Monday, January 30, 2012

Open Access in South Asian Studies

Should we give up "traditional" journals? After all, why should the government pay me for doing researches my colleagues cannot afford to read because of the high prices of scientific journals?

Dominik Wujastyk keeps on stimulating the public of the Indology mailing list he founded with references to articles such as this one by George Monbiot. Here is a short quote:

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose. […]

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity.

Personally, I try to upload all my papers (as drafts) on and I wrote far more blog posts than articles. However, I need articles on peer-reviewed journals in order to access public funding (the last FIRB programme in Italy expects from a young researcher to have at least 10 or 15 printed publications). Beside that, I am still inclined to think that publishers may do an important job (and one readers alone would not be able to do), insofar as they:
  1. 1. select articles (distinguishing bona fide scientific ones from ones which could attract readers but are not soundly founded),
  2. 2. check articles (emend typos, suggest appropriate fonts for "unusual" languages, etc.),
  3. 3. look for relevant peer-reviewers,
  4. 4. provide feed-back,
  5. 5. edit articles (although I must say that in my personal experience all the editorial comments I received came from non-paid guest editors or the like),
  6. 6. distribute articles.
This cannot be done for free and if it does not generate profit, it must be state-funded. Of course, one is left wondering why products by Brill or Springer are so much more expensive than excellent journals published elsewhere… But this only means that journals and books should cost less, not that they should not cost at all.
Would not readers (if left as the only judges) prefer articles on "The Buddha in your every day life" rather than on "Was the Brahmajāla Sutta post-Aśokan?"? Even granting that many articles of the latter type could disappear without anyone noticing it, don't you agree that text-based research is needed, although it might look not as fun as "applied Buddhism" (etc.)? Or can one imagine that scholarly trained readers will automatically select an open access platform where only "scientific" articles are published and ignore the others? If no one is paid to select them, would not readers just select them because of their authors, thus making it almost impossible for a young researcher to be read?

What do you think? Where do you publish?


Shreevatsa said...

It is heartening to see issues of open-access being discussed here.

I don't know how it works in your field, but at least in science, all of (1) to (5) are done by academics, without being paid by the publisher (and even if they were paid, they would be happy to do it for free, because peer review is part of their job). It is only (6), distribution, that the publisher does, and this can be done by the internet — or an open-access journal which is free for online access but charges a small subscription fee for a print version.

I don't understand your last paragraph at all. Open access does not mean "not peer reviewed"! Open access means that anyone can access (read) the journal. It does not mean that anyone can publish without due process. :-)

You seem to be thinking of an open-access "journal" or some similar platform that does not have peer review and a selection process by scholars. But this is not the case. There are many reputed journals, such as PLoS ONE in biology, which are very selective in the articles they publish, and are peer reviewed by scholars, like any other journal. Similarly, there are multiple instances in which the entire editorial board of a top journal resigned, and started a new cheaper or open-access journal with the same editorial board and same standards.

You can read the first page of this article by Scott Aaronson (Computer Science, MIT) for a summary of the absurd situation academics are in:

Recently a protest against this state of affairs is gathering steam; you can see a summary from one of the top mathematicians here:

Please give a thought to your fellow academics in poor universities and poor countries, and also those non-academics who may be interested in the scholarly literature, and consider making your works open-access.

Dominik Wujastyk said...

Dear Elisa,
"Open Access" does not mean cheap, free, or even online. It means that research articles can be read free by the reader.

The journal may be electronic or physical or both (like eJIM).

The editing and production must be paid for. The money can be raised in numerous different ways - there is a literature on this.

One of the most important things about a journal for carreer-building is its editorial board. If the editorial board consists of respectable, senior, trusted figures, who implement a fair but firm acceptance policy and good editing standards, then the journal will gain authority and will "count" for our careers.

These things are all perfectly possible in OA publishing.

There's nothing amateurish or cheap about OA. That is to misunderstand the business models behind OA publishing. There's a good literature for exploring all this at


elisa freschi said...

Dear Shreevatsa and Dominik,

thanks for the suggestions, I will certainly keep on reading about it. If it were not my personal blog, I would apologize for writing on a topic I know little about.

If I am not wrong, Shreevatsa seems to suggest that almost all the work can be done for free, whereas Dominik suggests further fundings (different than the readers' fees).

Having worked for free for an Open Access journal (the Rivista di Studi Sudasiatici, see here:, I am not completely sure that the "low-order" work can be done by scholars for free. You can ask a scholar to evaluate an article, but not to correct punctuation, improve the reference-list, type-set, check for misprints, etc. As I said, I did it for free, but only because I am a naive idealist (and one cannot count on the fact that there will always be naive idealists around). Furthermore, this kind of work requires an ad hoc competence, one that an average scholar will probably not have (because s/he does not need it).

