Open Access Battles to Democratize Academic Publishing

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The Old System

Contrary to what some may believe, open access is not limited to scientific upstarts and outliers. Kuan-Teh Jeang, M.D., Ph.D., is an expert in molecular virology. He started an open access journal called Retrovirology. He is a prestigious researcher having published more than 250 papers in his field. He has advanced degrees from The Johns Hopkins University, and he believes in open access. Jeang explains the old publishing model where, in essence, the publisher gets revenue coming and going. In many cases, the researcher pays to get published, and the libraries and other interested parties pay subscription fees to access the content. He suggests a fictitious example in which a new The New Yorker-type magazine decides to use this publishing model in order to illustrate how this works.

"Think of a new New Yorker that operates on a model in which you submit a piece to them; they adjudicate and the editors and reviewers think it’s good enough to publish. They turn around and say to you: ‘We love your piece. Please pay us $4,000 to publish your piece. We are going to take that issue and market it, and we are going to keep all of the profit.’" In this model, Jeang explains, readers and writers both pay this fictional New Yorker magazine. "If you are the publisher," he says, "you are rolling in dough. In fact, many subscription-based scientific journals are based on that model."

In the academic world, writers not only don’t get paid as they would in journalistic writing, in many instances even though they pay the publisher for the right to publish, they don’t even own the copyright to their own articles, meaning they have to pay someone to give out their research papers in their own classes. What’s more, Jeang points out that much of this research is funded by tax dollars. So while taxpayers have traditionally been paying for the cost of the research (which does have a benefit for society), the people up until recently didn’t have free access to the content paid for with their taxes. It was obviously a system ripe for change, and the Web 2.0 movement provided the requisite tools.

Meet the New System

Heather Joseph, executive director at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) says open access publishing is about academic freedom and scholarly content sharing. "For us, when we talk about open access, we talk about the free immediate availability of content that scholars have traditionally produced without expectation of payment. We talk about this mainly in the area of journal articles because this is an area where scientists, researchers, and scholars have worked since scholarship has existed with one aim in mind: to share their results with their colleagues so that their ideas can be built upon to advance whatever discipline they are studying," Joseph says.

She says this could not have been achieved in the paper-based publishing world that existed prior to the internet and the world wide web, which makes it possible to share research in a much broader way than would have been economically or logistically feasible in a paper-based model. Now, she explains, the internet provides the tools to share and distribute the content to the broadest audience.

It was precisely this promise that drove Jeang to start his own online open access journal. "Five years ago, open access came along as a novel idea at a time when I thought that looking at the new way of distribution of content, allowing everything to be freely accessible, was a way that was attractive to me," he says. He adds, "The bottom line is that I really feel from a principal point of view, distribution of knowledge should be freely accessible to people, regardless of ability to pay."

Joseph does not want to make journal publishers out to be the villains here, however. She points out in the old model, they were assuming all the risk, but with the new paradigm, there has to be a change. "This was not because publishers are by nature rapacious and wanted to screw over researchers," she says. "A lot of the transaction had to do with what publishers invested when the world was a paper-based world and they took the financial risk and made the financial investment in quality control of the material and investing in printing, binding, and distributing the [content] all over the world. It made sense for them because they were putting in all of the money up front and assuming all of the risk." In this context, she says, the bargain they struck with the author to retain the right to reuse the material in specific ways might have made sense. However, with the internet she says that today, the bargain needs to be revisited and rebalanced, and authors need to be educated that they no longer have to hand over that same bundle of rights.

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