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'Open access' will not be open to everyone

Making authors pay for publication may not deliver the anticipated benefits.


With the best intentions, a group of American biomedical scientists and physicians proposes to make all scientific research “available free of charge to anyone”. They have formed the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and plan to build their library by starting new journals, all of which will be open access. They will support their journals by charging authors, not subscribers, for each paper that is published. The fee will be something like US$1,500 per paper — maybe more, maybe less. Their model, they say, “treats the costs of publication as the final integral step of the funding of a research project”.

In reality, not all researchers are funded by research grants. Less than half of active research mathematicians are supported by federal grants in the United States; some estimates are considerably lower than this. Mathematics is not alone: in virtually every field, there are many scientists doing outstanding research who are not part of any large, federally funded project. Who pays the $1,500 for these people?

Much published research also comes from outside the United States. More than half of the articles published in the American Mathematical Society's primary research journals during the past 20 years do not have a US author. Who pays the $1,500 for these authors? Yes, it's true that many such authors come from countries that have funding agencies themselves, but many others are from developing countries. During those same 20 years, of the 1.5 million journal articles listed in Mathematical Reviews, 68,000 had authors from the former Soviet Union, 26,000 from India, 26,000 from Poland, nearly 4,000 from Egypt, and more than 600 from Nigeria. Who pays the $1,500 for these scientists?

The PLoS editors suggest that authors who are unable to pay won't have to. But this assumes that few authors are unable to pay — a false premise in many disciplines.

It is often assumed that universities or institutes will pay the $1,500, if no one else will. But how will universities and departments decide which faculty and which areas of research are supported? What happens to faculty in small colleges with limited resources? Publishing papers only from those who can pay is a dramatic change in culture, and the change may not be the intended one.

Each publication model — subscription-based or author-supported — has trade-offs, but they are not symmetric trade-offs. When a scientist doesn't have a subscription, he or she can nonetheless get information about the article (the abstract and perhaps a list of references); requesting a copy of the article can be as easy as sending an e-mail. When a scientist doesn't have the funds to publish an article, the article does not appear — does not become part of the permanent literature. That's more than an inconvenience.

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Ewing, J. 'Open access' will not be open to everyone. Nature 425, 559 (2003).

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