Open Access: Some Thoughts from a Publisher’s Perspective

Alice Meadows

Although many publishers now offer authors some form of Open Access (OA), it’s probably fair to say that we did not exactly rush to embrace the open access (OA) model initially – not without reason, since there were, and in some respects still are, genuine concerns about the viability of OA both as a long-term, sustainable business model and as a way of ensuring the quality of scholarly articles. And, with online licenses and philanthropic deals ensuring wider access to scholarly content than ever before, it wasn’t clear that OA was really necessary.

However, in the last few years things have changed. A combination of factors – including declining library budgets while article submissions continue to increase; political pressure for free access to state-funded research articles (often conflated with access to the research itself) fanned by sometimes hostile media coverage; growing demand from authors; and, most recently, the introduction of mandated OA by the Research Councils UK – have forced publishers to open our eyes to OA as a business model. And, when we did, we discovered that OA offers many new opportunities for us, as well as real benefits for the scholarly and wider community.

First and foremost, it is now accepted that gold (author or funder pays) OA can be profitable. Whether you are a not-for-profit with a commitment to making your content openly available, or a commercial publisher in need of a sustainable business model that will deliver increased earnings per share – someone, somewhere, sometime is going to have to pay for the people, technology, and other resources needed in order for you to publish high-quality content. In the last few years, organizations as diverse the Public Library of Science (PLoS), one of the original OA publishers, and Springer, one of the world’s largest commercial publishers, have proved that gold OA is a viable business model. (PLoS’s income exceeded its expenses for the first time in 2010, while Springer’s Executive Vice President, Wim van der Stelt, told this year’s Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) conference that his company wouldn’t be involved with OA publishing if it wasn’t at least as profitable as traditional subscription publishing.)

OA offers many new opportunities for us, as well as real benefits for the scholarly and wider community.

Second, contrary to the fears of some, gold OA doesn’t have to lead to a decline in quality. Just because payment for publishing services is being made by an author (or his/her funder) rather than by a library doesn’t mean that scholarly journals will start publishing bad science. Again PLoS provides a good example – PloS Biology, its first journal, has an impact factor of 11.452 in 2011, making it the top-ranked journal in ISI’s Biology category. Of course, there are plenty of OA journals where quality is an issue – just as there are subscription journals – but a continuing commitment to the peer review process should ensure the continuing high quality of top journals, irrespective of business model.

Third, the demand for access to content from across all regions and sectors continues to grow; to remain viable, publishers need to respond to this. A 2010 CIBER survey found that 93% of respondents in universities and colleges believed research papers were easy or fairly easy to access, yet when asked to which of a range of resources they would most like to see access improved 38.5% identified journal articles as their first choice. Finding new ways to make the results of research more readily available to more people – inside and outside of the scholarly community – is a necessity, not a bonus.

Of course, OA is not without its challenges – and not just for publishers. Green (unfunded) OA, for example, is a real threat in some disciplines as seen by the results of an ALPSP survey of librarians earlier this year, which found that 65% of respondents would cancel their subscriptions to some or all arts, social sciences, and humanities journals if they were freely available after a six-month embargo. Since green OA is effectively dependent on the continuation of subscription journals, widespread OA mandates would likely drive these journals – and potentially the communities they serve – out of existence, especially as these disciplines are often also unfunded and, therefore, unable to pay article publication charges (APCs).

Organizing payments for APCs is also likely to cause difficulties and disruption, at least in the short term. In the UK, it is unclear how the recent Research Council UK (RCUK) mandate will be implemented in practice – neither funders nor universities have systems or resources in place yet to manage this new process.

Another risk is that widely mandated gold OA could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’, with APCs being driven down to the point where the publishing process is no longer sustainable. Conversely, there could be pressure for journals either to increase APCs or to publish more articles (thereby potentially lowering the quality and Impact Factor) in order to maintain revenues.

Nevertheless, for many scholarly publishers, 2012 may well be seen as the year that OA finally became mainstream. The opportunities are now widely believed to outweigh the risks; exciting new prospective services and products beckon; and a mixed economy, in which subscription journals, hybrid journals, and OA journals co-exist peacefully, is already becoming a reality – great news for authors, readers, and publishers alike. In future, let’s hope we can expand the focus from open access to open science by providing more and better access to summaries of research results (already required by funding agencies) and to the underlying data.

Alice Meadows is Director of Society Relations at John Wiley and Sons.

You can read more from Alice at The Scholarly Kitchen.


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