Open Access

One big problem with open access and why the best way to fix it isn’t going to work

There’s a conflict, a tension, an inherent contradiction in the open access movement, and while it could be resolved, that seems increasingly unlikely.

The inconsistency goes like this: the shift to open access publishing started idealistically, with enthusiasm and pressure from the grassroots. The business model for disseminating scientific results would be changed. Instead of putting research into journals that were expensive and exclusive, we would make articles available for free. No charge at all. Ready to be downloaded by anyone with an internet connection.

Shaking in their boots

We developed more and more arguments for open access — not just solidarity with colleagues in poorer countries, but also the (im)morality of paying first for research to be done (through salaries) and then for the articles to be reviewed and edited (through volunteer work for journals) and then paying once again to be able to read them (through subscriptions). Add to this the monopolistic price gouging of the biggest publishers, whose profit rates exceed those of oil companies, and change seemed inevitable.

Wall Street analysts say open access has failed, but their analysis might help us succeed. If we dare.

Some of these arguments worked. Gradually, research councils pulled themselves over the gunwales and got onboard. Governments articulated policies. Universities gave their researchers a nudge.

The publishers started to shake in their boots. They really did. They got worried.

But then they got over it.

And this is where the other side of the inconsistency comes into play. The tension in the movement is that its idealistic and anarchistic origins are in conflict with what is needed for success, namely a clear message articulated by visible and visionary leadership.

The Wall Street analysis

The absence of clear leadership at the helm of the open access movement is made painfully clear in a recent report about Elsevier’s value as a company, entitled Goodbye to Berlin – The Fading Threat of Open Access.

Why could the authors of this report at Bernstein Research let go of their earlier concerns and now upgrade their predictions about Elsevier’s stock? “The rise of OA,” they write, “has inflicted little or no damage on the leading subscription publishers.” And why is that? Their answer is important:

Stepping back to take in the big picture, we would be hard pressed, having spent six years networking extensively in the academic publishing and OA communities, even to articulate what problem is OA trying to accomplish [sic]. Ask a librarian, and you will be told that OA is meant to address the serial cost crisis (the rising cost of journal subscriptions and the impact this has on their capacity to fulfil the other missions of academic libraries). Ask a researcher, and you will be told that OA will allow more researchers to read their articles, leading to more citations and – ultimately – to better dissemination of knowledge. Ask an economist, and you will be told that OA will allow small and medium sized companies which do not have access to the latest research to do so, furthering the growth of the economy and job creation. Ask some activists, and you will be told that OA is meant to deflate the margins of capitalist exploitation of public spending. Ask an activist from emerging countries: you will be told that OA is meant to allow researchers and doctors in poor countries to have access to leading research. This lack of clarity on which problem OA is trying to solve, in turn, means that it is difficult to achieve any of these goals.

Think about what that last line means. You might dislike capitalism, you might dislike profiteering, but these guys have seen many organizations attempt to change; they’ve seen some succeed and others fail. What do they see for open access? Failure. Why? Lack of focus.

What is stopping us?

Our arguments are too many and we’ve assembled a potpourri of solutions. What is the barrier to finding focus? We are. The professorate. We like some of the ideals we hear about, but we only take it so far.

When you get a chance to publish a paper in Science or Nature, you take it. That’s a rational thing to do, especially early in your career, since hirings and grants are positively affected by having publications in high profile journals. When you’re evaluating applications and you see those prestigious journals on an applicant’s resumé, you bump that application up.

That’s what is currently stopping open access. No matter how many good arguments there are, no matter how many serious problems there may be with the way scholarly publishing happens today, the prestige of some traditional journals is so compelling for career advancement that open access can’t win.

Well, it could. But that would take leadership that apparently costs too much.

What leadership could do

There’s a perfect example from Norway. Norwegian universities get part of their public budget as a function of how many scientific publications they produce. If the government would modify the system, such that only open access publications would count — or if they would at least count more — it wouldn’t take long for change to happen.

If the National Institutes of Health or the European Commission had policies that coaxed researchers into publishing in open access journals instead of setting up parallel systems with elaborate archiving rituals, they would show leadership that would move us forward. If research councils or universities would give extra weight to open access articles in tenure or grant-awarding processes, changes would happen overnight — at no necessary cost to quality!

