Robert Darnton, the director of Harvard's library and one of the architects of the faculty letter that caused such a stir, recognizes this problem. "You could imagine a high-minded, principled professor in the medical school here who has a laboratory and is doing very advanced research," he said. "And he might be in favor of open access and might want to take a stand against the journal prices. But he's got postdocs working in his lab, and if they can publish an article with his name in a prestigious journal it'll make all the difference in the world for their careers."
There are several ways, Darnton said, to deal with this problem. One way is to ensure that the editorial board members of a new journal are well-regarded within their fields. A journal with the sign-off of a Nobel Prize winner, for instance, carries a good deal of cache, even if the publication he's launching is brand new. Some people have embraced quasi-open access policies by publishing in a subscription journal and then releasing the paper for free after an embargo period. In fact, after a unanimous vote of its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard created a digital repository called DASH, and all faculty members are required (unless they take advantage of an opt-out waiver) to submit their academic articles to it, making their scholarly production freely available to the world.
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."
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.