Much has been said about open access (OA) in the past couple of years, with a large part of the debate from the viewpoint of the author or reader. So I was particularly interested in two presentations discussing OA from the other participants—the publishers. Jan Velterop, formerly at BioMedCentral and now Director of OA at Springer, represented a large publisher, and Paul Peters, Sr. Director of Publishing at Hindawi Publishing Corporation in Egypt, represented a smaller publisher. They both had interesting views on OA.
Velterop addressed three aspects of OA: dogma, ethics, and pragmatism. He noted that no two journals have the same goals, motives, procedures, acceptance and rejection criteria, or ethics. But they do organize the scientific literature and provide a pecking order, which leads to a very anarchic environment. He noted that the value of publishing lies in the content, and the old subscription model of journal publishing (the only reasonable model in a print world) implies selling content. Some publishers think that OA undermines their rights, but publishers only have rights to content if they have been given to them, which is the usual case when an author transfers copyright to a publisher (a requirement for publishing). Velterop thinks that publishers should come to the conclusion that OA is a good thing, and then focus our energy on how to achieve it. He concluded with the following food for thought:
• Most scholarly articles are highly specialized and are therefore understood only by a few people, which leads to low usage figures.
• Copyright is virtually irrelevant in scientific research because the system is built upon “standing on the shoulders of giants”—adding incremental advances to previous research. Velterop call this “a form of organized plagiarism”.
• Peer review is a test to indicate the article is scientifically sound. It has nothing to do with scientific truth because many conventional truths are often overturned as a result of further research.
• Articles are like ads in which a researcher promotes his/her scientific prowess in the ecosystem to further future career and funding prospects.
Peters presented a strong case for OA as a benefit to scientific publishers. In his view, it has three compelling advantages:
1. Launching new journals and expanding existing titles becomes much easier under the OA model. In the subscription world, increasing the size means increasing the price, which will lead to some cancellations. In an OA world, journal prices do not change when sizes are increased. By their nature, subscription barriers limit the distribution of an article, which in today’s Internet environment is a huge disadvantage. For established journals a publisher’s limited page budget can cause lengthy publication delays. OA journals can immediately publish an article as soon as it is ready.
2. OA attracts authors because of its faster publication speeds. Attracting strong authors is the key to creating strong journals.
3. OA increases competition in the market. Smaller publishers cannot compete in the current subscription market because many journals have a monopoly on their content. The lack of competition makes it difficult for smaller publishers to gain an edge. If authors have to pay the publication cost of their articles from a research budget, they are far more likely to consider the subscription price of a journal when deciding where to publish. If they publish in an OA journal, authors can be sure their article will be widely available, even if they submit it to a less prestigious journal.
In the subscription world, size of the publisher makes a big difference in its ability to compete. Promoting a small collection of journals to potential subscribers can be prohibitively expensive. Many small publishers must rely on word of mouth to increase their base of subscribers, but in an OA world, the author becomes the publisher’s sole customer so it can focus on services provided to the author.
I found it encouraging that these two speakers both presented a good case for publisher support of OA. Maybe there is hope yet that OA will become a widely accepted business model in the scholarly publishing world.