In the quiet, restrained world of research libraries, any controversies that arise are, for the most part, cordial and largely academic. So some within the industry may have been understandably surprised by the widespread attention paid when, in April, Harvard's Faculty Advisory Council sent a letter to the faculty concerning what it alleged was a crisis with its scholarly journal subscriptions.
The letter reported an "untenable situation facing the Harvard Library" in which "many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive." The letter revealed that Harvard is paying $3.75 million annually in journal subscriptions and that they make up "10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires." A few of the journals, it says, cost upward of $40,000 a year--each. "Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices." Its conclusion: "Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained." To underscore the weight of what Harvard had just done by releasing this letter, one blogger headlined his post, “The wealthiest university on Earth can’t afford its academic journal subscriptions.”
Though the letter's short-term impact was to inform the non-academic world of the growing tension between research libraries and journal publishers, many in the industry say its long-term effect lies in its list of recommendations for how to ameliorate the situation. Harvard implores its top researchers to "consider submitting articles to open-access journals" and to "consider resigning" from the editorial boards of journals that don't provide open-access offerings. Because an open-access journal allows anyone to easily and without cost read any of its published material, a large-scale migration to the platform would ease many of the financial burdens posed by subscription journals.
And just like that, Harvard put its considerable muscle into what is becoming a major disruption in the academic publishing industry--the open-access journal. And its ascent can in some ways be compared to that of the E-book.
Though the E-book is now ubiquitous and commands a major share of the publishing marketplace, it spent the first 10 years of its existence in obscurity, its market share little more than a rounding error. This all changed, of course, with the launch of the Amazon Kindle. Announced by CEO Jeff Bezos to much fanfare in 2007, the E-reader quickly gained a foothold in the publishing market, in part because of its use of E-ink technology--which mimicked the visual experience of a traditional print book--and the company's existing customer base of millions who already had their credit card information stored and were primed for one-click shopping. By late 2010, Amazon announced Kindle E-books were outselling paperbacks on the site, and we were treated to stories of authors who had been initially shunned by the major New York publishers but then went on to make thousands, if not millions, of dollars self-publishing their work on the Kindle store. The floodgates were open.
Like the E-book, the open access journal has spent much of its existence struggling to gain legitimacy in a crowded marketplace. It is a platform largely applauded conceptually but, until recently, rarely adopted in a world where an academic's publications are important career stepping stones--ones that determine the allotment of large research grants or tenure at universities. Many academics have been reluctant to wade in because of the lack of prestige that accompanies many of these upstarts.
The scholarly scientific journal industry is, arguably, at least a few centuries old. The oldest journal is thought to have been the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was first published in the mid-1600s. The concept of peer review was developed at this time, and during the 20th century academics attempted to perfect this process, refining an intricate editorial system in which each manuscript is subjected to layers of review and the end result is held up as a near-unassailable product. To have one's work published in a peer-reviewed journal lends it a legitimacy unmatched by any other form of publication or dissemination. And the more prestigious the journal, the more unassailable the article becomes.
Most academic journals, at least in the scientific fields, are published by scientific societies, of which there are thousands across the world. But what at first glance looks like a highly diverse spread has, in recent history, become a largely homogenous one. That's because over the last few decades, commercial publishing houses have been rapidly acquiring these once-nonprofit journals, to a point where a few commercial houses now publish close to 50 percent of all academic journals ( Those who follow the industry say that scientific societies link up with the large publishers because of the guaranteed revenue stream. More than a decade ago, the big publishers secured what is often referred to as the "big deal," a form of bundling in which a large university library, instead of subscribing to individual journals, subscribes to hundreds at a time. In theory this drives down the per-journal cost but it also leads to the library paying for many journals it'll never use (the same way cable users are forced to pay for ESPN as part of the package even though they may not watch sports).
About 80 percent of a journal publisher's subscription revenue comes from university libraries, and for the last decade librarians have complained of an unsustainable rise in journal pricing, which they've pegged to about 7 percent a year. They attribute this rise to just a few large publishers who they say have attained a monopoly-like stranglehold on the academic publishing world. Though not all revenue figures are public, it's common knowledge that some of these commercial houses command between a 30 and 40 percent profit margin, which is unheard of in most industries. Librarians feel they've been held hostage to these steep pricing increases because of the constant pressure to provide access to the most up-to-date research to their campus faculty and students.
