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For decades academia has been something of a haven from rising inequality.  Yes, there are star professors with fat paychecks and union-busting university presidents.  Grants often go to those who have “proven track records” because they’ve been lucky enough to get grants in the past.  And the pages of the top journals are more often than not filled by the usual suspects.

But a vibrant ecosystem of diverse thinking has nonetheless flourished.  If the money side of academia has been infected by rising inequality in society as a whole, the academic side of academia has at least to some extent held out.  Heterodox views may not get the same exposure as orthodox views, but they get published.

Until now.  The British government has announced plans to make all academic research free to the public.  At first glance, that sounds like a huge win for freedom of expression.  On closer inspection, however, freedom to read may turn out to be the death knell of freedom of expression.

The problem is that someone will still have to pay for the publishing process.  In a small number of cases, free journals are supported as a public service by professional bodies.  I’ve long been affiliated with one of these, the Journal of World-Systems Research.

The JWSR was founded in 1995 by sociologist Christopher Chase-Dunn (now of the University of California at Riverside).  It was one of the world’s first online journals, and probably the very first outside computer science.  It’s been online so long that the first two volumes were published via Gopher, the now-obsolete precursor to HTML and the modern internet.

The JWSR is completely free; neither readers nor authors pay a cent.  It has been published free to all for eighteen years through the generosity of its editors and reviewers (who receive no compensation) and its student assistants (who are compensated for much less than the work they do).

It is also supported through a special levy paid by the members of the Political Economy of the World-System section of the American Sociological Association to support the journal.

The JWSR is a successful model for what’s called “green” free publishing.  In this model, nobody pays except the people who volunteer their time to produce the journals.  Unfortunately, such incredibly generous people are in incredibly short supply.

That’s why the UK government has decided to embrace so-called “gold” free publishing.  In the gold model, authors pay processing fees pay up-front so that publishers can make their articles available free of charge.  These fees are not small.  The UK government expects the average fee to come to about $2500.

According to the UK government panel that embraced this model, academics “are interested in securing publication in high-status journals which maximise their chances of securing high impact and credit for the work they have done, and their chances of winning the next research grant.”  Thus, they will convince their universities to pay these fees.

The panel is right.  For physicists who have $10 billion in government grants to build and run a particle physics super-collider, $2500 is chump change.  The universities will pay up.

But most academic research is not “high status” and “high impact.”  Most academic research is published by the rest of us, the “Other 99%” of academics.  For Other 99% academics, a $2500 article processing fee might as well be a career death sentence.

Pay-to-publish — the “gold” model — will result in the decimation of the humanities and critical social sciences in the UK.  These fields are already under attack in the UK because of its nationwide research assessment exercise.  Worldwide the underrepresentation of the humanities and critical social sciences in university rankings has had the same effect.  But pay-to-publish will be the final nail in the coffin.

Non-academics should care.  A vibrant intellectual ecosystem is a precondition for the long-term survival of any meaningful democracy.  Academia is rapidly following journalism, housing, medicine, retailing, and the rest of society into a system where only the rich matter.  Academia has been one of the last bastions of free thought.

People shouldn’t be fooled by an attractive-sounding slogan.  Free knowledge is not free; it’s knowledge paid for by those who want you to have it.  It’s only free to consume, not to produce.

For the first time in my life, I’m on the side of the corporate publishers.  Pay-to-publish will destroy academia as we know it.  There’s a better way to give people free access to published research.  It’s called library funding.  Remember libraries?  Government support for libraries can keep academic research both free to write and free to read.  If the corporate publishers make a penny or two in the process, that’s fine with me.

Salvatore Babones

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