Why Open Access?

Jul 05 2008 Published by under Doing Science

Timo Hannay just responded, over at one of Nature's blogs, to the hordes of bloggers who were somewhat displeased with the tone and content of Declan Butler's recent Nature article. Now that someone from Nature has returned fire, and other bloggers have fired back, it's likely that this whole thing is going to turn into one of those multi-day, multi-article kerfuffles that do so much to maintain blogging's reputation as the WWE of the scientific world. Which is cool, as far as I'm concerned. It's been a while since I've grabbed a folding chair and climbed into the Cage of Death. I'm ready to go.

But not quite yet.

Before we start throwing each other onto collapsable tables, or driving bulldozers through the ring, it might be good to stop and look at the idea that's at the core of this conflict: open access. Just what is open access? More importantly, why is it something that so many scientists get worked up over?

In an open access journal, there's no charge for reading articles. This stands in sharp contrast to most scientific journals, where either the reader or the library he or she is sitting in have to pay a subscription charge to access the journal.

Yes, that's pretty much all there is to the definition. So why on earth do so many people get so worked up over open access? Sure, it's nice to get something for nothing, but it's not exactly an everyday occurrence. I doubt that most people would get that worked up over not having free access to the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. So what is it about scientific journals that makes them so different?

There are quite a few reasons to favor open access, and most of them are good. Most scientific research is communicated through journal articles. The bulk of scientists will go through their careers without authoring a single book, but it's not at all unusual for a scientist who has been around for a while to be an author on well more than 100 journal articles. If you want to be a good scientist, you need to remain aware of the work that's going on in your field. If you want to remain aware of the work that's going on in your field, you need to read lots of journal articles. If it costs lots of money to get access to lots of journals, the only way you are going to be a good scientist is if you have access to lots of money - and that's before you go into a lab or conduct a single experiment.

The problem is that not everyone with the potential to become a good scientist has the money needed to easily access all the journals they need. The traditional access system is a substantial burden for researchers in developing countries, or those in poorer communities. Opening access levels the playing field quite a bit.

There's also the issue of public access. A great deal (if not most) scientific research is funded through government grants, which use taxpayer dollars. The results of that research are then published in scientific journals, which most citizens can only access with great difficulty and inconvenience. Open access makes it easier for the informed taxpayer to see what they've paid for.

Still, cynic that I am, I suspect that for most scientists their own need and ability to access the scientific literature is probably more of a motivating factor than someone else's access, no matter how needed or deserved. I've got a feeling that one of the factors that has most benefited the open access movement has been the incredible greed and stupidity of several of the major academic publishers.

Scientists must publish their research in the peer reviewed literature. A scientist who does not publish will very rapidly become painfully acquainted with the prefix "un-" - as in untenured, unemployed, and unemployable. Journal publishers, smart cookies that they are, know this very, very well. Scientists do not get paid to have their articles published. In many cases, they fight tooth-and-nail for the privilege of giving their work away to the journal they want to appear in. In some cases, they even pay to get their paper published. Since every scientist needs to publish in the peer reviewed literature, there's also a lot of pressure for scientists to further contribute to their field by (voluntarily) serving as a reviewer, or for providing their time (gratis) as an editor.

The folks who publish journals have a really enviable business environment. There are a group of people out there who not only have to contribute to their products - for free - if they want to succeed, they also need to purchase those very same products. They've got scientists where it hurts coming and going. Their problem is that they've seriously misjudged what the market can (or at least will) bear.

Subscription costs have been going up in recent years at a much faster rate than the serials budgets of most university libraries. More and more scientists have been treated to letters from the library which say something along the lines of, "We're sorry, but due to rising costs we will need to cancel 1/4 (or 1/3, or 1/2) of the journal subscriptions next year. Please help us pick which ones to keep." It's extremely annoying to learn that if you want to continue to read articles in the journal that you just donated 20 hours to as a reviewer, you're going to need to pay out of pocket for a personal subscription.

At the same time that libraries and scientists have been feeling the pinch from rising subscription costs, the traditional publishers have been doing very well indeed. One of the leading publishers of traditional, pay-to-read journals, Reed Elsevier, reported profits of 477 million British Pounds from their Science & Technology and Health Sciences division in 2007. (That's well over $900,000,000 at current exchange rates.) Their profit margin was up over 31%. Given that, is it any wonder that some scientists have decided that they're better off, in the long run, paying a fee to have their paper published, but not getting charged to read it later?

The open access debate is as acrimonious as it is because there's so much at stake. For the general public and some scientists, the ability to have any sort of meaningful access to the literature is at stake. For many more scientists, it's the ability to have as much access as they need, combined with the resentment that comes from being repeatedly hosed coming and going. For the major publishing houses, it's hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.

Before closing, I should note that while Nature has been at the heart of this latest open access conflict, they are not one of the worst offenders when it comes to the "squeeze them until they bleed" business model embraced by Reed Elsevier and other large publishing houses. They're also one of the best examples of why there's a place for both open access and traditional publishers - unlike most journals, Nature provides a great deal of content beyond the peer-review articles. They serve as much as a news service for scientists as they do a conduit for reporting original results. In fact, I usually enjoy Nature more for their perspective pieces and news articles than for the papers. The recent Butler article was (I hope) simply an exception to that.

