'Open access' for the rich only

January 9, 2004

The claim that "open-access" journals will replace the traditional subscription model and open up access to research is wrong ("Crusaders for a truly free flow of ideas", THES , January 2). Despite the evangelism of Stevan Harnad and other enthusiasts for "publisher-free" journals, the open-access model simply shifts the costs of publication from the subscribing institution to authors. Both forms of delivery can and do provide "free at the point of use" access for individual readers.

Open access is fine if the article authors have grant funds to pay the publication charge likely in science and medicine but very unlikely in social sciences and humanities, let alone for aspiring authors in any field in poorer countries. The effect of the spread of open access will be the further concentration of research output in well-funded specialities from the Anglo-American realm, with the consequent impoverishment of scholarship and scientific debate and the exclusion of papers from non-mainstream disciplines and researchers. To ensure diversity and equality of publishing opportunity both models of journal publishing need to co-exist.

The caricature of the wicked lazy commercial publisher who exploits the innocent academic community by selling its own work back to it at vast profit is a pernicious myth. Commercial publishers do much more than a little light copyediting to add value to journals. They often conceive new journals, support them through their loss-making early years, fund and organise related conferences and even provide below-cost subscriptions to developing countries, as well as vigorous marketing and promotion. Many learned societies are themselves publishers that depend on journal subscription revenues to support their scholarly activities and keep membership subscriptions lower than they would otherwise need to be.

The Public Library of Science and the other open-access publishers were created to serve the interests of an elite well-funded and narrow research community. Don't expect them to find room for you if you are a self-funded independent researcher outside North America. Their "business model" at present allows them to claim "we waive the fee for authors who say they can't afford it" when only 5 per cent of authors claim free publication: what happens when it's 50 per cent?

Open access is in danger of applying the most invidious and insidious form of academic censorship: the rich get published and the poor don't.

Iain Stevenson
Director of publishing studies
City University

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