Pros and Cons of Open Access Publishing, some personal thoughts

“What has been discovered or developed using public money should be freely available to everyone” has become very popular. But publishing at no charge is not going to happen. Let me share with you some thoughts on who is going to pay the price.

Go to the profile of Andreas Hartig
Jan 10, 2019
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To make accessible to others results from your scientific experiments and conclusions drawn there from costs time and money, mostly and primarily on your side and then on the side of the publishers. Easy access to the cited literature, server space and security, peer reviewing, administering all manuscripts, etc. – a large machinery is running in the background for publishing scientific literature. The current system shamelessly exploits the career and fame dependency of scientists on publishing. Scientists always questioned whether the costs are really as high as subscriptions to the journals suggested, and the “open access” movement was created to counteract the enormous annual increases of subscription fees providing substantial revenues for publishing companies. The slogan “what has been discovered or developed using public money should be freely available to everyone” became popular, forcing publishers to generate various open access models but at the same time asking for additional fees from authors.

Transition was slower than expected, and calling on peers to publish in upcoming open access journals was not sufficient to change the attitudes of scientists. For a scientist the choice was not easy: publish open access in a new journal of unknown future fate or in an established journal with additional fees for open access. If a journal goes broke and the server is turned off it is as if you would never have published. What happens with your postdoc or PhD student, if the list of publications is diminished because of journals out of business? Will the public support of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) permitting rather low costs of publications last forever? Was that movement too naïve?

Recently, some funding agencies and also governmental bodies united in the cOAlitionS jumped on the popular bandwagon of open access publishing in an effort to speed up the journey towards lower costs of publishing. Who takes the benefit, and who is going to pay the price?

Open access publishing means that all costs are taken over by the lab and the supporting funding organizations wishing to publish their experimental results, which is their intellectual property – in other words, the academic community producing new knowledge. Currently the costs for publication are shared between producers and consumers, and I fully agree that the revenues of the publishers are much too high. But these revenues will not disappear, they might not even shrink! Academia or foundations and governments through their support of scientific research will pay the costs. The real beneficiaries of open access publishing are those research entities not interested in communicating their research results, usually located in industry and patent seeking organizations.  

The power struggle between funding organizations and publishers has been intensified by the recently communicated Plan S and the released guidance document (for details see e.g.Wikipedia, https://www.coalition-s.org/about/) soliciting responses from the scientific community  (https://sites.google.com/view/plansopenletter/open-letter). In the guidance document (https://www.coalition-s.org/wp-content/uploads/271118_cOAlitionS_Guidance.pdf) you read about the noble aim (All scholarly articles that result from research funded by members of cOAlition S must be openly available immediately upon publication without any embargo period. They must be permanently accessible under an open license allowing for re-use for any purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship.) and the technical guidance and requirements (For scholarly articles the public should be granted a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, irrevocable license to share (i.e. copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format) and adapt (i.e. remix, transform, and build upon the material) the work for any purpose, including commercially, provided proper attribution is given to the author. The copyright of the work is left with the legal copyright holder), and suddenly you stop for consideration. Whatever you publish should not only be freely available to read, but its findings are open for re-use for any purpose (see e.g. nature563, no 7733, Editorial, p 605). Publishing will prevent patent protection of intellectual property giving open license allowing for re-use for any purpose and granting world-wide, royalty-free, irrevocable license to share and adapt the work for any purpose, including commercially. The author/inventor has to be given proper attribution, i.e. being named, but that’s it. Academic institutions and staff will not anymore be able to gain revenues from their intellectual property. That might prevent legal battles such as for the CRISPR-Cas but will deny opportunities to generate income for academic research institutions.

I’m not surprised that the European Commission is very much in favor of the open access model. The popular outcry “what has been discovered…” covers up in a very simple and efficient way the real interest of the Commission. After all, the EU is primarily an economic community supporting transnational business and industry. If Plan S and its guidance document becomes reality as is, the exploitation of the academic community will continue, but will shift from the small segment of publishers to economy at large.

Go to the profile of Andreas Hartig

Andreas Hartig

Prof. of Biochemistry, University of Vienna

Organelle biogenesis, peroxisomes, yeast

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Athel Cornish-Bowden
Athel Cornish-Bowden 9 months ago

You have it exactly right. The principal beneficiaries of open access are the companies that depend on academic research but don't publish their own results.