Open Access Battles to Democratize Academic Publishing

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Shifting Economics

Under open access, the author still needs to pay for the cost of the upfront editorial work on the content. It still needs to go through a rigorous peer review. It still needs to be edited and prepared for publication and a professional staff still needs to be compensated to do all of that work. But when it gets distributed, it now goes to a website where it is made available to anyone who wants to read it. The default license agreement, explains Joel West, a business professor at San Jose State University, is a Creative Commons license. The writer, institution, or party sponsoring the research pays to cover these costs, and the writer usually maintains copyright ownership. 

"The costs, as you can imagine, vary widely depending on the publisher," Joseph says. "There are many publishers who use open source solutions for peer review management, tagging, and hosting that can do the whole process for a few hundred dollars. On the other side of the scale, there are many commercial publishers—and nonprofits who operate more like commercial publishers—that say their costs are measured in the thousands of dollars: $3,000 to $5,000."

Joseph explains that the NIH is covering the cost of preparing research for publication to the tune of $30 million per year. "In open access, the cost for distribution is taken out of the equation, but the cost for preparation remains. We are seeing a growing recognition among funders that distribution is part and parcel of that research, and those costs need to be covered." What’s more, SPARC worked with other interested parties to lobby for a law ensuring that NIH research funded by taxpayers gets placed in PubMed Central, a repository to give the public access to NIH research paid for by federal tax dollars. Private publishers have exclusive rights to the content for 1 year before having to deposit the research in the public repository.

West likes the competition from open access journals because it forces journal publishers to deal with different business models. And in fact, Wim van der Stelt, executive VP of business development at Springer Science+Business Media, which publishes more than 1,700 journals and 5,500 new books a year, uses three models to accommodate changing market conditions brought on by open access. Springer still has a standard subscription model, which uses the traditional publishing paradigm described by Jeang earlier, but it also offers Springer Open Choice, which allows authors, once their article has been accepted and has gone through the peer review process, to pay a fee that covers the cost of publishing and then have the article freely available. Finally, they offer full open access journals, mostly paid for by an author processing fee. There are only about 100 of these published under the Springer name.

What’s more, as the market changes and shifts to open access, van der Stelt says it changes the relationships. Instead of partnering with libraries, they now partner directly with the author. This leads, he says, to new money streams—small payments instead of large subscription agreements. It also forces the publishers to build back office systems, which he says are still being worked out.

Content Is Neutral

West says that his university is just beginning to explore open access, and there are complications. First of all, young professors need to publish to get promoted. The old maxim "publish or perish" is really true, he explains, but many open access journals have yet to gain the credibility of the established ones. "Faculty who are expected to publish in order to get tenure have to publish in places that count. In many universities, there is a rather strict list of journals that do and don’t count based on influence, reputation prestige, perception of rigor, and so on. New journals historically are at a major disadvantage in terms of reputation and prestige. Any new journal, open access or not, faces an uphill slog to be counted in the process by which faculty evaluate them."

Jeang understands this as well but says content is neutral. If it is quality content, the wrapper in which it gets published matters little, but, as West points out, people who publish and the committees that evaluate their work certainly care. Jeang think it’s time to get past that. "It’s a culture based on brand and perception," he says. He adds, "You would think since scientists who are trained to understand objectivity and measure scientific value from a technical perspective—you would think that kind of perception and branding shouldn’t matter, but the fact is it really does matter, and a lot of scientist are dying to get published in certain journals."

Open access enables authors to control their content in ways that just weren’t possible in the traditional paper-based model, and perhaps more importantly, it provides a way to share research freely, in the true spirit of academic freedom. Many believe that the old system put too much pressure on libraries to bear the cost, while at the same time, the internet was changing the way content is published. Jeang says he divides his writing between the open access and traditional journals, but he says, "I’m hopeful down the road that we will have all open access journals." However, as publishers such as Springer demonstrate, this transformation does not mean that journal publishers need to be left behind. Like so many traditional content publishers, they have to reconsider the way they interact with the authors and re-examine business models to stay in tune with the times.

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