This is why librarians have been some of the loudest advocates for open-access journals. But though they have clear financial motives for this advocacy, they have been joined by many academics in recent years, along with some in the federal government who allocate billions of dollars annually in taxpayer-funded research grants--grants that go toward the very research that ends up published by these journals.
Though the business models vary, many open-access journals are able to dispense with the subscription revenue by charging upfront publication fees to the researcher submitting work. These fees are typically a few thousand dollars, and critics of open access (who often work for the traditional journals) say these publication charges merely shift the cost of production from the consumer to the producer of the content, and in the process create an inherent conflict of interest. After all, how can you expect a journal to reject sub-par manuscripts when it has a financial incentive to accept as many as possible? Martin Frank, the executive director of the American Physiological Society, which currently publishes 14 scientific journals, estimated the per-article cost in one of his journals at between $2,500 and $3,000. "I once said to a chair of a department of physiology, 'How many papers did you publish last year?'" Frank said. "And he said 16. And I asked, 'So at $3,000 a head a paper, you've got $48,000 from your research grant to pay for the publication?' And he replied that he wouldn't take it off his grant; that he has a slush fund in the department. But the thing is, most researchers don't have a slush fund. Most people would have to use the money from their research grants to pay for the publication." In some cases, Frank said, a researcher doesn't publish his research until years after his grant has ended, making the upfront open-access costs prohibitive.
But critics of this business model often sidestep the reality that many closed access journals charge processing fees as well. In fact, the entire publication structure of scholarly publishing would seem alien to those who work within the non-academic publishing world. Rather than paying the writer of the composition, he or she is often charged upward of a few thousand dollars to publish in the journal. The journals also don't pay the peer reviewers who first read and then provide significant editorial feedback in order to strengthen a manuscript. These peer reviewers are often made up of experts within the field of the paper's topic; many academics who publish are also called upon to read as a reviewer. "You devote your time to reviewing someone else's article because you want them to spend the same time on your articles," explained Fred Dylla, executive director at the American Institute of Physics, a scientific society that publishes several journals. Though the publishers say they bear the cost of managing the editorial process (polishing the final manuscript, formatting it for publication, and generating all the tables, charts, and graphics), these are all costs that are carried by any non-academic publisher--newspaper, magazine, or book--which also pays both the writers and editors of its products.
As for the accusations of a conflict of interest, this question was put toward Kristen Ratan, the chief product officer of the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, as it's commonly referred to. PLoS is a nonprofit publishing project that launched one of the earliest experiments in open access when it produced its first journal, PLoS Biology, in 2003. Formed by several scientists, PLoS today publishes seven journals, each of which has amassed significant prestige and impact within its respective field. Over a two-week period, Ratan said, PLoS will see up to 1.2 million article page views across all its journals and its impact factor--the average number of citations per article, one of the key indicators of a journal's prestige--is on par with most well-regarded closed access journals.
Ratan said the merit of an article submitted to PLoS is determined by those who have no financial interest in the publication. "I think it's a problem that PLoS has been very good at solving by engaging academic editors and peer reviewers to be the mechanisms determining what gets published, as opposed to having internal staff making those decisions," she explained. "So that removes the conflict of interest." Some have suggested that PLoS and other open-access journal publishers should charge the researcher per round of editorial review, thereby removing some of the financial incentive to accept an article (since some revenue would then be extracted even if the piece is ultimately rejected). But Ratan asserted that "peer review is only one aspect of the cost factor of publishing," and so charging for the peer review wouldn't adequately address this issue.
Asked whether she thinks open access has reached a tipping point that will soon make it a major player in the industry, Ratan pointed to the rapid increase in articles published in PLoS over the last few years--it published 84 percent more articles in 2011 than in 2010. But what's even more indicative of such a shift, she said, is how closed access journals have reacted to their open access counterparts. "What I've noticed is that publishers have responded by in some cases launching open access publications themselves. Some of the ones that have historically been closed are now experimenting in open access." Indeed, nearly every society publisher interviewed has either published an open-access journal or plans to in the near future (that includes both Elsevier and Wiley).
