Two Things Thursday: Open Access and Data Lords

It’s spring break and I’m focusing on self-care for a few days and trying to build some stamina for the final six weeks of the semester. So instead of a full three things on Thursday, I’m cutting back to two things, but I hope that these two things are cool enough to make up for being one short.

Thing the First

The yuge news in scholarly publishing was that Elsevier and the University of California system reached $10 million+transformative agreement.” This agreement makes it for possible for Elsevier to publish over 4000 articles per year written by University of California faculty under open access licenses. The UC system will also get access to all Elsevier published content for “free.” Authors with grant funding will pay additional fees for their articles to appear in Elsevier journals. The library will support authors without grants. Thus, this agreement reflects a “multi-payer” type arrangement with the university and grant funded researchers sharing the burden of publication fees. This transformative agreement restores access to Elsevier journals interrupted when negotiations broke down in 2019 between the UC system and the publishing company. It also ensures that research from the amazing scholars at the UC system is available in open formats.

To be clear, if I were negotiating on behalf of UC, I would have considered this agreement a “win” for my side. I also have a deep distrust of Elsevier and understand that the company is not giving anything away here, but adopting alternative strategy to generate profits for its stakeholders. 

I have some worries, of course. First, I worry that this will draw more scholars to publish in Elsevier journals. Not only will it attract UC scholars, with the prospect of open access publishing at no or known costs, but it will presumably attract other scholars to these journals which will benefit from appearing in the same pages as prestigious work by UC faculty. This is good for Elsevier.

Second, I also worry that this is a bad deal for journals that are not covered (or likely to be covered) by such transformative agreements. How will independent publications such as Hesperia fair if these kinds of agreements become the norm? How will these agreements shift the landscape for journals published by smaller presses which may not have the massive economies of scale to negotiate transformative agreements that swap subscription fees for publication fees? I can’t help but fear that these kind of agreements are not great for small and mid-sized presses that publish specialized journals. These arrangements risks drawing high quality content away from their pages and making these journals less visible in citations, subscriptions, library use, and increasing important journal rankings. In other words, these kinds of agreements are good for Elsevier journals, but not necessarily good for the wider academic publishing ecosystem. 

They’re also good for UC scholars, of course, by ensuring that scholars from UC have an expansive platform to share their work and their influence. This kind of system, however, serves to amplify the voices of UC faculty in ways that are not open to all scholars at all institutions. While this kind of asymmetry has always existed in higher education, I worry that these agreements further reinforce the division between the haves and the have nots. Multi-payer, open access models connect the reach of one’s scholarship more explicitly to institutional and individual resources. While this parallels access to facilities and grants for scholars in the sciences, for scholars in the humanities where institutional resources are less determining in the quality of scholarship (or I would guess) this will work to the detriment of scholars at institutions unable to negotiate favorable publishing agreements with major presses. Perhaps this is just my paranoia as a scholar at a smaller institution that is unlikely to negotiate such transformative agreement, but also my worry that this might negatively impact scholars at less wealthy institutions that often serve historically underserved communities. (Again, this isn’t to suggest that the UC system represents an especially elite cross section of the academic community or to denigrate the significant scholarly impact of those scholars! I know that folks at UC institutions do amazing and impactful work that makes life better for people from all walks of life).

My final worry is this reflects a shift by Elsevier from publishing as a means to profit directly from the dissemination of knowledge and toward a new role as the aggregator of knowledge. By attracting research from major institutions to their journals, Elsevier expands the quantity of content that they can package, analyze, and interpret. The role of major publishers in tracking the impact factor of journals and individual publications, for example, benefits from this kind of expansive data set. It also positions Elsevier to track trends in research, anticipate new directions, and funnel scholarly inquiry through Elsevier owned properties. While this might seem like a dystopian view of Elsevier’s corporate interest, I worry that it’s not.

Thing the Second

This brings me to Maria Schneider’s Data Lords. Just as the UC system was announcing their transformative agreement, the 63rd annual Grammy Awards was taking place (sort of) in Los Angeles. Schneider’s Data Lords won the Grammy for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The album was released on the innovative artist owned and crowd funded label ArtistShare.

The album traces the relationship between our digitally mediated world and what Schneider calls the real world of the human experience of nature. She sees the distinction between the digital and the human as complex with the former being closely tied to corporate interests, oppressive workflows, and bustle. The latter, in contrast, is more peaceful, restorative, and less corporate and capitalized.

My description overly simplifies a complex work and the album is worth a listen. At the same time, the album clearly recognizes the complex landscape of the contemporary music industry where streaming serves reward music that garners millions of clicks and further marginalizes music that tends to attract devoted, but smaller audiences. Data Lords is not available on streaming services and was funded through sponsors who contributed before and during the recording process. In other words, it wasn’t distinct from the digital world it sets out to critique. In fact, it relied upon digitally medicated crowdfunding to come into existence. At the same time, it navigated an independent path, avoided commercial record labels, and metered metrics of the streaming world.  

It seems to me that projects like Data Lords offers one way to critique the kind of transformative agreements negotiated by UC. It reminds us that knowledge is data and when companies control access to data (whether that’s knowledge or publications), they do so for their own benefit. 


One Comment

  1. March 18, 2021 at 3:40 pm

    Hello Bill, Just to say that as one of the former editors of Hesperia, and as an academic whose institution is unlikely to take part in any such transformative agreements, I share your concerns entirely. It is not paranoia!


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