Here’s something that any student or academic can do to promote the free flow of scientific and scholarly inquiry: pressure your college or university to sign the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity. It’s a statement of solidarity among institutions of higher learning to promote open-access publishing.
In the more specific language of the Compact, universities commit to “the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.”
This imperative is growing stronger every day now that publishers are trying to roll back the existing open-access rules for federally funded research. Under the Research Works Act, introduced in December, the federal government could not require open access rules for the research it funds. In other words, highly lucrative commercial journal publishers would have a protected market for taxpayer-subsidized research for which it would hold the copyrights. A sweet deal!
Open access is getting a lot more attention these days now that more than 5,700 researchers are calling for a boycott of Elsevier, one of the leading publishers of scientific journals. It started when mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University announced that he would no longer have anything to do with Elsevier-publisher journals; he would neither submit articles or act as a referee or editor for them. Soon the boycott had spread.
I love the statement prepared by mathematicians last week. They denounced "a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions' libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary." Ouch. But true.
To be sure, going open access is not without its own difficulties. Somehow authors (or their universities or funders) must pay upfront fees for the submission of articles to open-access journals. This is a big shift in the economics of scholarly publishing. Traditionally, authors paid nothing and journals picked up all the expenses of publishing. But the journal also owned the copyright and therefore could restrict access or demand payment to read or copy the article.
Publishers have abused this power by charging exorbitant subscription fees to libraries, earning handsome profits. Amazing that Elsevier can make annual profits of 36% on a service that could be achieved for much, much less money.
The brilliance of open-access publishing is that it makes academic research available for free to everyone via the Internet in perpetuity. To be sure, someone has to pay for the editorial costs of reviewing, editing, producing and distributing the articles. Those costs are dramatically lower for online journals vs. print, but there are still significant costs. As the COPE website notes, “Since open-access journals do not charge subscription or other access fees, they must cover their operating expenses through other sources, including subventions, in-kind support, or, in a sizable minority of cases, processing fees paid by or on behalf of authors for submission to or publication in the journal.”
The problem is that open access journals tend to be newer, and thus do not have the prestige and cachet of the established journals like Nature, Science and Cell. Authors are disinclined to publish with a new, largely unknown open access journal.
So how to make the transition to the new OA models? That’s what the COPE statement is attempting to encourage. To date, the Compact has been signed by Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, Columbia, UC Berkeley as well as a number of Canadian universities such as the University of Ottawa, the University of Calgary and Simon Fraser University. Don't forget the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the World Wide Web got its start.
Wouldn't it be great if YOUR college or university signed up and gave an additional push to OA? That may take pressure from students, librarians, professors and researchers. Turn up the pressure on university administrations and demand that they help ease the transition to open access publishing. It's long overdue. The existing system is mostly a private ripoff of public resources and a barrier to future research and innovation. Open-access publishing lets academia reclaim control over its own scholarship and research. The real question may be whether academia has sufficient commitment to fight to restore its own scholarly commons.