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The Open-access Myth

by Rudy M. Baum
February 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 8


Much has changed in Scientific, Technical, and Medical (STM) publishing in the past decade. New electronic methods of delivery and of searching and accessing the STM literature have combined with ferocious pressure on library budgets to create a whole new STM publishing environment. It is an environment that challenges everyone involved in this important activity to think hard about where it's going and what shape we want it to take.

One response to developments in STM primary and secondary publishing is the "open access" movement. Starting primarily among the West Coast biology and biomedical research communities in the late 1990s, open-access advocates have pressed a variety of demands on STM publishers. Those demands have one common theme: that access to the STM literature at some point becomes free to the public. "At some point" variously has been defined as six months after publication, one year after publication, or immediately.

Open access is predicated on an obvious truth and a dangerous myth. The obvious truth is that most of the research published in the STM literature is supported by public funding. Therefore, open-access advocates claim, the research should be freely available to the public that funds it.

At first blush, the argument seems reasonable. The dangerous, usually unspoken, myth that makes the argument seem reasonable is this: STM publishers add little value to the research they publish and therefore should not charge institutions for subscriptions to the electronic versions of their journals, or, at the very least, they should provide open access to the public a short time after publication.

One of the most visible manifestations of the open-access movement is the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which describes itself as "a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource." That sounds noble, but it implies that the STM literature isn't already a public resource, which is debatable.

PLoS has already launched one open-access journal, PLoS Biology, and plans to launch another, PLoS Medicine, later this year. PLoS acknowledges on its website that it does, in fact, cost something to publish a journal, but argues that the current practice of charging for subscriptions and site licenses is "expensive and cumbersome and can involve complex negotiations ... and, of course, many institutions simply cannot afford these licenses. Open access solves all of these problems."

PLoS's business model is to charge a fee of $1,500 per paper to authors to cover the costs of publishing. Whether $1,500 per paper is a reasonable assessment of the cost of publishing a peer-reviewed research paper is open to question. And it's not clear to me what advantage is conferred by shifting the cost of publishing from libraries to researchers. Most of us thought the elimination of page charges was a good thing. Not surprisingly, the PLoS model has raised other issues, such as what to do about authors, like those in developing countries, who can't afford the charge.

Interestingly, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just released the results of a survey of 610 corresponding authors on open access [101, 5 (2004)]. Only half of the respondents were willing to pay a fee to provide open access, and of those, 80% said $500 was the most they would pay.

STM publishing faces many challenges. Prices charged by some commercial publishers are way too high. However, the marketplace is responding to those high prices in a predictable way as libraries make hard choices and cancel subscriptions. The open-access movement's demand that an entirely new and unproven model for STM publishing be adopted is not in the best interests of science.

It's human nature to want something for nothing. Unfortunately, excellence rarely comes without a price. Perhaps that's the most dangerous myth being fostered by the open-access movement: that access to high-quality STM literature can be had on the cheap.

Thanks for reading.


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