It’s not exactly neuroscience, but I think that open access publishing is of general enough interest for readers of this blog. This article appeared in Issue 2 of EuSci, the University of Edinburgh’s science magazine. Available here.
I’ve set up a computer software company with a twist. Instead of going the usual route and hiring a team of programmers to develop my new applications, I solicit the public for them. On top of that, I don’t offer a penny. Regardless, people race to give me their brightest ideas before their friends can beat them to it. This allows me to cherry-pick the products I think will make the biggest impact on the marketplace. Of course, even the best submissions need a bit of polishing before they’re fit for general distribution. No problem. I just get a few of their amateur programming buddies to do the debugging for me – free of charge, obviously. All that’s left to do is package the software up and sell it right back to the masses. Easy money.
Of course the company I’ve just described is entirely fictional. Its business model, however, is not. It is exactly the strategy employed by many publishers of academic journals. The millions of global university academics, industrial researchers and independent scholars generate almost all of the content in today’s academic journals. Candidate papers are usually submitted to a journal editor who filters out the junk. Typically, the work is then outsourced back to academia for peer-reviewing. If a paper is still deemed up to scratch, it can be formatted and issued as part of a periodical publication. This is a highly profitable business. Elsevier, the science and medical wing of publishing giant Reed Elsevier, currently prints over 2000 scholarly journals and posted an adjusted operating profit of £477m in 2007 alone.
So what is the problem? Journal publishers provide a necessary service, work hard to maintain high quality publications, and so perhaps should be adequately rewarded for it. Besides, no-one loses out in this arrangement. Subscription fees are usually paid by university libraries, not the scholars themselves. Accessing and indexing journal papers has never been easier, thanks to the print-to-digital switch. And nobody else cares about the esoteric topics covered in these publications anyway. Do they?
The open access movement would argue differently. To start with, the majority of people on Earth live in developing countries where funding for academic study may be minimal. Many institutes in these countries cannot afford the ever-increasing subscription fees demanded by commercial publishers. Consequently, they can hold only small numbers of current journals. No matter how talented a scholar is, producing world class research is an impossibility if you cannot keep up to date with work in your field.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the same issue is also becoming a problem in westernised countries. Science journal prices rose 30-40% on average from 2004 to 2008, while inflation over the same period was less than 15%. As libraries’ funding rarely increases faster than inflation, many institutions are being forced to reduce the size of their catalogue. The ‘serials crisis’ has become so bad that several influential institutions have staged protests. In 2004, US universities Harvard and Cornell both cancelled their subscriptions to one of Elsevier’s bundle packages containing more than 900 journals, instead choosing to hand-pick individual titles. Bundling is a tactic common to many publishers where many journals are grouped together as an all-or-nothing package. Although the packages are much cheaper than the sum of their parts, they also often contain many irrelevant journals which some institutions might not need.
Open access publishing is an alternative model to the dominant commercial approach. Its primary philosophy is that access to knowledge should be a right to all, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold. This should be doubly true given that the vast majority of scholarly research is funded by public money in the first instance. The ideal was spelled out in John Willinsky’s 2005 book on the subject,The Access Principle: “a commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it”. Naturally, Willinsky’s book is freely available online.
No matter how noble a cause freeing up journal access is, someone still has to pick up the bill. Editors, printers and website staff all have mortgages to pay. The most straightforward solution proposed so far has been to charge the authors a publishing fee. For example, the Public Library of Science’s flagship journal PLoS Biology currently charges $2850 for an accepted publication. For this one-off fee, the journal covers peer-review, journal production, online hosting and archiving. The articles are freely available to everyone with internet access. Through this system (and private donations) PLoS successfully funds their entire not-for-profit organisation.
Although a $1000+ charge might seem exorbitant, it is important to remember that this is often insignificant when compared to the salaries, equipment and housing costs that went into producing the research. Even so, PLoS have pledged to waive or discount the fee for those who cannot afford it. Funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust, the EC and NIH in the UK, Europe and USA respectively have also pitched in by pledging to provide additional funds if necessary to allow research to cover open-access fees. In May 2008, NIH even went a step further by making open access a mandatory requirement for any publication at least partially funded by their money. Articles must be submitted to their online repository PubMed Central within 12 months of the official date of publication.
Commercial publishers are also beginning to realise that open access is here to stay. Many are toying with their business models in the search for solutions that improve access but maintain financial viability. One such hybrid model is the opt-in policy adopted by the US journal PNAS, commercial publishers Springer and others. Here, authors can choose to pay a fee to have their articles openly accessible, even when the other articles in the same journal remain behind subscription. Perhaps an even more convincing hint that commercial publishers are taking the open access business model seriously is the recent purchase of open-access publishers BioMed Central by Springer.
Another increasingly popular choice – also adopted by PNAS – is delayed open access. Articles are initially published behind subscription, but then made freely available after a 6 or 12-month wait. This allows the journal to retain institutional subscriptions because of academia’s interest in new research, while opening up older content to a wider audience.
Academics themselves can also do a lot to promote open access. The obvious first step is to simply publish new research in open access journals, or in journals that offer a paid open access choice. This can be to the author’s benefit, as studies have suggested that freely available articles may have a higher impact than closed ones.
Another straightforward option is to publicly archive all published work. Apart from a few restrictions, this is completely allowed by a surprising number of journals – including Science and Nature – and actually mandated by many funding bodies. The SHERPA organisation maintains an excellent website which details individual publisher and funding body open access policies.
Many academics simply archive their work on personal websites, but other options exist. Some disciplines already have popular public archives, such as the physics repository arXiv.org. Most papers in this field are posted on ‘the archive’ well before being accepted in a journal, with no apparent detriment to the publishers. Many academic institutions also maintain their own archiving facilities. Here in the University of Edinburgh, staff and students can self-archive their own work in the Edinburgh Research Archive. The technophobic can also get library staff to deposit work on their behalf.
Best guesses at the total number of current scholarly journals are in the tens of thousands. Of these, more than 3500 are fully open access (a list is maintained at doaj.org). This means that a small, but growing fraction of scholarly work is now freely available to anyone with a connection to the web. In the wikipedia age we have no shortage of instantly accessible information, but sadly, facts and figures are not always backed by expert opinion. The open access movement aims to remedy this by making scholarly knowledge available and accessible to all who wish to find it.