Open Access: The PayWall Must Go

16. November 2015
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Hardly any research project would be feasible without public funds. It's publishers however who make a fortune with the results, meanwhile researchers and doctors without connection to academia lose access to recent works. Resistance is now building.

For Dutch scientists it was the last straw. After Elsevier was not prepared to support open access, ie. the free publication of scientific results, they put together a boycott. Colleagues should no longer be actively publishing there, either as Editors in Chief or as reviewers; publications are to be placed by other means and elsewhere. And it’s not an isolated case: in early 2015 a German university aborted negotiations with Elsevier. The reason mentioned by university representatives was their “clearly exaggerated ideas on pricing”. Elsevier, on account of its aggressive pricing policy, has for years been subject to pillory. In 2014 ETH Zurich (Switzerland) forked out around 3.5 million Swiss francs for publications from this publishing house alone; Wiley (CHF 1.5 million) and Springer (about one million Swiss francs) follow in the payment list. All stakeholders are promoting Open Access as a solution.

Timelessly modern

These trends have been emerging for some time now. Since the 1990s, the budgets of academic libraries have been drastically shrinking. Over the same time researchers have published more and more specialist articles. The capacity for them to be informed about the work of colleagues has deteriorated. Doctors without academic connections have been particularly affected whenever they have wanted to learn about the latest developments. The gripe: almost every research organisation receives public funding. Findings should benefit the general public, which includes other laboratories and medical practitioners in particular. Instead, libraries have been taking tax dollars into their own hands in order to acquire rights of use. There even arrived the requirement later to share or discuss their own publications on networks such as ResearchGate.

Gold, Green, Grey

The actual birth of Open Access is considered to be the arrival of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). “Open access should exist for the public on the internet to all literature which scientists have published, without the scientists expecting to be paid for this”, the text states. A year later, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing followed. Meanwhile, diverse strategies have been emerging. Publication in open-access media involving peer review procedures is considered to be the so-called “golden path”. An overview is provided in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Many scientists still take as they did before the so-called “green path”. They publish preprints without review or postprints with review. Institutional repositories replace individual homepages – and offer together with the same article the primary data: according to experts the best protection against scientific misconduct. “Grey literature”, which includes work such as Bachelor or Masters theses, dissertations or other such proceedings which are not available through book production channels, follows similar paths into the network.

Run to the money

Nevertheless, publishers did not want to say goodbye to the science cash cow. They immediately developed new business models. Two examples: BioMed Central (BMC) publishes over 200 open access journals in medicine or biology. Each technical paper passes through extensive peer review process. Researchers, not libraries, bear all the costs (“author-pays model”). The Public Library of Science (PLOS), with its journals PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine, PLOS Computational Biology, PLOS Genetics, PLOS Pathogens, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and PLOS ONE, works similarly. In addition, “hybrid models” are making their way through. A few weeks ago, for example, Springer initialled an agreement with the Austrian library consortium. From 2016 scientists will be permitted to publish in the group’s journals, without having to worrying about possible costs. At the same time they get reading access to approximately 2,000 Springer journals. A similar agreement has been in place with Dutch universities since 2014; there are negotiations running in Germany and in the UK.

Papers with a glitch

Over the years Open Access journals have blossomed into being serious media. Their impact factor differs ever less to that of the established competition, a study has shown. Does that mean the picture is all blue skies and sunshine? Not quite – John Bohannon from Harvard University sees most significantly a pent-up demand during the peer review process. At the end of 2013, he emailed a manifestly incorrect posting to 304 Open Access journals – 157 would have published his paper. Apart from scientific concerns, there remain economic constraints. Which researchers would be the ones to publish via “author-pays model”, should a given institute’s funds fall short in being able to cover all its research colleagues? Either way, tax dollars flow once again to publishers. Compared with classic journals, the bite here is nonetheless a significantly lesser one. Open Access is deemed to be a trendsetting strategy whose community still needs to clarify a number of questions.

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