In short, I don't think funding is altogether superfluous, unless one only wants to produce an amateurish journal. One might rely on public funds, since governments often fund research. However, coming from a 'poor' country, I know how hard it can be to get funding for research. In most cases it would have been impossible for me to have my home institution pay for my research to be published. Furthermore, relying on public funds also means depending on them. Private fundings could be a useful integration, but they are hardly an option (it seems) as for historical studies of Sanskrit texts (and many other fields). I can easily imagine someone granting a fund for a translation of a religious text, but I never encountered anyone willing to pay me for keeping on researching on the hidden quotations in Śabara, etc. Last, Europeans seem just not used to the idea of having to finance research on their own (you might remember an older post of mine:

But maybe I am seeing a problem for which you already know the solution. I will check on the literature you mention, thanks again!

(Last, personally I am in favour of making my research accessible to everyone. My articles and book can be downloaded for free via my page on academia.)

Vidya said...

This is a case of retrogressive and monopolistic business practices. Take for instance the case of the independent researcher not affiliated to any institution.

They are mostly completely shut off from academic databases. Some of these publications do not allow individual accounts at all even if we are willing to pay for them. Even if I try to get access to them through other local university libraries by becoming a paid member, many of the libraries
have numerous restrictions on the use of electronic databases because of contracts or
the high price they pay to the academic publishers.

Sure some allow me to buy one 4 page paper at a time at n times the cost I would pay for a book which makes no sense.I for one am extremely glad to hear of voices from academia and institutions speaking out against this situation.

I also have a question on the dynamics of publishing:

So when your paper is accepted in a journal, do you own the copyright for that or a modified form of it? Or Do these
publishing bodies own the sole copyright. If it is the former, why can't authors
directly use the power of open markets like amazon and sell them to people who are interested?
This could be one way of belling the cat.

Shreevatsa said...

Dear Elisa,

Firstly, thanks for making all your works available online. If every author did this, we would indeed have gone a long way towards open access.

(The problem is that some publishers actually insist that authors turn over copyright to the publishers, so that in fact authors may be committing copyright infringement by publishing their own work! Nothing could be more absurd.)

You can ask a scholar to evaluate an article, but not to correct punctuation, improve the reference-list, type-set, check for misprints, etc.
Interesting to learn this... in the fields I know of, all this work is indeed done by the scholars, as part of the peer-review process. After receiving comments from the editors and reviewers (who are all volunteer scholars not paid by the publisher), the author gives the publisher a LaTeX source file or PDF, which the publisher simply pastes into the journal, with usually no further work. These are not done for "free"; the academics think of it as part of their job, and it is paid for by their university or usual funding sources. Whether you do the reviewing and editing for an expensive publisher or for an open-access journal, you do the same work for the same pay; the only difference is in how accessible the work is to the rest of the world. See Vidya's comment above for the sad effects that expensive publishers have. :-(

For the record, there are many top-rated (i.e., not "amateurish") open-access journals now. Probably Dominik will be able to say more.

Meanwhile, in the field of mathematics, there's a boycott of notorious publisher Elsevier which is gathering steam. See for a statement by some top mathematicians, and for some background. Anyway, boycott or not, full open-access or not, I think all scholars can agree with the following:

All mathematicians must decide for themselves whether, or to what extent, they wish to participate in the boycott. [...]

Whether or not you decide to join the boycott, there are some simple actions that everyone can take, which seem to us to be uncontroversial:

* Make sure that the fi nal versions of all your papers, particularly new ones, are freely available online, ideally both on the arXiv
[or in your case] and on your home page.

* If you are submitting a paper and there is a choice between an expensive journal and a cheap (or free) journal of the same standard, then always submit to the cheap one.

Let us hope the situation in publishing improves, and scholars can actually disseminate the results of their hard labour so that everyone who is interested can benefit from it.

elisa freschi said...

Vidya, I am not an expert (Dominik would be far better than me in answering). Since I became aware of the topic, I started asking to retain my rights while publishing on a journal. The default attitude is that the journal owns the rights. What I personally do is that I publish earlier drafts of all my articles on so that everyone can read them (please note that "early draft" is a slippery definition, in my case these are the pdfs I produce before the journal asks me to do silly things such as deleting sections and subsections, putting the bibliography into footnotes, etc.).
As for Amazon, I never tried to approach it directly. But I am inclined to think that given the fact that there are endless people who write valueless books, Amazon cannot be the platform for everyone to sell his/her own-made books.
I know of a platform like that in Italy (one has to pay a small amount to have the book typesetted and one can use the platform to advertise and sell one's books). The problem with that is: who evaluates the books offered? I would not want to buy, e.g., a book on "Indian philosophy" own-made, since I am afraid it is full of steretypical statements about Indian philosophy being "mystical", etc. Would you trust an own-made book, unless you knew its author (or you could read its content)?

elisa freschi said...

Dear Shreevatsa,

I am very sorry for answering just now. Your comment ended up in the spam —I do not know why.
I obviously agree with your last two points. I am, by contrast, less optimistic as for the first ones. If you want a well-done work, you cannot count on a scholar for checking commas and reference-lists. It is not their competence and in many cases they are just not able to note the differences between one font and the other. Even if they can, it is a waste of their time if they are forced to do it instead of professional typsetters, which will do a much better work in less time. The same applies to the idea of just publishing pdfs without typesetting them —typographical beauty counts, insofar as it makes content easier to grasp and remember.

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