Explainer: Open access vs traditional academic journal publishers

A growing number of academic institutions are building free online databases of their scholarly output. But publication in a big name academic journal still holds cachet for most academics. Flickr/mandiberg

As the cost of accessing academic journal articles increases, a growing number of academic institutions are building publicly accessible databases of scholarly work.

But how much of a threat to the traditional subscription-based academic journal model does the open access movement really pose?

In this Q+A, Stephen Cramond, Electronic Content Manager in the University of Melbourne Library outlines some of the issues in the debate.

How much do universities spend for subscriptions to top journals?

Some journals can can cost as much as $25,000 per annum for a subscription. An institution the size of University of Melbourne could be paying around $10 million a year for the journals to which it subscribes. And because most journals are published in the US or Europe, even slight variations in foreign exchange can play havoc with the rest of the Library budget.

That $25,000 per annum figure is an outlier and the amount per journal title is quite discipline specific. The further into the physical and life sciences you go, the more expensive they tend to be. The further into the arts and humanities you go, the cheaper they tend to be.

That’s partly an reflection of the number of papers that are being produced in those disciplines. The more papers there are, the more expensive the journal becomes.

So what trends are developing in the field of open access publishing?

Many institutions, including MIT and the University of Melbourne, have developed what’s called an institutional repository. That’s a database where they seek to make available on open access – free at the point of use - the research output of their researchers. MIT, along with a small but growing number of universities, have mandated that their researchers must do this.

They are taking advantaging of an out-clause that many publishers put in place by which an academic can post to his or her website a version of the publication that’s going to the journal which is not the publishers own version, not their marked up copy.

A version of the article before peer review is called a pre-print and a the final draft of the article after peer review is called post-print.

About 65% of journal publishers allow for either pre-print or post-print versions of those papers to be made available in that way.

So that’s what MIT is doing, that’s what parts of Harvard are doing. There is a register of institutions who have either a partial or complete mandate of this kind.

Can people outside of those institutions access those repositories?

Absolutely, that’s the intention. You don’t have to go to those repositories to access information, the public search engines like Google or Google Scholar and so on can harvest their content and make their contents findable.

So how much of a threat does this model pose to the traditional subscription-based journal system?

Originally, going back 10 years, some of the original proponents of the open access movement would have seen it as somewhat subversive, as an attempt to reform the existing journal system.

Ten years have passed and it’s arguable how much traction that kind of open access model has had.

However, open access and the broader changes in university and university library budgets have forced the traditional publishers to respond and they have responded in two ways.

Firstly, by making information and subscription based journals more affordable to their customer base – that is, universities and university libraries. They have developed what’s known as the Big Deal. That means if you sign up for, say, three years you get access online not only to the journals to which you have been subscribing in print until now but also the complete portfolio of publisher X or publisher Y, so every journal that they publish.

That has changed the picture tremendously over the last 10 years and, in some ways, access in the first world to journal information has never been better.

But one of the costs of being locked into the Big Deal is it is hard to get out of because it’s so attractive and secondly, it has tended to distort the way library collections have grown. Larger proportions of library budgets have been spent on journals and a smaller proportion on books or on new and emerging media.

The second response that publishers have made is to develop conventional journals published on an open access rather than a subscription model.

The most successful example so far is a firm called BioMed Central, which was spun off from a conventional publishing house. They have since been acquired by Springer, the second or third largest conventional publisher but the open access model has remained in place.

The fact that Springer bought BioMed Central was significant because it reinforces the impression that Springer is interested in flipping the business model, if they can, and moving in an orderly way to an open access model, wherein the author pays the cost of publication of the article, with the understanding that the article is then free for anyone to consume.

That can be hard for individual academics to do because it can be $2000 or $3000 per article, depending on the journal. There are some instances of universities or grant funding bodies offering subsidies to ease the pain for the individual academic but these remain the exception rather than the rule.

But if traditional publishers are looking at moving toward open access, how can they stay profitable as a business?

Well, quite. From my perspective as a consumer of their output, if you look at the way their portfolio has changed in terms of subscription journals that have developed an open access stream or new titles they are developing which are completely open access, it’s clear that they at least want to test the possibilities and limits of open access as a model.

If open access is going to be the dominant form, they want to place themselves advantageously to do that. But clearly it’s tremendously difficult to carefully engineer a complete transition with no disruption to existing businesses.

That’s the bind that publishers are in. They are trapped by their own success. They are trapped by the success of the prevailing paradigm.

If 65% of journals allow academics to publish at their own institutional repositories, presumably that means the other 35% do not allow that?

That’s right. 35% don’t allow it.

And as for the other 65% of publishers that do allow it, that doesn’t mean in 65% of cases academics are taking advantage of this. Not at all. There are too many existing work flow impediments in the way to make that possible.

That’s why some institutions mandate it. At a senior level in the institutions, they think it’s important in terms of meeting the institution’s mission by achieving the widest possible dissemination of their scholarly output.

How does copyright law apply in the case of published research papers?

By convention, the copyright belongs to the individual academic, not the academic institution. So it’s the academic’s copyright that is being given away when the paper is accepted by a publisher, not the university’s.

That’s almost the problem. For an individual, it’s either all too easy to fill in a form to cede copyright ownership [to the publisher] or else it’s simply too intimidating or laborious to take on the notion of challenging it or negotiating around it.

In fact, you can negotiate certain rights and don’t have to give away copyright in toto. It can depend on the individual and on the publisher.

I suspect most researchers don’t think about the implication of giving away copyright. But it’s a limitation of what they can then do with their own work. It’s an exclusive arrangement.

It might limit what they can do with their own work in terms of distributing to every student in the class they are teaching or putting a copy of the published work on their own website. They may be able to do that with a pre-print but they may really want to do that with the published version and face limitation.

How much consternation in the academic world is there with this issue?

I think at times of crisis it becomes an issue. One shining example of a community-developed open access journal is Public Library of Science and it developed, again a decade ago, at a time when the conventional publishing model truly seemed to be at breaking point. In Australia, this crisis was made worse because the Aussie dollar was sinking like a stone at the time and we were facing massive journal cancellations.

In times of crisis, it really impacts on the academic and you see people starting to engage with the idea of open access. If things are humming along nicely, then it tends to recede a bit. It’s certainly an issue for librarians who see the budgetary implications first hand.

The journal system works well, in a way, because it’s quite transparent as to what success means and looks like. It means being published in top ranked journals that have enjoyed global distribution. It’s a benchmark that everyone understands.

What about access by developing countries that can’t afford journal subscriptions?

It’s not that the publishers are bad guys and don’t have a conscience. They do actually have two or three initiatives going, one of which is called HINARI, a World Health Organistion brokered initiative where third world countries can get access for free to the online collections of 250 publishers, including the major publishers like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

Countries like South Africa that are betwixt and between might not be able to take advantage of this, but it does mean that formally defined developing countries do enjoy some access.

So what does the future hold? Will the open access or the traditional subscription model win out?

I wish I knew. With the advent of the web we are inured to very rapid change in business models, so it’s interesting that the journal publication business has been so relatively resistant to change. I think that’s a function of the prevailing academic culture, by which I mean the importance to academics of publication in recognised brand name journals in terms of promotion, tenure, winning grant research proposals.

A lot of the academic’s life is tied up in getting published in those high-impact journals and those journals are published by conventional subscription publishers.

For as long as the incentives to publish in those distribution channels remain stronger than the countervailing pressures for open access, then I think we are in for a long period of transition.