Once upon a time, Isaac Newton revolutionized natural science by "standing on the shoulders of Giants." Today, scholars must pay a higher price to ascend to these heights. With a complicated, inconsistent system determining access to published research, the moment has come to work out a viable model for the future of open-access journal publishing.
First, some background. Currently, some journals publish for a profit; many do not. Most publications charge individuals and institutions for subscriptions - in the last fiscal year, excluding the Biddle Law Library, Penn shelled out about $7.5 million in journal subscription fees. Others, such as the nonprofit Public Library of Science journals, require authors to pay a publishing fee, usually ranging from $2,250 to $2,900 per article, and provide open access to the public.
Also relevant: This system will probably collapse. In spring 2008, the National Institute of Health began requiring all NIH-funded researchers (almost everyone who does medical research), upon acceptance of an article by a peer-reviewed journal, to submit an electronic copy to the open-access PubMed Central. Ever try selling subscriptions to a publication when readers get it for free online? As The New York Times will tell you, it's an uphill battle. And while this applies most strongly to scientific-research papers, the Internet has nudged most research toward open access.
Recently, Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT and UC-Berkeley released a "Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity" declaring that the institutions would develop a system that will eliminate subscription fees. Instead, the schools will pay open-access journals for each article published by their researchers, much like the PLoS model.
This attempt to support open access while simultaneously providing financial support for peer review and publication should be commended. In recent years, subscription costs have rapidly risen, and the deflated economy has not been kind to library budgets.
Penn's name is noticeably lacking from the compact. According to Vice Provost for Research Steven Fluharty, the Provost's Office and the University Libraries plan to work together to determine the optimal way for the school to implement an open-access policy. Emphasizing the diversity present in Penn scholarship, Fluharty stressed that "one size is not going to fit all." He estimates that a committee charged with finding a solution to this issue will spend the next four to six months developing recommendations for a policy.
While universities should clearly seek models that best suit their own interests, this every-man-for-himself plan, in which institutions individually adopt conflicting policies, leaves much to be desired. Practically, it could mean myriad logistical difficulties for journals concerning how they cover publication costs. More importantly, these publications will most likely adopt any consensus reached by highly-funded institutions (for example, Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth…), possibly leaving smaller colleges in the dust. PLoS provides fee waivers for authors who cannot afford the publication fee, a step in the right direction, but widespread implementation of this system may reveal problems with this approach, especially when it comes to publication in for-profit journals.
Instead, researchers, institutions and publishers should come together to create a comprehensive plan for the future of open access. Clearly, a committee or conference would have less difficulty now, when the Internet has shrunk publishing costs significantly, than in the past when the process required much more revenue. A large gathering of representatives from various types of institutions and publications may allow for a more heterogeneous solution, giving the community a chance to take into account the needs of different factions and providing an opportunity for open dialogue on the topic. Restricting the discussion to the schools with the highest endowments excludes a huge chunk of the research done in this country and may result in another untenable answer to a difficult question.
In today's research climate, informed conclusions require open access to that which came before. Fixing the system needs to happen quickly, and should involve the input of more than just the top tier. We stand on many, many shoulders.
Lindsey Stull is a College senior from Oklahoma City, Okla. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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