Open Access: time to change the world

Open Access: Time To Change The World​

As an Open Access advocate, my first blog on Open Access needed to be special. I guess that’s why I have been dragging my heels somewhat on writing this.

There are so many articles, blogs, resources and other sources of information out there for people to find out more about Open Access, a part of me wondered whether I had anything new to contribute to the conversation. I realise though, that many of my readers are relatively new to the industry and may come from publishers that are less proactive in terms of their Open Access offering. Also, a lot of the material available about publishing models is pretty dry. So, what I’m about to tell you is nothing new, but I’ll try to write it in a new, slightly more fun way.

Subscription Model: The Basics

In journal publishing there are two main business models: the subscription model and the open access model. Remember that gardening/car/lifestyle/cooking magazine (insert appropriate hobby here) that you pay a subscription for once-a-month, and it comes in the post? Well, the subscription model is a bit like that, but more fool you if you get magazines and journals confused (journal publishers will scoff and roll their eyes at you for that…). Sometimes people pay for an individual subscription to a journal, but that will generally set you back quite a few $$$. The most common form of subscription to a journal is an institutional subscription. This means that a research institution (often a university), funder, scholarly society or private company will pay for access to the journal for their stakeholders.

Subscriptions are great money generators for publishers, it’s the “traditional” model in publishing, so many of the highly established journals have inflated their subscription prices over time. One of the challenges is demanding a scrap of transparency on where that subscription money goes. The institution often doesn’t know how much of the subscription payment is spent on services and how much is publisher profit, but they’re held over a barrel because their researchers need the access. I love a good barter as much as the next person, but without at least some transparency as a basis for a negotiation, institutions essentially don’t have a leg to stand on. There was an interesting article published on another publishing blog (The Scholarly Kitchen) back in 2019 which detailed how institutional budgets are changing. It’s worth checking it out here (but not before you finish reading this article)!

The subscription model remains a popular model however, as it means authors can publish for “free”. Now, I’ve put “free” in these rather sarcastic quotation marks because it’s not really free… Let me pause here for dramatic effect… Yes, technically there are no publication charges for the authors, but there are page charges (don’t write too much in your research article now, it’ll cost ya’), colour charges (want a bit of colour in your life, we’ll slap a price tag on that), and many other random charges that seem somewhat antiquated given that most journals are published online nowadays.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m somewhat cynical of the subscription model. In my day job, it’s actually my role to flip journals from subscription to open access (welcome to the “light” side), and I can’t rule out that one day I may need to work on a subscription journal (who knows what the future holds). But right now, I am very happy working on open access journals, and it’s certainly a personal preference that I continue this trend in the future.

Open Access: The Basics

So after that rather cynical start to this blog post, what is open access (OA)? The OA model is a little more simple… You may recall that researchers are provided with funding to complete their research projects. A small part of that funding is allocated for publishing an article about said research in a journal (most of the time). Publishers then charge the researcher a fee to publish in the journal, and the fee is paid from the research fund. Institutions (universities) also have funding for OA fees, which researchers can beg, borrow and steal from their librarian. That’s the boring financial bit. The rather cool bit is that in return, the articles are made freely available to anyone, everywhere, with no restrictions. You don’t even need to register or give away any of your precious personal data to access the articles. See, I told you it was pretty cool.

Aside from the benefit of accessing the articles freely with no ifs, buts or coconuts, this actually has a rather nifty side effect of helping out humanity. You’re probably rolling your eyes right now and saying Robyn, that’s a bit of a stretch. But hear me out. Imagine you’re a researcher and you’ve found the resolution to climate change, or the meaning of life (it’s number 42, you’re welcome), the next step is spreading that joyous news to the world, so that all of us can benefit. With the pure subscription model, the only people who can read your world-changing research are those with the subscription. Sure, people could go and buy the article individually, but at an average cost of $99 per article without a subscription? Unlikely. When articles are fully OA, they can be picked up and summarised by news outlets, or mentioned in policy documents, suddenly everyone knows the meaning of life or how to solve climate change, because the researcher chose open access.

Don’t get me wrong, there are criticisms of OA. No models are perfect, but some are useful… The main criticism of OA is that authors don’t want to, or can’t, part with their hard-earned money (fair enough). Sometimes authors don’t have a nice little pot saved from their research funding; some researchers don’t have funding in the first place. As well-intentioned as OA is, it’s still a business model, with emphasis on the “business”. The big journal publishers are nearly all for-profit commercial companies. If we published everything for free, there would be no publishers. A world without publishers? Perhaps that’s the way things are going now with the growth of pre-print servers, but that is a story for another blog post.

Open Access: Time To Change The World​
Art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, and JakobVoss

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I hope you found this blog post on subscription and open access publishing models helpful and interesting. As I said at the start, there is a lot of information already out there about these models, but the world of OA in particular is changing, so make sure you subscribe to MugsPubs to receive notifications in your inbox and keep up-to-date with the latest developments.
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