I read Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy recently. It's not an anti-capitalist book, there are situations when the market approach is efficient and effective. But, he argues, the market driven mentality has become all pervasive, and that does strange things to society. An example is paying poor people to queue for tickets for rich people. Sandel argues this damages society, there is a loss of common experience:
"The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong"
The most famous example in the book is that of the Israeli day care centre. The staff were getting annoyed by parents picking their children up late, so they introduced a fine. And the number of late pick-ups increased. Whereas before parents had felt a social responsibility to pick their children up on time, and guilt if they didn't, by introducing a fine system, it had become a straightforward transaction. Parents no longer felt guilty about it because they were paying for it.
The argument here is that the marketisation of relationships fundamentally changes them. There are big questions to be asked about how this affects education, and we have complained long and hard about the concept of student as 'customer'. But I want to focus on some smaller aspects relating to open access, because we are seeing similar examples to the daycare there.
By adopting the gold route, we have changed the nature of the relationship between the author and the publisher. I am, of course, a big advocate of open access, so this is not an anti-OA argument, but I think it highlights some of the issues with the gold route. For example, in his 'sting' operation John Bohannon got his obviously bogus paper accepted by more than half of the 304 open access journals he submitted it to (unfortunately he didn't do a control submitting to traditional journals, but let us assume the acceptance rate would've been lower). We have also seen a wealth of predatory open access journals appear (Beall keeps a very good list), which are essentially vanity publishing, since none of the normal peer review or filters are in place.
By marketising the publishing process directly with the author, the relationship between the author and the publisher has been altered. This is not, I repeat NOT, a reason to abandon open access. But we should be aware of it. Rethinking the gold route approach might be appropriate, for example instead of research councils paying the researchers who pay the publishers, why not flow money to universities or not for profits to run open access journals? If there is no direct payment for the article then the incentive to lower quality is removed. There are many options I'm sure, but pretending that a market will exist and not change the nature of the process is not one of them.