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The open-access debate

02 Jan 2007

Publishers are under increasing pressure to make journal papers free to all by abolishing subscriptions and making authors pay a fee instead. Rüdiger Voss welcomes the benefits that “open access” publishing brings, while John Enderby warns that this new publishing model comes at a price

Rüdiger Voss

Rüdiger Voss extols the virtues of open access

The scientific community has welcomed the idea of open access to the research literature through the Internet with open arms. Various initiatives, statements and declarations in recent years have all recommended free access to scientific results through self-archiving, the creation of new open-access journals and the conversion of subscription journals into open-access publications. Increasing numbers of funding agencies even force their grant holders to make their papers freely available online.

Physicists have always been at the forefront of the open-access revolution, which seeks to disseminate research findings as widely as possible. They, after all, pioneered the preprint system, which involves making copies of papers available to one’s colleagues while the work is still being peer reviewed by a journal. With the advent of the Web, particle physicists in particular were quick to create electronic versions of the system through preprint servers such as or the SPIRES database. Indeed, more than 90% of the research literature in particle physics is now freely available on the Web, which has replaced traditional journals as the lifeblood of scientific communication.

However, publishing papers via open-access Internet databases – rather than in reputable open-access journals – has been a mixed blessing. If an advance copy of almost every journal paper in a particular field is freely available online, libraries are more likely to cancel subscriptions in these self-archiving fields than in those where the practice is not as prevalent. What this means is that an increasing number of researchers – some in prestigious universities – can no longer read important journals in particle physics and related fields. A rift is fast developing, in which fewer and fewer scientists have access to the final, peer-reviewed version of a paper, while the rest have to make do with a preprint that is rarely identical to the final published version.

If journal publishers continue to hike subscriptions well above the rate of inflation in the face of declining circulation, journals will eventually cost so much that only a small number of major libraries and institutions will be able to afford them. Obviously, this business model is not sustainable for publishers in the long term and there is a big risk that it could collapse. Nonetheless, researchers are still as keen to publish their work in established journals like Physical Review Letters as they were in the pre-Internet age – after all, refereed journals are vital for career progression in academia, given the status that peer review confers on a scientific publication.

But should the physics community pay for expensive journals that merely rubber-stamp definitive versions of research papers, which cannot be found in many libraries, and that have lost their original raison d’être, which is lively and active scientific communication? The answer is, quite simply, no. Open access to the final, peer-reviewed version of scientific literature is the only way out of the dilemma. It will give back to refereed journals the role that they played 20 years ago and let them live in peaceful co-existence – but on an equal footing – with institutional repositories.

However, high-quality open-access publishing comes at a price. If subscriptions are abolished, open-access journals will probably have to be supported by charging authors a fee to publish each paper or by some form of sponsorship that could go as far as research agencies funding entire journals. Critics of open access argue that these scenarios are risky for two reasons. First, they say, author fees encourage publishers to lower quality standards and acceptance thresholds in order to maximize revenue. Second, this funding model is unstable: why would a researcher pay to put their work in open-access journal X when they could just as well publish it for free in equally prestigious journal Y?

I do not believe that first concern is serious: the principal reason why the traditional publishing paradigm has served us so well in the past is that it has relied on independent editorial boards. In this respect, there is no difference between subscription and open-access journals. The second concern is more serious, but it can be overcome by a large-scale transition to open access, of the type that CERN is promoting, accompanied by a programme to help scientists realize the true cost of the publication process.

Open-access journals will benefit all sides involved in the publication process. Scientists will profit from barrier-free access to research results. Authors will profit from increased dissemination of their work. Funding agencies will profit from more transparent, competitive and cost-effective pricing; while publishers will profit from a source of income that is rooted directly in the scientific community concerned, and will be more reliable than the increasingly fragile system of a dwindling number of overpriced subscriptions.

In particle physics, many publishers have understood the potential benefits and have started giving readers free access to individual articles in a journal by charging those particular authors a fee. Such “hybrid” business models can be useful to initiate a smooth transition to open access, but full open access to entire journals must remain the ultimate goal. The transition to open access is not without risk; but if the risk is well managed and has the support of all parties concerned, then there are far fewer dangers than sticking with obsolete – and increasingly absurd – subscription schemes.

