Open Access Publishing

What it is and how to sustain it

September 8, 2015

Open Access graphic

In the past 13 years, open access publishing—in which academic journal content is free for anyone to read online—has moved from a fringe populist movement into the mainstream. Immediate open access could someday become the default publishing model for articles in the biosciences, and perhaps for the humanities and social sciences as well. No one knows for certain if this will happen, much less how or when, but the subscription-based scholarly publishing system that matured prior to the internet appears unlikely to sustain itself indefinitely.

“I really believe open access is not a passing fad,” Mary Ellen Davis, executive director of ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) division, told an open-access panel at the American Historical Association’s 2014 annual meeting. “I believe open access is a durable feature of the landscape of scholarly communication.” ACRL made its scholarly journal College and Research Libraries open access in 2011 and went online-only three years later, “after members begged us to end the print edition,” Davis said.

Advocates for open access argue that online publication costs are lower than those for print, research is often funded by taxpayers, and authors and reviewers work for free. Consequently, advocates contend, the articles should be free to the public and all types of libraries.

Subscription-based publishers have another point of view, and say their value-added services—such as assessing whether articles are sufficiently rigorous and managing the review process—deserve payment. Some publishers also note that the cost per article in their journal packages is very low, though advocates counter that the absolute cost of most of these packages is high, often with yearly increases.

“Some publishers would be happy if open access were to disappear, except perhaps those who have invested heavily in infrastructure, but at this point they see it as a vehicle for growth, albeit on a small base, in an industry that craves positive results,” Deni Auclair, vice president and lead analyst at Outsell Inc., a research and advisory service, said in a June 11 interview in The Scholarly Kitchen blog. Outsell Inc. released a report in April called Open Access 2015: Market Size, Share, Forecast, and Trends. Auclair said that open access is “something publishers can point to and say that they are supporting, even with its lower margins, for the good of science.”

A risk to profits?

David Crotty
David Crotty, senior editor with Oxford University Press and
executive editor of The Scholarly Kitchen

Publishers are not intrinsically opposed to open access, according to David Crotty, a senior editor with Oxford University Press and executive editor of The Scholarly Kitchen. He says that open access would be the ideal medium for communicating and sharing scholarly research results, especially in the biosciences. The challenges to implementing widespread adoption of open access lie in “finding sustainable ways to cover the costs involved and in how it would work within an academic system that favors secrecy and competition,” Crotty says.

“If open access represents a potential risk or a perceived loss in profits,” he adds, “then it is a very tough sell.” That is because the primary duty for commercial publishers is to the financial interests of their shareholders. Many scientific and scholarly societies rely heavily on funds raised through their journals in order to do work on behalf of their communities, and their survival may be at risk as well.

Publishers emphasize that they need to find a way to make open access work within their own organizational contexts and business models. At the moment, this usually involves an embargo period in which articles are available only by subscription for a period of time (generally a year) before becoming open access.

This conversation has persisted for more than a decade, and the market has evolved into a mix of fully open access publishers, hybrid publishers who offer some open access titles, and publishers who provide open access articles alongside subscription-only articles in the same journal.

Collective open access

Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg
Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg, principals at K | N Consultants. Photos: Erica Beckman (Kennison); Annika Thiem (Norberg)

The Open Access Network (OAN) was launched in 2015 by Lisa Norberg and Rebecca Kennison, the two principals of K|N Consultants, to support open access in the humanities and social sciences. These fields have faced their own challenges; as bioscience subscriptions have consumed an increasing share of library budgets, social sciences and humanities purchases have declined. The OAN is attempting to rectify this through “a collectively supported funding mechanism that would provide broad support for open access publishing and archiving.”

In the OAN, all colleges, universities, and other key stakeholders would contribute to the development of a robust and sustainable scholarly communication infrastructure. Supporting arguments for the OAN are available in “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access,Educause Review, September 14, 2014. The numerous logistical, administrative, and technological details that underlie such an endeavor are still under discussion and will evolve. Yet Norberg and Kennison’s proposal is a clear recognition of the fact that that there is enough money overall to support open access publishing. The challenge now, which is by no means small, is to muster the institutional will to make it happen.

But change must begin with the higher education community, not publishers or scholarly societies. “Scholarly publishing is a service industry,” Crotty says. “Companies succeed by best serving the needs of their customers. If institutions and funding agencies change their criteria for career advancement and funding, then publishers will react to meet those needs or be forced to the margins by others who can do a better job.”

Expanding scholarship

Cameron Neylon
Cameron Neylon,
former director of advocacy at PLOS. Photo: Katya Gry Birkegaard Carlsen and Alfred Birkegaard

Scientific societies are well placed to move the gears toward open access, says Cameron Neylon, until recently director of advocacy at open access publisher PLOS. “Scholarly societies hold the key to the next wave of the transition to open access,” Neylon says. “They have the brand prestige and communities that new open access journals have had to create from scratch. But they also have a mission to share knowledge.”

Many of these scientific societies, he says, “are looking to make the shift but feel like they can’t make the sums add up. A new generation of low-cost and open source technologies could make the shift to open access attractive for these publishers and their communities.” The continuing evolution of technology—such as cloud-based storage and inexpensive or free editorial management programs—could provide the breakthrough needed. If societies make use of these tools, then open access publishing would be a much less daunting prospect for them.

Another path to open access might be a significant number of cancellations to subscription-based titles that would force publishers to change their business models. But this seems less likely, Neylon says, because “mass cancellations will require librarians to persuade institutional authors (or require authors to persuade librarians, for that matter) that the loss of access in the short term is worth it for longer-term gains.” Neylon thinks it is more plausible that scholarly societies will use inexpensive tools to become open access publishers.

So whether the spark for change emerges from academic circles, scientific societies, or cooperative networks, the economics of scholarly communication is at a crossroads—whatever path it ultimately takes will lead to profound changes in the ways that libraries serve the researchers that make use of them and the general public.