Can we have a frank discussion about open vs closed publishing models, and how closed publishing needs to disappear? For those of you who aren’t involved in scholarly research, most scientific and academic research is published as articles in journals, most of which you have to pay to read. This model is really no different from buying a book or magazine, or even purchasing a dvd. Historically, your academic or research institution library would subscribe to the important journals applicable to its userbase, much like any other periodical. If you wanted to keep abreast of what was going on in your research field, you either bought yourself a subscription or spend a lot of time at your library. The subscription fees your institution paid covered the costs of editorial services and running a peer-review system.

Much like most everything else, the Internet changed things. You can now access all the articles you could ever want to read without leaving your desk, all indexed, linked, and searchable. However, the publication model didn’t change. Journal publishers simply posted articles (and archives) on the internet; individual users could purchase individual articles and institutions could buy annual subscriptions. Individual fees are usually between $20-$30 per article, and institutional subscriptions are usually based on a tiered model that factors in the institution size and if the institution is in a developing nation. Publishing a peer-reviewed article in one of these journals is free (not couting “page fees” and/or color printing), although it is implicit that a) your work is well cited (often 20-30 citations per four page article) and b) you have read the articles you have cited. Condition b) is slightly less common, and, if you are not affiliated with an institution with subscription access, carries a cost of more than $400.  If you’re doing publishable research you’ve probably got a few hundred dollar a week habit going if you’re paying for individual articles.  In reality, researchers mostly stick to the journals that they have institutional access to rather than pay out of pocket for articles.

More recently, people have started making noise for a shift in academic journal publishing to what’s known as an “Open Access” model.  The idea is that rather than the cost of publication being carried by the readers (and primarily their institutions), the cost is instead shouldered by the authors.  The academic journal publishing industry has been pretty squeamish about this idea, they’re not willing to carry the risk of changing publication models.  Their concern is that if more articles become free to read, institutions will give up their journal subscriptions and then there won’t be money to keep the lights on.  So much so that they have created a anti-Open Access lobbying group, PRISM – the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine.

Currently, many journals have started offering an Open Access option on articles, saying that a researcher (or anyone, for that matter) can pay an additional ~$1500 (roughly the same as the “page fees” if you often pay if you don’t electronically submit an article) to make a single article Open Access in an otherwise closed journal.  Most researchers don’t use this option, for the simple reason that no one wants to spend grant money that could be used for research equipment instead to hold the publishing industry’s hand as it transitions to a new model.  This sadly allows publishers to declare Open Access to be a failure, because no one is interested in ponying up the money.  It appears the industry is clinging on to this old publishing paradigm like it’s a lone piece of driftwood for a man lost at sea.

The obvious solution is for research institutions to simply shift their subscription budgets to publication budgets for their researchers as journals move to Open Access.  Research institutions, which gain prestige from their researchers’ publications, would still carry roughly the same costs, and publishers would have the same money coming in the door.   The benefit would be an increased readership for the same amount of money.  There is no question that the publication of academic knowledge carries a significant expense, but the burden of that expense should simply be regarded as a necessary cost of conducting scientific or academic research.

“But Josh,” you might ask, “why do you care?”  On the face of it, I shouldn’t.  I have institutional access to the journals I need.  Plus, public access to (and interpretation of) academic research is usually just sad, incorrect, and kind of depressing.  Don’t believe me?  Read the comments here.  It’s worse than YouTube.  The reason I care can be simply summed up by one image:

This is the copy of the table our department librarian updates and sends out every few weeks to everyone at the lab for us to access the closed journals that we subscribe to.  It’s a nightmare.  It often takes longer to access an article than to read it.  Other places use awkward proxy servers to allow you access when you’re not at the institution.  Simply put, it almost always makes reading an article from home a real pain.  Sometimes it doesn’t even work at all.  On top of all that, it takes a lot of time for our librarian to constantly update this table and send it out all the time, and librarians have other, more important things to worry about.

Secondly, it makes straying outside of your field of study more difficult, which hinders this much-heralded “interdisciplinary study” that everyone is always excited about.  Far from determine if my research has interest or applications to biology, medicine, ecology, or economics(short answer: no, no, no and no), I can’t even access half the reference papers for the Ig Nobel Prizes.