An Open Letter to Academic Publishers About Open Access

Giulia Forsythe

A send-up of the publisher's logo
April 01, 2012

Dear publishers,

Boycotts, public disagreements, stalled antipiracy and anti-public-access bills: It's been an interesting time for you lately.

Are you nervous? Some of you should be. Not because your business models are on the verge of collapse—commercial academic publishers are unlikely to suffer a mass extinction soon—but because of how researchers themselves are changing. One scholar described it to me as an Academic Spring, a sense of revolution in the air.

Think about how much has happened in the past few months:

  • More than 8,800 scholars have signed on to a boycott of the science-publishing giant Reed Elsevier, vowing not to review for or publish in its journals. They say the publisher charges "exorbitantly high prices" for its journals; that it exploits libraries by making them buy pricey bundled subscriptions to those journals; that it supports proposed legislation that would "restrict the free flow of information."
  • Debate raged over a proposed bill called the Research Works Act. That bill would have done away with government-imposed mandates governing public access to the published results of federally supported research. Your community was divided on the bill, as several among you, including some university presses, disagreed publicly with a major industry group, the Association of American Publishers, over its support for the measure. Antipiracy bills that some of you supported got derailed by fierce public opposition, too.
  • While the Research Works Act ended up stalling, a pro-public-access bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act, took on new life, attracting fresh sponsors in Congress.

In the short term, all of this could go nowhere. The public-access legislation has been introduced twice before. It could fail this time around. The Elsevier boycott could gather twice as many signatures as it already has and not make a dent in how journals operate. We haven't seen mass resignations by volunteer journal editors so far—although, as one historian pointed out to me recently, mathematicians, who are leading the latest boycott, have a long history of revolutionary thinking, and the last act in the boycott drama hasn't unfolded yet.

Still, there's always another editor, another peer reviewer, another contributor eager to get published, right?

That would be an easy, and dangerous, conclusion. Publishers can't afford to dismiss these dramas as a temporary PR problem, the result of a failure to explain how they add value. While we're on that point: I hear that phrase "add value" over and over when it comes to what publishers bring to the table, often without much detail thrown in to support the argument. Publishers, it's true that many of you need to make a better case for yourselves.

If you do offer open-access options, let the world know about them. Talk to your critics as well as your supporters. Understand that if you ask librarians to sign nondisclosure agreements about subscription deals, there's good will as well as profit at stake. (And let editors and other employees speak directly to reporters rather than routing all questions to the central communications office. That strategy makes it harder for people like me to help explain what you do and the many ways in which you do it.) Attempts to control the message don't sit well with researchers' culture of openness.

That's what you have to reckon with. Helped along by technology, that open culture has grown much stronger in the 10 years since another scholarly boycott aimed at publishers helped create the open-access Public Library of Science. Its flagship journal, PLoS One, published almost 14,000 articles last year, according to its publisher, Peter Binfield. This year he anticipates that it could publish as many as 25,000 articles. That's still a small fraction of the total number of science, technical, and medical articles published every year—Mr. Binfield estimates that at about a million—but the trend is undeniably upward.

Now some of the most prominent supporters of medical and scientific research, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust, have thrown their reputations and their money behind another open-access journal, eLife. It hopes to attract top-flight papers that might otherwise go to commercially run journals like Cell and Nature.

Those high-impact journals haven't lost their brass-ring appeal. The reward systems of academe change slowly. Researchers like prestige and recognition, and they need to satisfy tenure-and-promotion committees. But they also like the idea that if a paper is sound enough to be published, it should be published somewhere, and that the world should be able to get to that research without paying an arm and a leg for the privilege. Don't underestimate the powerful draw of that idea.

Boycotts and start-ups can fail. Whether you call it an Academic Spring or something else, it looks to me like we've reached the point where it won't ultimately matter if some of them do fail. You can lock up content, but you can't close up a scholarly culture that's more and more interested in openness. That culture won't be satisfied with just being told that copyright is good and piracy is bad. Publishers, how will you adapt?