Open access is inevitable – only the ‘how’ remains up for discussion

Scholarly knowledge is produced mainly at taxpayers’ expense. Why they should have to pay again to read it remains a mystery, writes Peter Baldwin

Peter Baldwin 's avatar
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA),New York University
26 Jul 2023
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Unlocking padlock and open access publishing

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Why does open access make publishing more complicated?
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Information wants to be free – but isn’t cheap. For scholarly knowledge, taxpayers have already paid for the bulk of research and writing, and the additional cost of disseminating it is a small fraction of that. Producing knowledge is already a public responsibility, therefore it is time to push on and allow everyone to read what we have already paid to create. The moral argument for opening access to at least scholarly content is persuasive.

The cost of allowing everyone access to scholarly knowledge is significant but not overwhelming. Assuming that in global book production the fraction of scholarly monographs mirrors that of the US (20 per cent), some 440,000 are published annually. At a book publishing charge of $10,000 each, that is $4 billion. Throw in 3 million articles at a publishing charge each of $2,000, and we are up to about $10 billion in total. The acquisitions budget of all libraries globally is $30 billion, according to Outsell, a California-based research and advisory firm for data, information and analytics. That, of course, covers more than just scholarly content. Beyond that, savings are possible in other aspects of libraries’ budgets. North American research libraries house almost a billion volumes, only 60 million of which are distinct titles. We store, shelve, bind, catalogue, reshelve, heat, cool and otherwise care for 940 million duplicate volumes. That costs $4.26 per volume annually in open stacks – a redundant expense in a digitised future.

The monies to make all scholarly content available are thus already in the existing library system. Whether that means they can be repurposed to pay for open access as digitality changes the nature of libraries is a political question. In fact, much of that library money has already been put to this use. Scientific publishers have long been channelling these budgets to their bottom line. Starting in the 1980s, with the so-called serials crisis, the number and price of new scientific journals skyrocketed. Doing the bidding of a price-insensitive professoriate in pursuit of an unsubstitutable product, university librarians had little choice but to spend ever more on periodicals. That left less for the monographs favoured by the humanities. Spending on journals during the 1980s and 1990s increased by more than 200 per cent, while it decreased by 21 per cent for monographs.

Having already commanded the available monies, the scientific publishers eventually realised that whether they were paid for analogue subscriptions or for open-access article publishing charges made little difference, as long as the sums remained comparable. The outcome is that the sciences are well on their way to publishing the bulk of their output open access. Indeed, for the sciences, publishing charges are but a minor annoyance – some 2 per cent of total research costs. That is the good news.

The bad news is that this leaves the humanities and social sciences adrift. Without research funds to meet publication charges, they cannot easily switch to open access. Since library budgets have been gutted, first for journal subscriptions and now for article publishing charges, either these monies must be clawed back or new ones found.

Some solutions are visible. Libraries are banding together into purchasing consortia. If 100 libraries pay $100 each for an academic monograph or unite to pay the $10,000 an open-access publisher needs to make the work freely available is a wash for their budgets – but, for the world, the difference is enormous. In effect, digitality allows the most impactful bulk-purchasing conceivable, with a discount in the form of universal access. Library budgets may no longer be sufficient for all the needed monographs, but those they buy can now be opened for all to read.

The humanities and social sciences would also do well to follow the hard sciences’ example by expanding their definition of publication. The web allows posting and reading of all content as long as we are not overly picky about format. Everything should be readable, but not everything must be an article or book any more than every book must be a printed volume, or every printed volume a leather-bound, gold-embossed artefact. In some disciplines, such as computer science, physics and mathematics, information now circulates largely as online preprints. The final published articles, if they issue at all, remain of interest mainly to future historians of science. The exchange of ideas has already been accomplished on preprint sites such as arXiv, where dissemination costs ($10) are a tiny fraction of the average article publishing charge, not to mention the most expensive ones, such as Science ($10,000).

Whether humanities and social science scholars are thus willing to disseminate their work hinges on signals sent by university promotion and tenure committees. As long as departments outsource qualitative evaluations to the prestige hierarchy of journals and publishers, scholars will not break rank. If we remain in thrall to such prestige signals for where to direct our ever more beleaguered attention spans, alternative means of dissemination will remain struggling seedlings. A decision to hire and promote based on work’s quality, regardless of where or how it appears, is entirely in the universities’ hands. They need no one’s permission to emphasise or reward work presented open access.

That, in turn, raises the hoary question of review, which transcends open access. Pre-publication review was intended not just to winnow according to quality but to save scarce resources in the analogue era when a bad article took up limited space deserved by a good one. Today, with the cost of dissemination on the web approaching zero, and space no longer a limiting factor, no physical resources are wasted, and whether review takes place before or after posting is less critical. Still, it must be done, and universities could set an example by rewarding reviewing when hiring and promoting. Reviewing needs greater recognition as part of the mutual hand-washing-hand of scholarly research. We can’t all be broadcasters if no one is receiving.

The open-access problem would be solved most directly through copyright reform that rolled back the grotesquely lengthened terms of protection to something approximating the 14 years of the original laws. Fourteen years may still be a long time, but it is significantly shorter than the “life of the author plus 70” that the content industries have since managed to extract. For scholarly content – paid for by taxpayers – immediate access should be the norm. But for commercial works, where authors and disseminators expect a return, shortening terms would be a more direct approach. A return at least to the original duration of copyright would substantially diminish the prize that rights-holders are fighting to retain and thus reduce the battles’ intensity.

If works fell into the public domain quicker, the open-access discussion might well have at least been limited to the scholarly realm, where there is no pressing argument for keeping content behind paywalls in the first place. Given the interests at stake – publishers and authors united – such reform is improbable. Nor are attempts to distinguish commercial from scholarly content, with differently lengthy terms, likely to succeed. Paring back the scientific publishers’ extravagant profits also seems a long shot. Reformers have spent the past 30 years seeking to regulate pharmaceutical prices without much luck. Since every consumer prefers cheaper medicines and therefore sides with the reformers, that does not bode well for hopes of prying loose the publishers’ grasp of scientific output – a dispute where the status quo has the backing of most authors. That leaves the sort of reforms suggested here as the most likely route to achieve what is undoubtedly a historical imperative, freeing up access at least to scholarly knowledge.

Peter Baldwin is research professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and global distinguished professor at New York University (NYU). His latest book is Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All.

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