Albert Einstein’s Miraculous Year, the British Government, and Open Access

“After 1905, Einstein’s miraculous year, physics would never be the same again. In those twelve months, Einstein shattered many cherished scientific beliefs with five extraordinary papers that would establish him as the world’s leading physicist … The best-known papers are the two that founded special relativity: On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies and Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on Its Energy Content? In the former, Einstein showed that absolute time had to be replaced by a new absolute: the speed of light. In the second, he asserted the equivalence of mass and energy, which would lead to the famous formula E = mc2.

On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light … challenged the wave theory of light, suggesting that light could also be regarded as a collection of particles. This helped to open the door to a whole new world—that of quantum physics. For ideas in this paper, [Einstein] won the Nobel Prize in 1921.

The fourth paper also led to a Nobel Prize, although for another scientist, Jean Perrin. On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat concerns the Brownian motion of such particles … which Perrin [later] confirmed experimentally. The fifth paper, A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions, was Einstein’s doctoral dissertation, and remains among his most cited articles. It shows how to calculate Avogadro’s number and the size of molecules.

These papers … [are] among the high points of human achievement and marks a watershed in the history of science.”

From Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Edited and introduced by John Stachel), Princeton University Press 2005.


Recent events in Britain threaten to change the landscape of academic publishing–fundamentally.  Flying the flag of “Open Access,” the UK government has accepted the 2012 Finch commission’s recommendation that all papers arising from publicly funded research should henceforth be available to the taxpaying public free of charge.  To achieve this the so-called “gold” model of open access will be used.

Currently most scientific and scholarly journals charge their authors nothing to publish, and make their money wholly through subscriptions, mostly to university and other institutional libraries.  Paying to publish is viewed with suspicion, as the hallmark of a “vanity press.”  But readers have to be members of a subscribing library to access these journals (even online) free of charge.  In this sense the publications arising out of most academic research, even where that research is publicly funded, remain behind a “paywall.”  On the proposed gold model of open access, journals will make their contents freely and immediately available online to all, and recoup their costs by charging authors an “article processing charge” (APC).  Both Finch and the government rejected an alternative “green” open-access model, in which there is no APC but papers are made freely available to the public after an embargo period of two-to-three years.  This green model is favored by most British learned societies in the humanities and social sciences, whose vigorous protestations have so far been ignored.[i]

While it is accepted that there will be a period of transition before all UK-based journals have become “open-access compliant”—to say nothing of journals (the majority) published in other countries—the government has made it clear that it wishes to see Britain taking the lead in the move to open access.  To that end, RCUK—the most important funding body for academic research in the UK—has already instituted (effective April 2013) “a requirement that results arising from their funding are published only in journals that are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access. Authors will therefore be expected to select from among such journals when choosing where to publish their research.”[ii]   HEFCE—the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which provides so-called QR funding to individual English universities on the basis of their performance in the periodic assessment exercises known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF)—has also announced that it intends implementing “a requirement that research outputs submitted to any future Research Excellence Framework (REF) should be as widely accessible as possible at the time.”[iii]  This is an extremely powerful mechanism for ensuring that individual faculty members publish in (gold) open-access venues, because exclusion from a university’s REF submission will blight their prospects for career advancement and could even cost them their job.

The average APC, according to the Finch report, will work out at around £1500 (US$2367) per paper—far more than the average faculty member can afford.  “Publication funds” will be set up within universities to cover costs of APCs, though it has been made clear that these will come out of the existing research budget.  Given the state of public finances there is no chance that the funds available will remotely cover the range of papers that come out of UK universities.  You do not have to be an Einstein to imagine the viciousness of the inevitable coming dogfight over these funds—between universities, between disciplines, between colleagues.  Nor does it require much imagination to identify the probable losers: early career scholars, especially those on sessional contracts, retired faculty, individuals working within the lower-ranked and worse funded schools.  Likely the humanities and social sciences, to the benefit of science and engineering.  And, quite possibly, anyone who fails to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues or makes a habit of getting up the noses of their superiors.

Notwithstanding the great inequalities between institutions—including huge differences in teaching loads (and therefore time available for research) and quality of library provision—a researcher’s chance of his or her paper being published has up till now depended entirely upon the journal’s processes of peer review.  If it meets a journal’s standards of quality it will get into print. Under this gold model of open access, not only will the range of publication venues be controlled (and if other countries do not follow the UK’s lead, severely restricted) by HEFCE and RCUK, disadvantaging UK researchers against colleagues elsewhere.  The universities–our employers–will now be the gatekeepers to the funds a faculty member needs in order to be able to afford to publish his or her work in HEFCE and RCUK-approved venues at all.  Given the importance of publication at every stage of an academic career, it is difficult to conceive of a more potent disciplinary mechanism—or a more serious threat to academic freedom.

One can see the attractions of enserfing academics, both for governments and university administrators.  It has only one drawback for any country that values research excellence:



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