Open publishing – Open access in the scientific world

The creative world is not the only one grappling with the implications of open publishing. In the scientific world there has been great debate about ‘open access publishing’…

And here I run afoul of terminology. I’ve been using the term ‘open publishing’ to refer to the process of publishing your materials for free online, whatever those materials may be, at the same time as you publish a physical version that can be bought. When you start digging into Wikipedia, though, it seems that for some people ‘open publishing’ means the ‘process of creating news or other content that is transparent to the readers‘. I was going to cover that under the heading ‘open writing’, although it may be more accurately described as ‘open source journalism’ or ‘collaborative writing’ or ‘distributed journalism’ or ‘networked journalism’ or, frankly, any one of a whole number of different phrases.

I think this illustrates just how little consensus there is on these issues. There are so many shades of grey that people are tempted to think up new terms for each one, but I’m going to stick with these two:

  • Open publishing – making commercially published materials freely available online under a permissive licence that allows for at least some reuse.
  • Open access publishing – making scientific and medical research papers freely available online under a permissive licence that allows for at least some reuse.

Others may not agree with this, and certainly the issues are more complex than those definitions suppose, but they’re going to have to do for now. We can discuss nuances in the comments!

Good places to get started with open access are three of the Wikipedia articles: self-archiving, open access publishing, and open access journal.

Dr Ben Goldacre recently wrote in his Bad Science column (which is published by The Guardian, and which he self-archives):

There are some things which are so self-evidently right and good that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree with you. The “open access” academic journal movement is one of those things. It’s a no-brainer. Academic literature should be freely available: developing countries need access; part time tinkering thinkers like you deserve full access; journalists and the public can benefit; and most importantly of all, you’ve already paid for much of this stuff with your taxes, they are important new ideas from humanity, and morally, you are entitled to them.

The parallels between this concept and the one underpinning the Creative Commons/Free Culture movement are fairly obvious. It’s not just culture that wants to be free, but also information.

The point of friction between author and publisher, though, is slightly different. In the cultural world, publishers get hung up on controlling their intellectual property rights, and in particular about both file sharing and commercial piracy. But the arguments hinge around one economic question: will open publishing bring the publisher (and thence the author) more sales and, therefore, make them more money?

Both author and publisher want to make money, and their needs are relatively well aligned. They both want the author’s work to be popular because popularity tends to result in higher sales, and it’s fairly obvious that releasing your work for free online increases the number of people who have access to it and thus the number of potential buyers. As mentioned in a previous post, the main debate is about the details of whether open publishing cannibalises or increases sales.

Note: The same works for music and movies, even if those industries haven’t quite figured it out yet.

With open access, the needs of the author and of the publisher are not aligned. The author of a scientific research paper wants their paper to be widely read and cited by other scientists. They don’t get paid for writing, there’s no fee from the publisher for their work – any increase in income comes indirectly from being a successfully published and widely cited authority in your field, and thus being able to command better salaries or larger grants. So the author is not interested in being paid for his or her writing.

The science publisher, on the other hand, is very interested in people paying for access to their journal. It’s how they make their money. Thus they see open publishing as a threat – who would pay to access their content if it’s available for free online?

This leads to two opposing publishing models: Reader Pays and Author Pays. The former is the traditional ‘we publish it, you pay for it if you want to read it’ model. The latter has been adopted by some open access journals, such as the Public Library of Science, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and BioMed Central, which charge authors some sort of fee in order to cover their costs.

There is at least one other way, though, which could be called Third Party Pays, where the costs of publishing are subsidised by an institution, or covered by income from another source such as advertising, grants, etc. Some are even run by volunteers, thus incurring minimal costs.

According to Peter Suber, only 47% of open access journals charge authors a fee. He says:

Only a minority of existing OA journals actually used the most-studied and most-discussed business model for OA journals –charging author-side fees. (Let’s call these “fee-based” OA journals.) The majority of OA journals turned out to use business models that had rarely been acknowledged, let alone studied. (Let’s call these “no-fee” OA journals.) We thought we understood OA journals but we only understood a subset, and the greater part of the whole was still largely unknown.

I wish I could tell you how many different ways the no-fee journals have found to pay their bills, and which methods work best in which disciplines and countries. But I can’t. No one has done the studies yet. A few ships have approached the coastline of this land mass but we haven’t come close to penetrating the interior or producing a map.

As Peter says, it would be interesting to find out a lot more about the business models for the 53% of journals that aren’t charging their authors – the creative industries could potentially learn a lot from the publishing models used by their science publishing colleagues.

But the science publishing industry – where I started my postgraduate career, I have to mention – is not happy with open access. John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are three of the biggest members of the Association of American Publishers, which has hired ‘PR pitbull’ Eric Dezenhall to try and swing the debate their way. This has been seen as an act of desperation and an attempt to derail real debate in favour of soundbite marketing tactics.

The threat is, of course, economic. If scientists prefer free open access journals to reader-pays journals, then the publishers’ business model is threatened. Some of the non-economic objections to open access, such as accusations that it does not support peer review, are clearly nonsense. Peer review – the process by which a paper is distributed amongst other experts in the author’s discipline so that they can critique it – requires only someone to arrange it and there is no good reason why an open access journal cannot peer review as well as a traditional journal.

Just like the cultural world, though, the genie is out of the bottle and sunning himself on a beach in Rio. Open access is not going to go away, and traditional publishers need to adapt or die. It’s scary, and the shape of future scientific business models is not clear, but there’s no escaping change.

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