Access to Scientific Literature: What to Do When Your Goose Stops Laying Golden Eggs

10/02/2013 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

After years of being held at the mercy of commercial publishing interests, scientists are beginning to wake up and take steps to recoup the rights to their own work.

The scientific literature represents the accumulation of centuries of knowledge, experimentation, and experience. As the scientific process has been characterized as nanos gigantum humeris insidentes (Latin for "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants"), the scientific literature is the body of knowledge on which we dwarfs stand, in the hope of gaining a bit more insight.

In the past few decades, however, the scientific literature has been bought up by commercial publishing interests, and has been made expensive and in too-many cases inaccessible to far too many of us dwarfs. This commentary is about the realization of the problem -- that much of the scientific literature is now available only on a for-charge basis -- and the beginnings of a solution.

The problem at hand is that commercial publishers perceived an opportunity: the scientific literature was available for purchase at low cost. That is, scientific society after scientific society was offered what appeared to be a sweet deal, in which the society transferred publication of its journal to the commercial interest in exchange for a regular payment or even just a lack of hassle in publishing. Once journals were purchased, the commercial publishers began raising costs at alarming rates -- indeed, the long-term average cost increase over the past 25 years has been 12.5 percent per year.

The scientific community is the ideal community of customers -- we have to have access to these journals, and we cannot give up that access, or we will be unable to publish our own research! At its apogee, in the past few years, around 75-85 percent of the scientific literature (in my field at least) became unavailable to those whose institutions were not able to pay out huge amounts of funds (my own university pays around $4.5M per year for journal access fees!).

This high cost at my university is passed on to students and their parents, in the form of higher tuition, and leaves colleagues at many institutions -- smaller colleges and universities across the USA and Europe, and many institutions in the developing world -- quite plainly out in the cold.

This 'deal' has been incredible for the commercial publishers, though. Industry calculations have identified a profit margin of more than $5,000 per for-pay-access published paper (Outsell Analysis 2009) -- in view of the massive numbers of publications that make up the yearly output of the scientific community, the profits implied by these numbers are nothing short of astounding.

In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly (31 July 2012), data were presented that placed academic publisher Reed-Elsevier as beating Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, and the publisher Thomson-Reuters as beating Microsoft and Facebook, in online revenues. Clearly, this investment has been hugely profitable for the commercial publishers -- they purchased a goose that laid golden eggs for a very low price.

In the past few years, however, their goose has begun to show signs of discontent with its new owners. Early commentaries and critiques pointed out the problem in the late 1990s, and efforts began to find a way to give the goose a rest in golden-egg production.

I will list some of the 'highlight' events. The Public Library of Science initiated high-profile open-access journals; a series of universities passed open-access policies that stated each university's right to make copies of publications by its faculty available via the Internet; several important funding agencies (in the US, the National Institutes of Health policy is particularly important) passed open-access policies regarding studies that they funded; and a massive boycott was initiated against the most offensive of the commercial publishers (Elsevier).

In the U.S., Congress is considering (with rare bipartisan support) a bill called FASTR that would mandate open access to all federally funded research results, and President Obama's science advisor John Holdren announced a directive that each Federal agency providing over $100 million annually in research support must develop a plan to support increased public access to research results of research. In short, not only has the goose begun to complain about having to lay golden eggs, but governments and funders are going to force the commercial publishers to give the goose a break.

So this is where the situation lies: the commercial publishers still own the lion's share of the scientific journals, but the scientists are beginning to wake up and take steps to recoup the rights to their own work, in some sense. Commercial publishers are simultaneously trying to take advantage of the open access movement by giving authors the opportunity to pay extra, making articles in closed-access journals into open-access publications, but also to stomp out the movement by imposing onerous conditions on authors at universities that pass open access policies.

The battle lines are drawn: to mix metaphors rather terribly, the publishers want their goose back and laying eggs, while the scientists want their giants back, so that they can see just a bit farther and gain a bit more insight. History tell us that popular movements generally win in the end, but the only the future will tell how many dwarfs will suffer to get the goose laying again.

An excellent source of information about open access is the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).