When an established journal converts to open access, it addresses the prestige problem that has hindered the model for years. A researcher has an incentive to always first submit his paper to a journal with the highest impact, not just because it will therefore be seen by more of his colleagues and have a larger resonance, but also because his trajectory in the tenure track partly depends on it. A brand new open access journal has no proven track record, so it can have difficulty attracting serious, groundbreaking research.
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.
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.
Allan Adler is vice president of legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, a trade organization that lobbied in support of the Research Works Act. Sitting in a conference room at the organization's headquarters near Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, he said that he recognizes the growing financial stress that has been placed on university libraries over the last decade, though he wouldn't speak about the pricing factors pertaining to the organization's members ("We sort of regard that issue as really a vendor/customer issue," he said). But he did comment on the publishers' stance on the NIH policy, framing it as a debate over how best to keep the public informed on how their tax dollars are being spent on public research.
"One of the concerns of journal publishers has always been: Why does the NIH insist that the only way they can inform the public about the kind of research that the NIH funds and supports is by utilizing the manuscript of the researcher who has written that manuscript specifically to be published in a peer reviewed journal where the audience of that manuscript will be other researchers in the field, not the public?" he said. In response to the NIH policy, publishers have asserted that because of the layers of editorial review prior to a manuscript's publication, the publisher owns the copyright of the manuscript, and by forcing the author to deposit it in the PubMed repository the agency is violating that copyright.
Adler's argument boils down to whether or not the average member of the public could even understand the complexity of a peer-reviewed article, and he argued that a much better method of keeping the public informed would be for the communications arm of the NIH to summarize research findings in ways understandable to the layman. "So for an agency like the NIH," he explained, "the idea that they don't have the communications capability to regularly and in a timely manner explain to the public through their various websites, through their various published materials, what kind of research they fund and what the significance of that research is, it really defies any credibility that they can't do that."
But proponents of the NIH policy would argue that it wasn't just put in place to inform the layman as to how tax dollars are spent, but also as a resource to researchers and academics so they can access the material for free. Many of PubMed's most frequent users are scientists; one biologist said they use the word as a verb (as in, "I'll go PubMed that article"). In other words, the policy wasn't just put in place for transparency of government spending, but specifically so that the main consumers of the manuscripts--academics--can access it without charge. Because recently-published work is crucial for scientists to carry out their own work, some of PubMed's loudest supporters are researchers.
Opponents say this puts publishers at a financial disadvantage. "The argument that the taxpayer pays for it, and therefore the taxpayer should have it for free, is weak in my view," said Martin Frank, the executive director of the American Physiological Society. " … You and everyone else can identify the fact that there's lots of stuff in our society that has been developed through taxpayer dollars that we still end up paying for."
Even though Frank opposes the NIH policy of forcing grant recipients to deposit their articles in PubMed within one year, his society's 14 journals make their articles available free of charge after the same time period. While it may seem that there's a discongruity in these two statements, Frank is of the belief that it's the one-size-fits-all approach of the NIH that makes it so harmful. The American Physiological Society is able to release its articles for free after a year because its journals publish on a monthly basis and most of the value derived from those articles occurs during the first year. In the harder sciences, the adoption and dissemination of research happens at a much quicker pace, but in other sciences, he said, academics might not stumble upon a journal article until three years after it's published. So journals that specialize in these fields are put to a disadvantage by the NIH's 12-month policy. "Twelve months might not work for them because they have a very small subscription base, and if the subscription base becomes too small because people are willing to wait 12 months or six months, then you might have a problem sustaining it."
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."
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."
There are many public access advocates who hope that the Obama administration will enter the fold, and there's been some indication that the White House will get behind expanding the NIH policy. But regardless of when or if that happens, the drumbeat for open access, both as a business model and as government policy, is only growing. There may soon be a day when the market share of the big commercial publishers begins to slip. But lest one gets too excited about the large boycotts of closed access journals and Harvard's vocal endorsement of open access, it's important to remember this isn't the first time these kinds of battle cries have occurred. In fact, PLoS's first journal was founded in the wake of just this sort of outcry nearly a decade ago.
"Individuals were invited to sign a petition with the Public Library of Science to never publish in a subscription journal and never review for a subscription journal," said Frank of The American Physiological Society. "They have over 30,000 signers, but very few of them actually abided in action by the terms of the petition. So just because Harvard has issued a letter it doesn't mean that Harvard's faculty going to do what the university wants.