The Open Access Debate : To be Free, or Not to be Free?

Preamble: I was endlessly undecided about this issue. I mulled this over, wrote some stuff, mulled some more, wrote more a few days later, decided everything I wrote was crap, mulled again, decided my thoughts were too disjointed, did some editing, mulled yet again, contemplated throwing in the towel and not posting anything on this subject, did some rewriting, and finally decided to just post the damn thing. Be warned. Ahem. Let’s start again.

The Open Access Debate : To be Free, or Not to be Free?

Scientific journals are expensive. Yearly subscriptions are hundreds of dollars, and sometimes more. Because of the high costs, individuals and research groups generally don’t subscribe to them. Instead, universities and research institutes tend to buy site licenses so that everyone working there can access the journals. Essentially, the institute is buying their subscriptions in bulk quantities so that the cost per student, researcher, and faculty member is far cheaper. The cost gets incorporated into research costs and tuition fees, as would be the case for all other library materials. So, if you’re a member of the university community, you have easy access to just about every major journal in every field. If you’re not a member, tough luck. Alternatively, if your research institution doesn’t have a license for a particular journal, good luck getting access to it. This happened to me (only) once — our librarian had to send a materials request to OTTAWA and have someone pull the article I wanted from some sort of international archive. Our group was billed fifteen dollars for a three page article.

The US National Institute of Health recently introduced a plan that would require all their grantees to make their papers available online for free (on a central database), six months after initial publication. A similar plan has been discussed in the UK House of Commons. And the fur is starting to fly.

These days, everyone (not just scientists) expects to find content on the internet for free. Every major newspaper and magazine offers substantial online content that is accessible to anybody for zero cost. In comparison, scientific journals seem to close themselves off from open access, with extravagant subscription prices to ensure that the door stays bolted shut. Ironically, the internet was invented in order to felicitate the exchange of scientific ideas and data, only to have their communities evolve into the most exclusionary clubs on the whole net. So, if everything else is free, why shouldn’t scientific content be free too? And doesn’t the public deserve to have access to this content if public funds are being used to pay for the research?

On the other hand, consider the POV of the scientific journals. The NIH claims that journals will still be financially viable and not will lose significant numbers of subscribers because of the six month “grace period”. The journals disagree, they think that open access will lead to a rash of cancelled subscriptions. If so, they will have to start charging authors (as well as subscribers) in order to meet their publication costs. Besides, due to the near-ubiquity of online publishing, subscription prices have fallen significantly in the last few years and should continue to fall.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: you can’t do research if you are six months behind the current state of science. Journals are scientific news periodicals. Suppose newspapers were given away for free six months after they were printed — nobody would wait six months to read the news just so they could do so for free. So canceling subscriptions and waiting six months to read scientific articles is out of the question. Universities will pay for those subscriptions. In principle, they could cut costs by dropping the less widely read journals and only licensing the popular and prestigious ones. But journal subscriptions work much like cable TV — you never pay for just one station, you buy stations in bundles. You might only want two particular stations, but you still have to pay for the bundle and get another 37 channels that you’ll never watch. Welcome to the world of journal conglomerates. However, some libraries and institutions will undoubtedly shed some of their subscriptions, the question is, how many?

Journals don’t want to rock the boat. They are understandably afraid. If they start losing money, and have to begin charging for author submissions, the number of submissions they receive will likely decrease. If they’re receiving fewer papers from top researchers, then the journals prestige goes down. There is a built-in feedback mechanism with this. Researchers want their favourite journals to remain prestigious because they want their work to be published there, which in turn makes their research prestigious and recognizable as being some of the top work in their field. An open access plan could upset this balance, the question is, how much?

Looking into my crystal ball … if open access becomes a widespread reality, journal access will change minimally on university campuses. But there will be a sizeable amount of money lost from smaller (and private) companies and institutions. Journals will be forced to lower subscription costs. At this point, everything might stabilize. They may even regain lost subscriptions. If things don’t stabilize, then open servers such as the one at may become more common. Anyone can register and post a paper there. There is no peer review process, I could write up a paper today and publish it there tomorrow. The feedback an author receives serves as a peer review process, and this information can be used to flesh out further ideas or prepare a more complete manuscript for publication in a “traditional” journal. This sounds a lot like a blog for researchers, doesn’t it? Just as many professional writers have taken their craft into the blogosphere (and paper magazines have not imploded), the lanl server has run for a decade outside of the “traditional” scientific journal community and the journal world has managed to continue spinning on its axis. Such open servers also get around some of the politics and cronyism associated with a peer review process (of course, such things are in no way confined to the scientific community).

However, if I were calling the shots, I would probably wimp out and scrap the open access proposals. Yeah, it bugs me to write that because my gut tells me the opposite, mainly because public money is involved. But my head is telling me that it’s silly to risk the reputations of important journals (and in turn, risking scientific careers) in order to make information available to more people, because 99.99% of those people won’t have any use for that information anyway.

As for the seemingly extravagant subscription prices for top journals, look at it this way. When paying for a journal, a scientist isn’t paying for reading material inasmuch as they’re paying for ideas. Nobody can work in a vacuum. One must cull ideas and necessary background information from other people’s work and then synthesize this information in order to produce new ideas, leading to new science. Subscription costs are nothing compared to the financial costs of running a research lab. Equally important, those costs are miniscule compared to the human cost of making scientific careers. Thus, the high costs of a journal’s wares don’t keep me awake at night.