Thursday, 12 August 2004

Who should pay for academic publishing?

Stephen Downes's OLDaily prompted me to read the "The Devil You Don’t Know: The Unexpected Future of Open Access". (I read FirstMonday regularly - but this month, I am just too busy!) Stephen's remark encouraged me to squeeze some time to do that. But I have not finished reading. I am about one third through and cannot continue anymore. I suppose Stephen has read the whole article and I will take his summary as the correct conclusion.

Traditionally, authorship and authority are closely linked. Promotion to tenure or higher position in higher education institutions depends on the amount of "publication". In some extreme cases, the teaching quality does not count! Sure, I can recall many inspiring lectures that I have attended. I am sure you can recall some really bad lectures given by senior lecturers or professors too.

In my humble opinion, the advent of technology - eLearning in particular - will shift this balance. Some obvious observations: Average age of higher education students is rising. There is an obvious decrease of average "academic" level due to a larger and more diverse student body. Geographically based "capture zone" is becoming less and less influential to students' choice of university. Travelling is cheaper and there are more distance-delivered courses which also provided an added flexibility in time. Eventually, competition among universities becomes global. Some will succeed. Because the scalability of the technology, there is no upper limit of intake. As in most phenomena in our society, the power law applies. A small number of successful universities will cater for the majority of the students.

In these teaching universities, the teacher-centric higher education will disappear. Teachers in these teaching universities will no longer obtain their authority through publication. I will see teachers maintain their edge by being a good teacher, a good facilitator of learning, a good supporter, a good motivator or a good guide in the students' pursuit of their learning goals.

Research laboratories and research centric universities will still exist. These are either funded by public purse or supported by research funds. In the first case, the OA model of publishing completely makes sense. The additional cost (if any) will be absorbed without anyone noticing. In the latter case, the research result will likely be locked in patents – the information is still publicly available – just that you cannot use that information for some years. (By the way, I hope that governments are sensible enough to limit the extension of patents. I am glad that Australia’s labour party is to introduce laws to prevent “ever-green” patent practices, at least to provide the protection to our pharmaceutical benefit scheme.)

Do we still need to discuss the cost of Open Access publishing? Does anyone really care? Sorry, not me!

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