The market of scientific publications is such an organic mess, there’s no end to topics that can be beaten over their heads. This post is about “open access” publications. Lately there has been a push back against publishers that keep their content behind pay walls, coupled with a big favoritism for publishers that offer their content in “open access.” There’s no such thing as free lunch, ever. That’s the case here too. If readers don’t pay publishers of “open access” content, someone needs to pay. Guess who?
That’s right!, authors pay.
Open access is a great story. Who doesn’t want “open”? Anyone who is against “open” is for “closed”, and that is bad — “closed” means barriers, secrets, etc. Ah, rhetoric… an ancient Art that will never cease to be relevant as long as we are Humans. The rhetoric surrounding the word “open” makes for an interesting essay in and of itself, but I won’t do it here.
Publishing is not free of costs, unfortunately. As anyone who has been involved in organizing informal workshops knows, there’s a non-trivial amount of time that one has to allocate to collecting and compiling papers, even if it’s just for placing them off a web site. If, on top of that, one wants to make the formats uniform, there’s more time involved in defining the templates, and making sure the authors follow them. If one wants to produce a nice book-like thing, there’s time for the production of the cover, the TOC, an index, etc. If one want to go one step further and make sure there are no spelling mistakes, labeling inconsistencies and other sorts of typographical mishaps, there’s more time in proof-reading. And if one wants to keep bibliographic information (meta-data) and send it off to services that keep track of that, there’s even more time for this. What researchers in their right minds want to spend their time doing these things?!?
No one. That’s why scientific publishers exist.
Publishers need to make a living, they need to get paid to do the work they do. So far, the dominant business model for scientific publishers has been paid subscriptions for access to the content. For centuries, they have been making their money from University and Industry Libraries, for the most part. Individual subscriptions are only a tiny portion of their revenue.
Unfortunately for them, more and more individuals who aren’t associated with any well-established institutions seem to want access to this content. The market seems to be changing, and these publishers aren’t really prepared for mass consumption of their products.
Enter “open access”. Let’s ignore the name for a moment. The business model of these publishers flips the old business model around: the content is made free for anyone who wants to access it. Instead, the authors pay. Charges vary from $250/page to bulk fees per article in the order of $4,000 or higher.
I have been approached by these “open access” publishers to be involved in several roles — author, editor. Call me old fashion, but the thought of having to pay $4,000 to publish my work has been a conceptual barrier for me to do it. Wait, what?!, I’m doing all the work to produce knowledge that other people may want to acquire, and, on top of that, I have to pay for it to be published?! No thanks, I’d rather hang the abstract off my blog and send the paper to whoever asks. (Handing over all content to Google for free, so that they can monopolize the capitalization of this content out of advertising without channeling the money back to authors, also doesn’t appeal to me)
Furthermore, authors paying publishers to publish their papers seems like a very slippery slope in the long run. What happens to good work that comes from authors who don’t have that kind of money? What happens to the field when the only authors who can afford to pay are those working in powerful institutions that have a lot of money? Again, no thanks.
Plus, let’s look at the numbers. With paid content, my University Library pays, say, $20,000 to each one of the big dozen publishers for access to their entire content. With “authors pay”, each of those publishers would be receiving a lot more from the collection of researchers in my University! — probably as much as 50x more. Again, no thanks.
I’m not arguing against “open access.” If it were truly “free of charge” for everyone involved, I would be its strongest advocate. But it’s not. Things are never black & white like the rhetoric behind this debate seems to indicate.
Recommended reading: this article in Nature which discusses the topic in all its glorious details.