John Enderby advocates caution

Much is made by advocates of open-access publishing of the notion that our human rights include, in some sense, “the right to know”. However, in his recent book The Access Principle (2005 MIT Press), John Willinsky from the University of British Columbia makes the crucial distinction between “open” access and “free” access. Most moral philosophers would argue that there is a hierarchy of rights with perhaps clean water, food, clothing and shelter at the top. But none of these is free.

In many societies this apparent contradiction is resolved by forcing those who can pay for food and shelter to do so, while providing welfare payments to those who cannot pay. Once it is recognized that access to reliable information and the right to know likewise have a cost, the question arises as to who should pay for the necessary validation and dissemination.

It is at this point that the disagreements arise. In its purest form, open-access publishing would offer all material in its final, edited, formatted and paginated form freely available, with the publication costs being entirely borne by the authors of papers or the people who funded their work. The traditional “subscription” model, again its purest form, makes material accessible only to those who pay for it, with authors paying nothing towards publication. Between these two extremes is a continuum of business models.

I have great difficulty with open access in its purest form. Economic models in which the producer pays – but the consumer does not – are, to say the least, unusual. At the moment, if researchers do not like a particular journal, they can choose to publish elsewhere. But if all journals were open access, consumers would not be able to exercise any influence over the market. Instead, presumably, the funding agencies would have the upper hand, having to decide how much of their resources would go to publication costs.

And here we meet another difficulty. There is no universal figure for the cost of publishing research papers because it depends strongly on the proportion of papers that are rejected. Publishing research papers is unusual in the business sense because a lot of time, energy and money goes into dealing with papers that do not meet the quality threshold of the journal in question and so do not appear as a “product”. Most commentators now agree that the costs in the quality end of the market are about £1500–£2000 per published paper.

Some advocates of open access have talked about charging researchers a certain amount when they submit a paper and then making them pay an additional fee if their paper is published. However, this approach is bureaucratic and open to abuse. Imagine sending a paper and cash to a publisher and then having the paper rejected. Could you then ask your funding agency for more money so you can submit the paper again and, if so, for how long could this continue?

I am also worried about the implication for developing countries. If author charges became the norm, there may be pressure from aid agencies for scientists from these nations to publish their work in less prestigious, low-impact journals that charge less because their acceptance rates are high. At present, all authors can have their research reviewed free of charge in any journal of their choice. Open-access publishing could therefore lead to journals being dominated entirely by scientists from the richest nations.

And finally those countries with an active scientific workforce would be out of pocket in two ways. Researchers in the UK, for example, produce about 75,000 papers a year, which means they would have to pay about £100m in author fees if all journals were open access. This sum is far higher than the £90m they currently pay in library subscriptions.

Second, a lot of high-quality research in Europe is published in US-based journals. In other words, if all journals were open access, hard cash from research budgets would end up in the coffers of American publishers, although this would be partly offset by a saving on subscriptions. The loss of income from journal subscriptions overseas could also threaten learned societies like the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society.

I do, however, have some reservations about the subscription model in its purest from. As a trustee of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, which seeks to make papers available to developing nations, I am aware of the problems of making people pay for information. Thankfully, the open-access debate has forced publishers to tackle some of the disadvantages of the subscription model.

Many publishers now give readers free access to all articles either for a limited period following publication or once a certain time has elapsed. Others are experimenting with hybrid models in which authors can choose to pay a publication charge in exchange for open access. Most publishers also now allow authors to post the accepted versions of their papers online.

My view is that market forces will lead to variety of models. However, for us all to move to open-access publishing, which is a so far unproved business model, is not in the best interests of science until experimentation has revealed some of its unintended consequences. I am therefore uneasy about governments or anyone else imposing new rules on authors as these could lead to unforeseen distortions in the market. It must be for each scientific community to decide for itself how best to organize the publication of its research.

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