But governments, research councils and universities don’t dare. Understandably so. Researchers would scream, careers would stall out, and professors would take to the streets.

The leadership that is necessary to succeed with this publishing paradigm shift can’t be found today. It might emerge. I hope it does. But, for now, it won’t, and — because of us — it can’t.

So, there we are. Signing away the rights to promote our own work. Making the system more complicated than we ever would have imagined. Not saving any money at all. And, as a consequence, hearing a big sigh of relief from Wall Street.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Mr. Gunn says:

    I kinda disagree, for two reasons. First, I don’t think that many different people finding different things to like about open access is a weakness. As long as one solution provides these benefits to the separate groups, they can all work for the shared goal. Second, if it’s about access to research, deposit mandates work. The prestige factor of some journals came about through their hard work and only remains as long as the journal is the main useful proxy for article quality, but it’s not. The rise of #altmetrics and their increasing acceptance by funders, publishers, and assessment bodies means that an article can be judged on it’s merits, rather than the reflected prestige of the publication outlet.

    If that’s your concern, help educate your colleagues about altmetrics, but the issue is somewhat orthogonal to open access.

    • Curt Rice says:

      I’m sympathetic with your first point. Nonetheless, that Wall Street report I comment on makes it clear that such a diverse approach isn’t getting us much of anywhere. Regarding deposit mandates, there’s still too much variation in what is required and what is allowed. In my field, for example, (linguistics), it’s still common that journals allow archiving only of the “next to last” version of a paper. But a lot of little details, e.g. in transcriptions and diagrams, can change at the end of the process, so I don’t want the penultimate version floating around. That’s my biggest objection to “green” OA approaches. If our goal is to fix a broken system for scientific publishing, I think a lot of work remains to be done and a lot of leadership and focus is going to be necessary. We need the quality control aspects of the system, but we’re only just beginning to imagine how that can be done. At this point, I completely agree that reputation is a lousy proxy for quality, but it is widely used, also in the awarding of the very most prestigious grants and prizes. Just look at the CVs of the newest Nobel winners in medicine. They publish predominately in two journals — and you can guess what they are.
      Ah, I see your email address now. Do you work for Elsevier?

  • Martin Haspelmath says:

    It seems to me that even if there were a quick transition to 100% open access, Elsevier wouldn’t have to worry much, as long as the dominant paradigm is author-pays open access. They could simply switch to charging the authors. So I think that what it takes “to return control of scholarly publishing to the scholars” ( is to allow real competition between service providers: It’s only if we own the journal titles that are associated with career success (as Curt Rice rightly emphasizes) that we can say that we have control. Technical jobs can be outsourced, but we shouldn’t outsource the brand names that make our careers. With each article published in “Nature”, Stefan von Holtzbrinck gets a little richer and more powerful, and we cannot replace him by another service provider. That’s the problem we have to address.

  • I would take a different twist on how to wrest away the prestige factor that currently keeps traditional journals in power. Rather than trying to transfer the same system to other outlets, we need a different way of “grading” work and conferring prestige, decoupling journal titles from prestige. Our current way of grading our work is one that would be considered insane if we tried to apply the same approach to our students.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Nice blog post you’ve written, Colin. I’ll tweet it. It will be interesting to hear more of your experience with Frontiers as you get further into the process. Many granting agencies are dealing with the APC issue, and my impression is that most allow that expense to be billed against the grant. My university has a fund administered by the library that covers these costs, in part with the idea that it’s the library that manages our relationship to journals.

  • David Adger says:

    Curt, in the UK, the research councils now require open access publication for any research they fund, and for the next Research assessment exercise (REF2020) all articles, but not monographs, will have to be open access. I think the big problem will be money to pay for ‘gold’ open access, which is what the research councils prefer, although most universities are pushing green, as it’s cheaper.

    • Curt Rice says:

      It’s going to be very interesting to monitor the responses to this requirement. The green/gold issue is part of what is putting publishers at ease; they realize we’re not going to get organized enough to have a unified assault on their price-gouging, which I think is part of what is behind the report I cited from the financial analysts. OA monographs — that’s an exciting idea and I’m starting to see some. But they are expensive, although UCL just started a series that is supposed to be quite a bit cheaper, maybe $2-3000 range, I think. In any event, we need to make sure gold fees don’t land on individual faculty, but since 70% of OA journals have no fees, there should be good possibilities there, too.

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