It must have happened to us all: the scholarly article we want is enticingly close but behind a publisher’s firewall. To those of us lucky enough to be in well-financed universities with institutional subscriptions, this is often just a temporary inconvenience. But to most people in the world it is the end of the matter. They will never get beyond the abstract. It is an absurd position: the author wants the piece to be read (and let’s be honest, for a philosopher it is hard enough to get an audience); and the potential reader wants to read it. The firewall is in the interests of neither.
Small wonder then that there is widespread support for open access. Who could be opposed? Scholarly articles should be freely available on the web to all who want to read them. So much we can all agree on.
There is, though, a second issue that lurks in the background. For years, commercial publishers have been making excessive monopoly profits from selling academic journals to university libraries. A move to open access might be a way of breaking that monopoly. But there is no guarantee that it will be. If the commercial publishers control the process open access might make this aspect worse rather than better.
To see what should be possible we need to step back and see how academic research differs from most publishing. Many writers – novelists, journalists, poets – make their living by selling their work. The writers of academic articles are different. They are typically paid by the universities or colleges that employ them, or the bodies that pay for their research grants. They are expected to write, but the rewards come from the publications themselves, and not from any royalties that they might bring. Occasionally an academic will make substantial amount from a successful textbook (Samuelson’s Economics is one example) but in a discipline like philosophy that is unheard of. Philosophers don’t write for the money.
Moreover, while the process of making books and magazines is expensive – they have to be edited, perhaps refereed, and then typeset, printed, and distributed – academic journals are once again different. Much of the editing is done by academics, typically for little or no financial reward; refereeing is done by academics for nothing; electronic typesetting costs are very low; distribution costs using the web are minimal.
So we might expect that scholarly journals would be very cheap. Not so. An annual library subscription to a single commercial journal will often cost many thousands of pounds. The price has increased well above the rate of inflation for many years, so that an ever-larger share of academic library budgets is devoted to them. (Publishers will sometimes say that the average price of journals has fallen in recent years, but this is because journals are typically “bundled” which means that if a library wants one it will have to buy the whole bundle – the average price can thus fall whilst total expenditure rises.) Publishers can get away with this because they have an effective monopoly. The last thirty years has seen a handful of commercial publishers take over most of the academic journals, buying up titles from scholarly societies and smaller publishers. But even without this concentration there would still be a natural monopoly. Journals are not substitutable. A prestigious journal, attracting and publishing much of the best research, is essential to an academic library; if publishers put the price up, libraries are ill-placed to refuse to buy it. As an indication of how much the commercial publishers are making, note that they charge for their journals around five times the amount that the not-for-profit journals (those published by scholarly societies and the like) charge for theirs.
What an odd situation we are in. Academics want to have their work read. Universities are paying them to write it and to do the bulk of the work of running the journals. And yet universities are paying again to get access to that work, and potential readers who are outside the universities are denied access to it.
Hence the need for open access. But whether it will solve the problems depends on how it is implemented. The commercial publishers have a plan. They aim to keep the structure much as it is. “We will implement open access by making your articles freely available” they say, “so long as you pay an extra fee for doing so”. That fee, which typically amounts to several thousand dollars per article, is then paid either by the universities, or by the agencies that funded the research. And since not every article in the important journals will be given open access in this way, the publishers hope is that the libraries will go on paying for the journals. We get partial open access, and the publishers make a larger profit than before. (Unfortunately that is a route that the UK government seems to be embracing.)
We face a classic coordination problem. We are in one equilibrium exploitatively dominated by the commercial publishers, who we don’t need. We have to move to a new one in which either they behave responsibly, or they have no role at all. How can we do this?
One route is to establish new open access journals. PLOS, the Public Library of Science, which now publishes seven journals, has had a huge impact. Within the admittedly more limited confines of philosophy, Philosopher’s Imprint has been equally successful, run on a shoestring by committed editors, with support from universities and a tiny voluntary submission fee (currently $20). Alternatively, rather than establishing new journals, existing journals might be “flipped” from a commercial publisher to not-for-profit status – either taking the name with them, if that is possible, or taking the board of editors and the good will, if it is not.
It is unlikely that all commercial journals will be replaced in this way. A different route involves making articles freely available independently of journals. Harvard provides a model here: a faculty initiative made it a contractual requirement that all Harvard academics post preprints of their papers in a freely accessible on-line archive. Various other universities in the US and elsewhere have followed suit. Alternatively, archives can be established at the level of the discipline. Virtually every paper written in physics is now posted in arXiv. Philosophers are more likely to post pre-prints on their own websites, although PhilPapers and Academia offer archives for those who want to use them. Archives like these are not aiming to replace journals. The journals continue to provide the role of refereeing and quality control. But if the scope of the archives grows to the point at which most articles can be freely found (and tools like Google Scholar make the process straightforward), then libraries will be free to call the bluff of commercial publishers who make excessive price demands.
Perhaps unsurprisingly some of the commercial publishers have been trying to undermine these moves. Elsevier has been the most aggressive. It has amended its publishers agreement so that academics who belong to institutions like Harvard that have mandated posting requirements are no longer even allowed to post their Elsevier published articles on their own webpages; and it has started to serve takedown notices on Academia. However, not all of the publishers have reacted in this way. Others are looking to cooperate. Many academics now boycott Elsevier. We shall see whether they maintain their aggressive course, and what happens to them if they do.
Non-commercial publication is not cost free. Administration has to be paid for. ArXiv now costs around half a million dollars a year to run. And there are other potential problems that need to be solved. Revenue from their journals provides many scholarly societies with their main income. In resisting the commercial publishers we need to ensure that their income is maintained, whether by direct grants to journals, reasonable publication fees on authors, or some other route. But the costs are small compared to the amounts being paid to the commercial publishers under the current system. It should not be beyond the wherewithal of the academic community to come up with something that not only ensures open access, but also swings the balance of power back to those who are doing the work.