE. Here is her report, which will interest all editors, and particularly those who specialise in editing academic research papers, journal articles and theses. Our thanks go to Helen for making the time during her holiday to attend this meeting and write a comprehensive report.

Purpose of meeting
To gather information and opinions about the implications of the Open Access policy on editorial quality; it is not to provide answers. (The answers won’t be apparent ‘for a long time’.)

Anna Wagstaff, Secretary of the Oxford and District Branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) called the meeting. Twenty-eight people (21 females and 7males) attended: two from OUP, two from Elsevier, two from Wiley, one from CUP, three from Taylor and Francis, some freelances and some from other organisations. An Oxford Councilor attended because ‘publishing is the largest employer in Oxford’ and he was ‘interested to know how Open Access would affect employment’.

The NUJ has held a series of meetings on the implications of Open Access. It missed an important opportunity to present a case for acknowledging the value of editorial quality to the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings.

The Finch Report, published on 18 June, recommends moving away from a subscriptions model towards one that offers open and free access, particularly to publicly funded research. The report recognised the need to find ways of covering the costs associated with providing a high-quality service, but mentioned only the process of peer review, dissemination, and search and navigation facilities.

The NUJ feels strongly that the added value of quality editorial work—which includes editing, assessing manuscripts, handling peer review, copy editing, layout and design, and web production—must not be left out of the debate about improving access to academic publishing or specialist information available in the public domain.

There is a concern that the academic community and the public at large will be ill-served if journal and book publishers with a history of producing properly checked, well edited and clearly designed publications suffer as Open Access develops.

The NUJ is concerned to ensure that the voice of editorial and production workers is represented in the debate around moves to new models of academic publishing. The NUJ is also concerned about job losses associated with open access, with editorial and production work being outsourced to Singapore, the Philippines and India.

Major issues are:

  • How can open access models ensure that funding for the editorial process is included to ensure that published articles and books are accurate, complete and convey the authors’ meaning in a way that will be easily understood by a diverse readership?
  • Who will pay for this funding?
  • Who can the NUJ, Unite and SfEP talk to about their concerns?
  • What exactly is publicly funded research? (Universities charges fees and receive donations and well as government funding. It is a funding mix in reality.)
  • Since there have been major redundancies in the publishing industry over the years and editorial work increasingly outsourced, how will new editors be trained?
  • How can ‘the massive clash’ between academics and publishers over the last 10 years be resolved?
  • How can the perception of editors as a cost be changed to that of a value?
  • What should editors be saying, and who should they be saying it to? The funders for guidelines? The universities? (They have enormous power over where their people publish.)
  • What is going to happen to the subscription model?
  • Where do you set the price? Who pays the price? (Authors? Publishers? Users?)
  • What is actually driving the move to open access? (It does not just affect Science, Technology and Medicine publishing, as previously thought.)

Anna Wagstaff thought that tonight’s meeting was ill-equipped to make any decisions because ‘we all work in specialised areas. It’s not for us to say we are in favour of open access or against it, but to recognise that the power is shifting, to engage in debate and stop being silent and invisible’.

Freelances are particularly vulnerable because they are generally not in a union.
Anna also said that Australia and the USA are ‘well ahead of the UK’ in the move to open access publishing. However, UK research libraries have a big say and should be lobbied to ensure that editorial quality is maintained.

NUJ members welcome moves to expand access to the fruits of research, but turning research into clear, accessible, consistent and rigorously scrutinised learned articles and books isn’t possible without the skills of professional editors, copy editors, art and production editors, and others in the production chain. This must be recognised and paid for.

There’s no point in endless amounts of information if readers can’t make any sense of it.
In the coming months, the NUJ will be seeking to engage with all those involved in the chain of academic discourse—from research funders and publishers through to university librarians and even Google—to ensure that new publishing models preserve and, if possible, enhance the editorial quality of the journals and books on which academic life depends.

If academic publishing worked like any normal market, complaints about the fall in editing standards due to cost-cutting and inept outsourcing (and there are many) would have led to renewed investment. So far, that has not happened. It’s no wonder that academics are skeptical about publishers in general.

The NUJ believes that publishers must make a new commitment to editorial quality if they are to argue successfully for their role in the academic process.

A participant from OUP, a Marketing intern, undertook to write an A4 page or two on how Marketing people add value to publications.

A commissioning editor, after careful thought and assurances of anonymity, agreed to consult with counterparts from other organisations to write a page or two on why commissioning editors are valuable.

A production manager volunteered to do the same regarding people in her role.

All papers will be circulated to participants for comment and will then be added to resources which may be used after the NUJ’s conference in September 2012.

Helen Topor
Principal, TopWords
Freelance Writing and Editing Services
2 August 2012