We know a few authors make a lot of money. Many make some money — not quite enough to live on perhaps, but enough to get by with a bit of freelance activity as well. Some do OK, but can’t afford to give up their full-time jobs. And of course the majority make very little from their writing. It would probably surprise the public to know who the earners were — textbook authors often do well, and compilers of boring things that every schoolboy and schoolgirl needs, like the four-figure tables we all owned before the invention of cheap calculators. And of course a few prominent best-seller authors.

I cannot of course speak with authority about the motivation of authors, but we can all speculate. (This link will take you to an article from The Guardian‘s Books Blog reporting on some research into the money motivation of authors.) While nobody would rule out the possibility of that manuscript turning out to be a huge money-maker, I think it’s probably being written for a variety of motives, of which money-making is almost always near the bottom. Having something you want to say/ knowing something you want to share with others would seem likely to me to be the prime motivation. Getting the respect of colleagues/showing off is probably a big factor. Just proving you can do it, is a related cause. Simply being asked to do it, is, I’d bet, a surprisingly common motivator. Doing it so you can get tenure in your university job, seems to be the somewhat cynical view of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Jonathan Bate has a piece in the Times Literary Supplement of 10 January 2014 ringing alarm bells about the HEFCE’s report “Open Access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework”. Bate is warning that forcing humanities scholars to make all their publications available free through Open Access will result in their being unable to write the sort of books most of us would read — the “academic trade” book giving a general overview of a topic in non-specialist terms. In crude terms what the HEFCE is up to is applying the UK government’s policy that research paid for by the people (through taxation) should be made available free of charge via Open Access. The principle is obvious: Academics do research; their salaries are paid by the government out of taxation; the research results in journal articles or books; people shouldn’t have to pay twice for the results. But of course that is far too broad-brush a statement, leaving out all the nuance.

If I am employed as a bank clerk and write poetry, should Lloyd’s Bank own the copyright in the poems? We’d doubtless say no, as banking and poetry have little to do with one another, poems are obviously not going to lead to promotion at work, however good they may be, and we assume that the bank clerk writes his poetry at home in the evening anyway. But what if at 9.45 am, on his way into a meeting, it comes to the clerk in a flash of inspiration how to clear up the knot he’d tied himself into last evening and he scribbles himself a note about it. Or if a remark by one of his colleagues sets him off on a new poem. A junior professor of English may be writing a book on T.S.Eliot in his evenings and vacations, but because he’s a specialist in 20th century poetry, he often has to think about Eliot at work. And besides his university salary covers him for the full twelve months, not just term time, so are vacations really free time? This makes it a little different from the bank clerk, but not totally and unambiguously so.

HEFCE policy “works” better for the sciences than it does for the humanities. The bureaucrats are big on money earned from patents and consulting, and we can all see how scientific research can have big financial implications. Furthermore the pattern of publication in the sciences is, by and large, very different from the humanities. Short reports of research published in academic journals is more the way the sciences advance, while the humanities don’t really go in for experiments which can be reported, and tend not to make breakthroughs which can be capitalized on. “Advances” in the humanities are more gradual things — an insight here, a novel interpretation there, a daring comparison across cultures bringing a fresh perspective. Much harder to measure than the “output” of a scientist. But if a scientist has a great idea while taking a bath, do we have to regard that idea as having been paid for by the government who provide the money to pay his electric bill? It gets messy.

I think we have to step back and ask ourselves why the HEFCE are doing this. They are striving to find a way to control a problem which if not out of hand is at least a much bigger problem that it has ever been in the past. Can we afford to provide a university education to all, or to all who could benefit from it? I think that the second half of the 20th century was perhaps the heyday of free higher education in Britain. Before World War II only people who could afford to were able to go to university. It is obviously “a bad thing” that education, and thus access to the best jobs, should be available only to the rich, so allowing universities to recruit on the basis of ability was obviously socially desirable. By the early sixties, when I was at university, the proportion of students from fee-paying schools was dropping, and grammar school students were being admitted in growing numbers. The government paid our university fees, unless you were wealthy in which case you had to chip in. I paid my college only for my board and lodging (no doubt heavily subsidized too) and my parents got to pay for the books I bought. As we moved on towards the end of the century Britain kept trying to allow more and more pupils to attend university. The old universities were no longer enough, and several new universities were established. In the present century we have taken the old technical colleges and promoted them to be universities too. There’s now a somewhat odd sign at Cambridge Railway Station: “Cambridge: Home of Anglia Ruskin University”. Whatever happened to the University of Cambridge the innocent tourist might wonder. Anglia Ruskin is the old tech at which I did my Russian evening classes when I was working in Cambridge. So now we are striving to educate not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of students — and unsurprisingly we can’t afford it.

To their credit the government has opted not to charge the going rate for university, though fees have been introduced. In America, where one might say the going rate is charged, much maneuvering is done to ensure that poorer students can attend — grants, scholarships and loans. By introducing fees England has started down that road, and this HEFCE initiative represents a parallel attempt to benefit from the governments expenditures on education. They want the research that university teachers must do to be made available “in a form allowing the reader to search for and re-use content (including by download and for text-mining), both manually and using automated tools, provided such re-use is subject to proper attribution under appropriate licensing”.

Bate sees much of academic discourse as having already migrated online. “I recently asked a group of students in my College [Worcester College, Oxford] — from a mixture of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences and sciences — whether they had ever read a journal article in hard copy in a library, as opposed to online or as a download. Not a single one of them raised their hand.” Maybe today’s students are more assiduous than I was, but if the Master of my college had asked me that question about printed journal articles, I wouldn’t have been raising my hand either. The force pushing academics in the direction of Open Access is the “Research Excellence Framework”, the mechanism by which the Funding Council allocates millions of pounds of research funding to universities. You are under pressure to make all your research available in the REF approved format (which means freely available online), and refusal will make you a bad colleague. While at the moment the REF requirement only covers journal articles, by 2025 it will also include monographs, already an endangered species.

While the monograph may well live online in the long run, whatever happens, I suspect Professor Bate is extrapolating too far. Maybe some historians will feel the pressure, and allow that to dissuade them from writing a general book, which if REF compliant, and available free, would obvious not attract a publisher. But others may be willing to disregard the clamoring of their departmental head, and just do it anyway. I reflect on the fact that many academics write novels: would any of them think these ought to be REF compliant? And if not your novel, why then your pot-boiler on World War I? Not all general books by academics are so wonderful that missing out on a few might not be bearable.

Now whether we think the bureaucritization of university teaching is a good or a bad thing, I suspect we can all agree that it’s better than going back to the old days when only rich boys got to university. Becoming a civil servant, and performing by the rules (however silly you think they are) is no doubt superior to giving up your career. Some will disagree — but then there were always lots of reasons not to become a university professor: being prevented from writing a general book is probably pretty low on the list.