Open Access

5 billion reasons for open access

The world currently spends about €7.6 billion per year on subscriptions to academic journals according to one report. Every year, those journals publish about 2 million articles. On average, then, we pay €3,800 to publishers for each article produced.

What if all academic publishing were open access? How much would that cost? Perhaps the biggest open access family of journals today is PLOS which now publishes over 30,000 articles per year. Their largest journal, PLOS One, charges authors €1,300 when their work is accepted to cover the costs of publication.

If all journal articles in the world were published in journals like PLOS One, we would spend €2.6 billion on publishing. Compared with today’s expenditures, humanity would save €5 billion every year. Even using the rates from a very expensive country like Norway, that would generate nearly 60,000 PhD positions — just think of the research that could be done, at no extra cost!

Publishing all articles open access would save humanity €5 billion!

Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we give the world the annual gift of breakthrough discoveries by 60,000 eager, young researchers? We don’t do it because professors don’t want to. Professors have been seduced by the prestige they themselves have granted certain traditional journals and careers are benchmarked against them. Hiring, promotion, grant awards and more are built on publishing in prestigious journals.

New journals or new business models?

It will take years for new open access journals to acquire the prestige of the most famous traditional journals. For that reason, perhaps we need to think differently about the transition to open access. Instead of starting up new journals, perhaps a more effective strategy would be to get traditional journals to change their business model and become open access journals.

One model for making such a transition is the Offsetting Model that has emerged from the Berlin Open Access series organized by the Max Planck Society. The Offsetting Model builds on a particular strategy for open access publishing called hybrid publishing. Traditional journals that generate earnings by selling subscriptions will sometimes allow authors to pay a fee to make a particular article immediately available for free to any reader, i.e., to make it open access.

This approach is a hybrid because the publisher sells a subscription while a researcher at the very institution that has bought the subscription may choose to pay the publisher (again!) to make her work open access. Publishers are accused with the hybrid model of double dipping — charging twice for the same product. Furthermore, the fee they charge is often twice that of what the major players in open access publishing would take, such that a criticism of triple dipping might be more accurate. Finding a good strategy for recovering these fees is notoriously difficult, even if a publisher shows goodwill, but a full-blown offsetting model takes a new approach.

The Offsetting Model

The Offsetting Model pursues on a much larger scale key aspects of the hybrid approach. Universities would carry out their usual negotiations with a publisher to determine a subscription rate. Then, as an added feature, the price is asserted to include an author fee from any researcher working there. In other words, the university subscribes to the journal, but the subscription includes a clause such that work by researchers from that institution is immediately made open access. It’s a hybrid.

If we imagine that all subscriber institutions were able to land such deals with all publishers, then all published papers would be open access. Voila!

One advantage of this approach is that researchers no longer would have to choose between what they perceive as a higher prestige traditional journal and a lower prestige open access journal. All journals effectively become open access in this model and such decisions are no longer required.

Another advantage is that several of the core envisaged benefits of open access publishing are met. Work becomes freely available to researchers around the world, regardless of the wealth of their institutions, and it becomes available to the public that has financed the work by paying for university infrastructures and researcher salaries.

Open access at any cost

But there are disadvantages, too. Perhaps the worst of them is that publishing is left in the hands of commercial interests, and their goal is to maximize profit. If we’re willing to give those publishers €3,800 for each article, why not €4,000 or perhaps €5,000? The market requires that they try, and when they do — with their prestige maintained by the professorate — there’s scant reason to believe we’ll do anything but follow right along.

Some have hoped that open access would lead to lower costs; universities desperately need savings to keep in check their tuition increases or their dependence on public funding. The Offsetting Model doesn’t even try to bring the price of publication down to that of existing open access journals, much less explore what may be a significant gap between their prices and how much a scholarly article really should cost a taxpayer.

The Offsetting Model leads to no immediate change in the amount paid to publishers. It may modify the way publishers do business and it may lead to more open access articles. But it is open access at any cost; with this model, we have no hope of recovering even one of the five billion euros on the line.

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


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