The myth of 'unsustainable' Open Access journals
Myths, if repeated often and widely, can perpetuate and beget
new myths. The alleged �unsustainability� of the �input-paid� Open Access publishing
model is such a second-order myth. The notion that the model is unsustainable
has been expounded time and again and persists even in some recent contributions
to this forum1. One could be forgiven for believing that the
judgement of unsustainability must be rooted in a deep understanding of what
the Open Access model actually entails, but that doesn�t quite seem to be the
case. Unsustainability is only plausible if one assumes that the traditional
publishers actually believe the underlying myths, which have in my view been
countered2. Only a generous dose of wishful thinking keeps
the myth of unsustainability alive.
Although myths and wishful thinking may abound, Open Access
is not going to go away, however. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle.
The benefits of Open Access are just too obvious. Should you be sceptical, consider
this: the contributions to this very forum are all openly accessible. The logic
is incontrovertible: it assures that the maximum number of interested readers
is being reached. Just what the doctor (and postdoc) ordered for research literature!
The issue is not �Open Access or not� anymore�that�s a station we�ve already
passed. The issue now is about agreement on an economically sustainable model
(or models) for Open Access. The myth of �unsustainability� thus has to be addressed.
Any business that can deliver what customers need or want,
at a price that they are willing to pay, is sustainable. The crux of the matter
lies in the phrase �the price customers are prepared to pay� for the �value�
or �added-value� of a product or service. The Open Access model is sustainable
as long as its customers are prepared to pay for the service they receive. The
traditional model is the one that is unsustainable, precisely because its customers
are no longer prepared to pay the asking price. In January of this year, the
University of California Academic Senate called the traditional model �incontrovertibly
A legitimate question is, of course: who are the customers?
Are they the librarians? Or are they the researchers? Or a combination of these?
Although librarians usually pay the bill, this is on behalf of their institutions;
the institutions are the real customers�on behalf of their students, in the
role of �readers�, and their researchers, in the roles of both �readers� and
�authors�. And, moreover, the bill is paid on behalf of those who fund the research
carried out at their facilities by their researchers.
The fact that the article processing charges currently levied
by Open Access publishers may seem too low for traditional publishers to be
sustainable is one of the causes of their scepticism. Improved efficiencies
can lower the production costs of every article published, however, although
it is true that the current Open Access article charges may not sustain the
level of profitability to which traditional publishers have grown accustomed.
It is important to understand, however, that Open Access is not just a variation
of traditional publishing, or simply a way to shift the costs from libraries�with
their budget crises�to others. The difference is more fundamental and has to
do with transparency and the sort of the role the publisher plays in the process.
What the scientific community needs and expects from the publishing
process is clear: (a) registration; (b) validation; (c) dissemination; and (d)
preservation. The publisher traditionally has a role in organizing and facilitating
these functions. During the long period of evolution of print-based publishing,
organization and facilitation took on characteristics of ownership of the material
published. And ownership made bundling of services irresistible.
While arguably such bundling was inevitable in the print context,
the internet has changed the publishing environment, so that publishers are
now being forced to go back to the essence of their service to the scientific
community: organizing and facilitating the process. The various services that
together constitute the publishing process can be �unbundled� and each step
can be offered�and charged for�separately. Why should print be bundled in the
service, or indeed be performed by the same publisher? Or archiving? Or any
other added-value services? They may of course be offered by the same publisher,
but could perhaps be done more efficiently and cost-effectively by other agencies.
This unbundling goes further, of course, than what is now
seen as being part of the publishing process. There are already familiar services
that use the literature as �raw material� for further added-value, such as abstracting
and citation analysis. Some of these may in future be automated and complemented
by data- and text-mining services that more fully unleash the potential contained
in scientific research results. Analyses that depend on information contained
in many articles in many journals from many different publishers are made more
feasible with Open Access.
There are obvious benefits if such services are
rendered more efficiently and professionally, which is the raison
d��tre of any publisher, particularly professional ones. Looking
at publishing in such an �unbundled�way makes Open Access eminently
possible as a business model, and intrinsically sustainable, providing
the service to the scientific community that it needs. Given that
much of science is publicly funded, Open Access to the science literature
also acts as a service to society at large whose members paid for
Director and Publisher
BioMed Central Limited
- Karen Hunter, �Open
Access: yes, no, maybe�, Nature Web Focus �Access
to the literature: the debate continues,� 19 March 2004
- See http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/inquiry/myths.pdf
- See http://libraries.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/facmemoscholcomm_010704.pdf