4 responses so far

  • THE #1 MYTH ABOUT OPEN ACCESS

    "Just what is open access?... In an open access journal, there's no charge for reading articles... Yes, that's pretty much all there is to the definition."

    No, unfortunately that is not the definition of OA (which actual means free online access), it is just the definition of Gold OA publishing, one of the two ways to provide OA (and not the fastest or surest way).
    The single most important reason OA is not yet growing anywhere near as quickly as it could and should is the persistent perpetuation of this myth that OA is just Gold OA.
    Nature's latest reply to the widespread criticism evoked by its recent critique of its competitor, Gold OA publisher PLoS, although it perpetuates a few minor misunderstandings of its own, is far closer to the truth in its conclusion:

    "[N]one of this may matter very much in the longer run since truly widespread open access to scientific content is coming about through funder-mandated [Green open-access self-] archiving, not [Gold] open-access publishing."

    (Nature's reply states that "Nature isn't anti-open access," but it neglects to mention that Nature back-slid in 2005 -- from having at first been Green on OA self-archiving by its authors to rejoining instead the minority of journals who still try to embargo access. Nature's reply also fails to mention the real growth region of Green OA mandates, which is now institutional and departmental mandates like Southampton's, QUT's, Minho's, CERN's, Liege's, and now Harvard's and Stanford's, rather than just funder mandates.)Stevan Harnad
    American Scientist Open Access Forum

  • Coturnix says:

    Green OA is easier to accomplish politically, thus faster to get to.
    But it has problems:
    First, there is a delay (usually 6-12 months) between publication and making it free.
    Second, some of the repositories are hidden behind institutional passwords (you need to be a student/staff/faculty to access) which does not make it OA at all, not even if you WANT to pay.
    Third, one usually cannot find them all very easily, not even through Google Scholar.
    Fourth, as they are all in different places, and all in different formats, one cannot send out bots to do data-mining.
    Finally, each repository has its own CC license and stuff, so the field is not even, which makes data-mining even more difficult.
    Green OA is a first stop-gap measure, IMHO, to make people accustomed to the idea of OA, with the OA journals being the real future. It is better than nothing, I guess.
    At the same time it also has a negative function - it slows down the move towards OA as people get complacent: they think because they placed their stuff in repositories that they did their job, thus still publishing in TA journals and enabling that business model to continue, instead of fighting for full OA and faster.

  • Chuck says:

    Though I agree that the Butler article was pretty hard on the PLoS journals, and though I (like most scientists) hope some form of open access will indeed be the future of scientific publishing, I also think that all discussions of open access need to recognize that most open access models represent "author pays" models rather than truly free access models. As the Butler article notes, the PLoS journals, which are the current highest tier open access journals, charge authors >$2200 per article ($2850 for PLoS Biology). Institutional members (those whose universities pay a subscription fee) get lower fees. None of the open access journals that I know are entirely free; somebody is footing the bill. If all journals suddenly went to author-pays models many people would be unable to publish (e.g., most ecologists, animal behaviorists, etc., who are poorly funded or unfunded).
    I also tend to agree with the suggestion by Mike that most authors who support open access are primarily concerned with better access to journals for themselves. I think evidence supports this. For example, many journals Blackwell offer authors the option to pay a fee to make their papers Online Open, which is a form of open access (no subscription fee required to access the paper). Yet, very few authors opt to pay the fee (at least for the journals with which I am acquainted, all of which are ecology journals) and so very few papers are available Online Open. This probably is not because authors don't care if their papers are open access; instead, many authors cannot afford author fees and others choose not to pay author fees when a free alternative is available (they want papers open access, but not enough to pay a fee). Either way bodes poorly for the future of author-pays models, at least for fields of science in which funding levels are poor.
    Many people have argued that the success of PLoS is evidence that author-pays models can work. However, I think that PLoS works only because so few journals have their model. As a rare open access journal, they can attract the very best work. Open access boosts their impact factor, which attracts submissions, creating a positive feedback loop between submissions and performance. If more journals entered the market under the same model as PLoS they would reduce the payoff to PLoS and the model would become less beneficial for PLoS, and would be less beneficial to the new open access journal than it previously was for PLoS. Each subsequent journal would have a lower payoff, and negatively impact all other open access journals. Simultaneously, as more journals become open access the benefits to journals having no fee (the subscription journals) will increase because there will be fewer 'free' outlets for an author's work. Those journals will then get more submissions and be able to be more selective, positively impacting their IF, until we reach a balance between the subscription and author-pays models. I don't think we can do better than that until the whole economic system of supporting science publishing (globally) is changed.
    Thus, all discussions of open access need to tackle the question of how to change the funding model for journals, rather than just focus on the advantages of open access. For example, my university library currently foots the bill for library subscriptions. If all of my target journals went open access with an author pays model, the bill would shift entirely to my lab. This would be expensive for me (I am not well funded) even if the author fees were cheap. I would be forced to start publishing in different journals (as would many other scientists) which would hurt the open access journals, since they are losing authors. It would be a lose-lose for scientists and the journals. For this to be a win-win we need university and other research libraries to shunt their funds from subscriptions to author fees (granting agencies cover some of this but that doesn't help unfunded or poorly funded labs). How do we change the culture, globally and simultaneously among all employers/libraries, from a subscription to author-pays model?

  • Coturnix says:

    Most OA journals do not use the author-pays model. PLoS is a rare exception to this rule.