On Wednesday 6 February 2013 the KNAW and the Young Academy organized a debate with the theme: ‘Publish Open access or perish’. The central question in this debate concerned the future of open access publishing. Is it a great new development or not?
Publishing open access is a relatively new development. With open access publishing, research articles are only printed digitally, and the great thing about it is that these can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. When an article is published open access, the regular procedure of peer review is followed, but after acceptance for publication it is freely accessible at no cost to the readers. This is a great advantage for people who are interested in science but who do not work at universities, such as science reporters. It is also a welcome improvement for developing countries, whose universities do not have the budget to access articles otherwise. This seems the ideal transparency of science, paid for by the public and accessible to the public. The disadvantage is that there are costs involved for the researchers, who have to pay a fixed price for each published article.
How different this is from the way traditional publishers have worked so far. The publishers who offer subscriptions to journals and databases (like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, and Web of Science), ask for a fixed fee to access the journal. Note that this is not a fixed price per article, but a fixed annual subscription rate, which is usually paid by library funds from universities. This means that these articles are only accessible to people who work at universities (or other institutes who are willing to pay the subscription rate), and the publishers’ copyrights do not allow for open distribution. The costs for these subscriptions are relatively high, but the researcher doesn’t notice this directly because the costs are paid by the institute.
You can imagine that the role of traditional publishers becomes outdated when all articles are published digitally and with open access. Do we still need the traditional publishers or is their role finished? This conclusion is not so straightforward. Even though the open access publishers make less money than the traditional publishers, there is still a business model involved. The payment-by-article principle can result in a publisher wanting to publish any article, even when the quality is low. Also, the traditional publishers usually invest in language editing, which is usually not the case for open access publishers. Therefore, open access publishers need rigorous editors and reviewers to ensure that the quality of publications does not suffer from the payment-by-article business model.
What does this mean for researchers at universities? Currently, the university libraries still pay toll access to traditional scientific journals, money which is taken off the general budget, whereas researchers pay individually for open access publications. I cannot imagine anyone will be against open access of scientific articles, but we need to think long and hard about quality control and management of the costs. We need a solution for the double costs, because eventually these publication costs are reducing the already tight research budgets.