Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?

Harvard complaints roil the debate over publishing and profits.

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[READ: Wikipedia Founder Worries About Future of Editorial Community.]

John Buschman, the librarian for scholarly resources and services at Georgetown University, said the Harvard letter is part of a larger trend of increased communication between librarians and academics. In years past, the researchers were far removed from the very people who were purchasing the journals, journals the researchers needed to access in order to do their jobs. "There's much more of a community interest between faculty and their libraries now," he said. "That is, I think, the single biggest change in terms of culture that I see happening." Does Buschman think open access will triumph in the long term? "I don't know," he said. "I only know this: that I think the models for how to deliver this have to proliferate. It's sort of like military expenditures; they can't keep rising. At some point they have to stabilize or drop back. That's just simply an economic reality."

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The Harvard letter may have been the loudest war cry against subscription journals, but it's by no means the only one. Since the beginning of this year, over 12,000 researchers have signed a statement promising to boycott any publication published by Elsevier. In response, the company published an open letter with a point-by-point rebuttal to the boycott. In its last bullet point, Elsevier stated it "supports the principle that the public should have access to the output of publicly funded research, and we are committed to the broadest possible dissemination of published research."

This reference to "publicly-funded research" points to one of the largest ongoing battles in the open access debate. Every year, governments around the world pay out billions of dollars in grants to fund the very scientific research that ends up published in these journals. With some of these commercial publishers generating profit margins north of 30 percent, many have questioned whether taxpayers are simply shelling out money to prop up an extremely profitable industry, only to have that industry then turn around and charge high prices to those very same taxpayers if they want to access the fruits of that research.

Government officials have become increasingly sympathetic to this point of view. The British government, for instance, is adopting more stringent policies to ensure that all of its publicly funded research is freely accessible to the public, and the Canadian Institutes of Health mandates that biomedical researchers receiving grants either publish in open-access journals or upload their articles to government-run online repositories after publication.

The U.S. government currently distributes about $60 billion a year in scientific research grants. The largest portion, about $30 billion, comes from the National Institutes of Health, the agency that has taken the most aggressive steps toward public access. Though the recipients of its grants are not required to publish in open access journals, they are required to deposit all published manuscripts into an online repository called PubMed Central, an archive run by the agency, within one year of the manuscript's publication. Previously, this process had been recommended to grantees but not required, but in 2008 Congress passed the requirement.

By establishing a one-year wait before the manuscript is supposed to be deposited in PubMed, the policy is ostensibly attempting to meet the journal publishers halfway. It gives them an exclusive embargo period that allows them to sell access to the article while at the same time allowing the public to download it once the time has elapsed. But this hasn't stopped the journal publishers from aggressively opposing both the NIH policy and attempts to extend it to the remaining government agencies. In fact, the Elsevier boycott stemmed from news that the company had initially lobbied in support of the Research Works Act, a bill introduced late last year by California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa that would have reversed the NIH public access policy and prohibited other agencies from following suit. The proposed bill was withdrawn, but it wasn't the first time publishers attempted to overturn the policy, and it's unlikely to be the last.