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Open Access: yes, no, maybe

Last month, Paul Saffo research director of the Institute of the Future1 in Menlo Park, California, told the board of the Copyright Clearance Center, at a meeting in Naples, Florida, that we were living in a period of 'unprecedented uncertainty'. I cannot imagine a more apt description.

A decade ago the challenge to Science Technology and Medicine (STM) journal publishers was clear: move your journals to Internet distribution and do it in a way that increases both access and functionality. And we have done that. In the case of Elsevier's ScienceDirect, there are now over 5.6 million articles, at least 10 million researchers regularly use the service and full text downloads are doubling annually, with an expectation of over 275 million downloads in 2004 (and another 100 million at sites that hold the files locally). It has cost more than �200 million to create and maintain the service, including �24 million to digitize the backfiles of all titles back to volume 1, number 1 (which for The Lancet was in 1823). But this investment was clearly what we needed to do to deliver that which the scientific community wants.

Now the message we and other publishers are receiving is this: it is not enough. Now we are to change and make everything available for free. It is not enough that we expect the measurable benefits in productivity for users (access, usage, functionality and lower unit costs) to continue. It has to also be free to users and be paid for in some other way. 'Unprecedented uncertainty', indeed.

How should we react? Some of our advisors tell us it is essential at least to experiment with Open Access and try the author-pays-to-publish model. The problem is that the current pioneers such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) or BioMed Central are, for whatever reason, charging substantially below the actual cost of publication. They are subsidizing the process with grants or private capital. It is not possible for a publisher that is accountable to a society membership or shareholders to act in this financially untenable way. Therefore, if we are to experiment, we would have to charge the real cost of publication, effectively pricing ourselves out of the current Open Access market. And we would be endorsing a model that at the moment is unsustainable.

There is therefore a reluctance to join in the experiment. This is particularly true because we think that the so-called lack of access is a red herring. There has been no evidence that those who need access are being denied. The current paper and electronic combination, administered through libraries — which are frequently open to the public and otherwise provide remote delivery through interlibrary loan — assures that universal access works.

But the concern goes much deeper than a simple financial or competitive decision or a question about whether there is adequate access. There is another conundrum. Library associations such as SPARC and some individual librarians advocate the pursuit of the Open Access model as a way of solving the 'serials crisis'. This crisis is the result of the now decades-long and well-documented imbalance between the growth in R & D expenditures (and in the journal literature, with the number of articles increasing at about 3% per year for nearly a century) and the increase in research library budgets (which much more closely follows GDP). An author-pays model effectively puts the crisis back onto the shoulders of the researchers, saying: 'You created the problem by researching and writing so much. Now you solve it by paying for publication.' Clever.

But, as with other traditional publishers, we have a real concern about how editorial independence will be maintained in this model, particularly where the price charged to authors is insufficient to cover the cost of publication. A journal that is losing money or lives on the margins of losing money will have little editorial independence. There will be pressure to mould content and opinion to secure greater revenue and to increase acceptance to improve cash flow. Any substantial change to the publishing model that might erode editorial freedom would damage the hugely valuable oversight and evaluative functions that journals have contributed to science and society.

We also are concerned about two sides of the author-pays coin: those who lack the funds to pay for publication (a major issue for researchers in much of the world) and those who are so well funded that they can publish early and often. Is this good for science?

In the end, if allowed, the scientific community and the market that supports it will make decisions about what the right balance and approach should be. Probably the single biggest concern traditional publishers have is that the market will not be allowed to function, and government agencies and funding bodies will decide to tip the balance in favour of Open Access. They can do this by dictating that all articles from research they fund must be made freely available (whether by removing any copyright protection or requiring that the articles be available at no charge to the user via the Internet). If this happens, as a community we run significant risk of unravelling a system that has developed over centuries — and which currently does get material to those who need it on a timely and accessible basis — without putting a replacement in place in an orderly way.

Consider what would happen if Open Access was mandated and all authors had to pay for publication. Over and above the problems of editorial independence, disenfranchisement of the researcher who does not have funds for publication nor a favoured environment for those with generous funding (as could be expected by those working with corporate grants), at some point publishing would be commoditized and there would be pressure to compete by offering lower author charges. 'Good', one might say — 'we want the system to be as low-cost and productive as possible'. Yes, but what of the investments to improve and innovate: where will the funding for that come from? There will be an inevitable pressure to settle on a plain vanilla, lowest common denominator form of publishing.

But perhaps I am too worried about the downside. When it comes to Open Access publishing, at this early stage there is a tat for every tit. It is, for example, imaginable that there will be services that take the plain vanilla publications and add value to them by way of extra functionality and services. One can only hope that there is a customer willing to pay for such added value, rather than expecting that it too will be free. We are entering a period where the conventions of personal computer and other technology-led product developments are gaining mindshare among scientific information consumers: every year there should be more functionality, more usage, perhaps more content and certainly more value overall for the same or lower price.

Elsevier, like all publishers, will continue to innovate, to observe the impact of innovations like Open Access and to assess how effectively such initiatives serve the needs of scientific, technical and medical communities. If developments prove able to bring demonstrable, substantial and sustainable improvements for those communities, Elsevier will adapt and invest accordingly. In the meantime, we believe that the government and private funding agencies should continue to allow the market dynamics of this global industry drive innovation and determine which publishing models can best serve the needs of researchers and consumers of research information.

Karen Hunter
Senior Vice President, Strategy, Elsevier
k.hunter@elsevier.com


  1. See http://www.iftf.org

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