Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?

Harvard complaints roil the debate over publishing and profits.

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Other opponents of the policy have sought to find a middle ground. Fred Dylla, the executive director at the American Institute of Physics, has proposed a system in which agencies do a better job identifying which articles are based on government-funded research. "We will code the funding agency right into the article as it goes into the publisher," he explained. "And when this is up and going, the random member of the public can come to the National Science Foundation site or the NASA site and get a list of all the articles that resulted from NASA funding."

Under this system, when the person finds the article he wants to read, clicking on it brings him to the publisher's page, where it's available for download. "I've been working with a group of publishers that include more than 40 now that have been experimenting with a simple iTunes-like rental model," Dylla said. "When you land on the site and you don't happen to have a subscription, you can rent the article for a nominal price." He said he couldn't disclose the price because of antitrust issues, but he compared it to the "price of a cup of coffee."

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Heather Joseph has what could be considered a bird's-eye view of the academic publishing field. She spent 15 years in journal publishing, mostly working for various societies, but this also includes nearly a year at Elsevier ("I did not last a full year," she said. "I lasted 11 months. The business model was not in alignment with what I learned journal publishers did."). These days, she's the executive director of SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which was developed by the Association of Research Libraries. One of its chief goals is to provide "a way to keep scholarly societies publishing independently to keep from selling out to commercial companies." Though she would consider herself an advocate for open access publishing, her main drive is to help societies produce their own journals instead of outsourcing the process to companies like Elsevier and Wiley.

This is partly done by providing online platforms to ease the process and overhead of putting out a journal, but it also includes forming a strength-in-numbers approach to ensure the same kind of guaranteed revenue stream a commercial publisher offers through bundling. "University libraries are about 80 percent of the average publisher's revenue stream," she said. "We're the revenue base, and if we're part of the business equation saying we're sort of guarantors on this project, then it makes small publishers more willing to take a risk and go into this kind of venture."

Until recently, Joseph said, the growth and expansion of open access publishing had been steady but slow. It's only in the last year-and-a-half "when we really saw an incredible explosion of new outlets, new models in particular, coming into the marketplace. I think there's a sea change that's happening right now."

SPARC exists on the other end of the debate with regard to how the public should be able to access the fruits of taxpayer-funded research. It has been a firm supporter of the NIH policy and is advocating the expansion of it to other government agencies. One bill it supports, called the Federal Research Public Access Act (or FRPAA), would require that all agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more provide public access to articles stemming from that research within six months of publication. "There's about $60 billion of government-funded research--non-defense, non-classified research--that's done every year," said Joseph. "About $30 billion every year comes from the NIH. There are 11 other agencies in departments that make up the other half of the pie chart. The calculation we're making is that this extension is not a risky bet. We've had a policy in place on half of U.S.-funded research for four years that's been effective, that's provided access where half a million a day hit NIH's database looking at this stuff. And no publisher has reported financially that they've been hurt from it. So there's a safe spot that's balancing for the first time the public's ability to get access to this without destroying the subscription publisher's ability to exist."