Oct 1 2010

Open Access Has Corporate Journals on the Run

Researchers create alternatives to for-profit academic publishing

Photo Credit: Open Access

Photo Credit: Open Access

It’s not often that a small group of determined colleagues take on corporate power and win, but in academic publishing exactly that is happening.

The colleagues are the scientists, researchers, and professors of the Open Access Publishing movement. The corporate powers are the well-monied and politically savvy publishers like Reed Elsevier, whose thousands of journals have provided a vital nervous system to the worldwide research community.

But the proponents of Open Access didn’t win by standing up to the publishers, or pushing a legislative fix. Instead of fighting, they decided to leave the publishing system and reconvene the party elsewhere.

It was clear by the late ‘90s that academic publishing was broken (Extra!, 1-2/99). The sharing and peer review of research had been the fuel of science since the 17th century. But with most journals owned by a few companies, pricing had gone out of control, with some journals costing tens of thousands per year. Progress itself was held hostage by a few corporations.

Academics are an independent and contrarian lot, though. Even while publishers were jacking up prices, scientists and researchers were inventing ways to get around publisher control. Scholars started posting their work online; the Web itself was conceived in 1989 as a way to share physics papers (“Information Management: A Proposal,” 3/89).

When Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Indiana’s Earlham College, began posting his articles online in the 1990s and receiving more feedback than he ever had publishing traditionally, it all clicked into place for him: This is how academia should work. He became a leading advocate of Open Access, a movement that encourages free access to academic publishing online. “We’re changing basic institutions in the academic world,” he told Extra!.

The system of academic publishing, unlike music or news publishing, never had financial incentives for researchers to participate; authors often actually pay to be published. Peer reviewers and advisory boards are unpaid. All that labor was free to the corporations that were gouging the same universities that paid those researchers’ salaries. The founders of Open Access simply moved their labor onto the Net.

They did all the stuff the publishers did, except for the printing. Then they posted the results on the Web, free for anyone to read.

While free peer-reviewed journals appeared online as early as 1990, with titles like Electronic Journal of Communication and Post-modern Culture, the movement gained momentum with the launch of Open Access publishers BioMed and Public Library of Science (PLoS) in 2000. As scientists went back to their bosses and told them how great the access was for their work, a diverse community of government agencies, universities and funders got on board. Funders around the world began to make Open Access a condition of funding, and the movement blossomed with speed unheard of in the academy.

The publishers responded to the movement with the normal dirty tricks, including lobbying for bills that would do away with an Open Access choice, and hiring Enron and ExxonMobil’s old PR people for a smear campaign (Transcription & Translation, 1/27/07). But nothing stuck. Law-makers and grant organizations either supported Open Access or wouldn’t step in.

Today there are over 5,000 peer-reviewed Open Access journals, covering every major field—from Open Anthropology Journal to Contributions to Zoology. But that’s still only a quarter of all academic journals.

“We’re still the minority approach to publishing,” says Suber. “We still have a lot of work to do.” The largest barrier has always been educating the researchers themselves. “[Often] authors aren’t really familiar with their Open Access options,” he says. For example, with the majority of journals, when you publish in a non-Open Access journal, you already have permission to deposit your papers in a Open Access repository.

And Open Access journals are at a disadvantage when it comes to prestige; they simply haven’t been around long enough to carry the heft of old Reed Elsevier publications. “They can be excellent from birth, but they can’t be prestigious from birth,” says Suber. “It’s only a matter of time until the best journals in every field are some mix of open and closed journals.”

Sometimes Suber is frustrated by the progress, but academia is a social institution that changes slowly, even when it changes radically. The last decade is barely any time in that long and storied history. “In 10 years we’ve made significant progress,” he says. “Momentum is on our side.”

Quinn Norton writes about science, technology and law for Wired News, the Guardian and other publications.