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On being scientific about science publishing

The great paradox of the movement towards open access to scientific journals is that no one is opposed to it and almost everyone is sure they belong to it. So why is there such contentiousness in the air? Can we not bring the dispassion and collaboration of good science into this domain? For it seems that no one disagrees with the proposition that the results of research should be distributed as widely as possible and in particular that economic disadvantage should not prevent access to critical information.

However, beyond that commitment, agreement begins to disintegrate rapidly. One reason is that �Open Access� is understood by many, including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), as referring to widest possible access1. But the vigorous and outspoken leaders of the Open Access movement, promoting such venues as BioMed Central (BMC) and the Public Library of Science (PLoS), use �Open Access� to mean a particular model for progress�where authors and others pay upfront for publishing and no subscription or access fees are charged�and encourage all to join it.

Meanwhile, much real expansion of access has been occurring, even among publishers who are reluctant to follow the BMC/PLoS lead. Somewhere between 30 and 40 projects are already giving away information to developing and emerging nations2. In those cases, first world subscription fees are effectively paying for Open Access to those not in a position to pay for journals. Though access is wider and better than ever, established publishers are torn between defending existing models and asserting their own commitment to the common goal through experiments of their own.

What we have in fact is a competition among business models for the best way to reach the widest possible audience and no certainty which of those models will prove sustainable�though uncertainty is not what one commonly hears expressed by the various partisans in these conversations.

If we look at the variety of important public statements about Open Access, such as those of Budapest (Feb 2002)3, Bethesda (April 2003)4, Berlin (August 2003)5 and the Wellcome Trust (October 2003)6, we see high-level principles on which to design business models. The most ardent advocates of Open Access concentrate on a limited number of such models and are outspoken, articulate and rhetorically effective�believers in an important cause.

The style has the important and valuable effect of rallying new believers�including scientists and others who have not paid attention to these issues in the past�and yet it does so at the cost of alienating many who share the commitment but whose scepticism hesitates at these particular models and means for achieving widest access. And of course, one rhetorical campaign stimulates its own counter-rhetoric and together these cloud understanding. It has become possible to lose professional friends in disagreement just at time when cooperation and collaboration are critical if we are to find more effective strategies.

To turn discussions of ways and means into discussions of right and wrong can be frustrating and not very productive. For example, I attended a meeting in February and was talking with a colleague who could not understand why any publisher would not move to free availability of all articles at once, with little appreciation that many publishers might see things differently. "When you find a publisher who doesn't think Open Access can be achieved, you just send him to me," this colleague said. I asked, "What will you say to such a person?". "I'll tell them that they are wrong."

My concern about the growing divide between different sectors of a largely well-meaning community increased after studying the Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science, published in March7. This is an apparently middle-ground, sensible statement from a number of publishers who have in place a mixed model of free and paid access. These publishers typically make content free after a delay, often 6 months, and already provide free access to developing nations. Theirs is a model that seems to work well and keeps subscription prices moderate; however, their statement was co-opted quickly in the rhetorical arguments as though it represented further polarization and support for the most enthusiastic Open Access business models.

We are still in the early days of electronic scholarly and scientific communication. The new entrants present some novel approaches that may or may not sustain themselves with their eye-catching price tags; but it must be admitted that few of these titles have so far caught fire. It is too early to say which or how many will succeed. Such experiments must be encouraged and, during this period of exciting experimentation, dialogue, analysis and attention to outcomes should be the true order of the day.

How can we live through these fraught times collegially and successfully? First, we need to remember that experiments are experiments. It is most welcome news that the respected, UK-based international Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), representing almost 300 not-for-profit publishers, is planning a serious study of access models8 and the UK�s House of Commons Science & Technology committee is currently obtaining evidence9.

Given the wide range of per-article costs for publishing scientific articles, journal characteristics will need to be mapped and studied so that meaningful comparisons can be made. For example, hybrid models, which some publishers are planning, run the risk of confusing analysis�a few societies, for example, are proposing that their existing journals offer some issues or articles on a traditional subscription model and others on an Open Access model, wherein authors pay the costs and the issue is made freely available. This seems well-intentioned but unlikely to be meaningfully informative as to costs.

In any study, the merits, and not only the demerits, of the present journal funding system need to be addressed. It does secure resources from a wide variety of sources, including the for-profit sector, universities, colleges, research labs and of course many nations. To surrender a diverse funding base for a few payers or to ask a small number of research-intensive institutions to support publication for all could actually increase the risk of serious contraction or chaos in the availability of information. And, the current payment system does give subscribers their chance to pronounce on the value of given journals by choosing to pay for them (or not).

Some practical matters:

  1. 'Subscriptions' versus 'memberships'. Note that there is a particular risk of confusion in discussing 'subscriptions' and 'memberships'. If I tried to explain to my provost that we were exchanging a 'library subscription' for a journal of $1000 for a 'library membership' (or 'university sponsorship') of $1000 that allowed all our researchers to publish in that journal for no further fee, she could well be puzzled. And if I said that the 'membership' would cost us $5000 because it would make information freely available, she might be even more puzzled. That is because, at the institutional end, when cheques are written, the practical effects of the word 'subscription' and 'membership' and 'sponsorship' are much the same.
  2. Partners. For widest access, it is critical to find not only the right price points but also the right payers. There is much discussion about bringing government funding to bear on Open Access, but that thought raises many issues. Are we already too dependent on government regulation, or, as some would say, interference? Do we want to depend on governmental budgeteers to understand deeply just how much support scientific publication needs? Can we allow ourselves to get into a situation where government regulations about publishing work from unfriendly countries can express itself, as is already happening10?
    To move towards government support at just the moment when National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funding is flattening out and growing more difficult to obtain feels particularly risky. Support from foundations is even harder to imagine�they are better suited to fund start-ups on a smaller scale than ongoing systems on a large scale.
  3. Constant change. We cannot think of the system of scientific publishing as a steady-state environment. Innovation, technology advance, interface development and the like will all continue to shape and reshape the environment. Any business model must encourage such innovation and entry into the system.
  4. Costs, costs everywhere. The newest costs of access to electronic information are growing in ways as distinct from journal production prices. For example, the Yale University Library currently pays huge sums of money to indexing and abstracting services and software tools�not as much as we pay for the journals themselves, but probably 20�25% of that and growing. If we define the journal costs problem as one of 'content is king' and resolve to 'fix' that content problem, we are likely find that in the meantime other costs have far outrun us.

What is the way forward? I strongly suggest enthusiasm and tolerance on all sides. We do not know what the best, most sustainable access models will be, and it us unlikely that the prevalence of a single model for all scholarly publications can serve all parties well. This is an exciting time to be engaged in making good science known to those who can make good use of that knowledge all over the world. We have made immense progress in less than a decade of serious e-journal publication. If we can be true scientists in this regard, carrying forth a spirit of hypothesis, experimentation and analysis, then we have the best chance of building a system that is both robust and effective.

Ann Okerson
Ann Okerson is Associate University Librarian at Yale University and moderator of the Liblicense website and discussion forum11�one of the liveliest and most diversely attended sources of continuing conversation among scholars, librarians and publishers on the issues raised here. The views herein are solely those of the author's.

  1. See
  2. See
  3. Budapest Open Access Initiative
  4. Bethesda Statement on open access Publishing
  5. Berlin Declaration on open access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities
  6. Scientific publishing. A position statement by the Wellcome Trust in support of open access publishing
  7. Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science
  8. See
  9. See UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's Inquiry into Scientific Publications
  10. See
  11. See
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