Open, moral and pragmatic

March 8, 2012

In response to Timothy Gowers ("Occupy publishing", 16 February) (http://thecostofknowledge.com), Elsevier's David Clark argues that "there is little merit in throwing away a system that works" ("If it ain't broke, don't bin it", Letters, 1 March). But the current system does not work.

According to Elsevier's annual report for 2010, it publishes about "200,000 new science & technology research articles each year". The same report reveals revenues for 2010 of £2.026 billion. This works out as £10,130 per article, each made available only to the tiny proportion of the world's population that has access to a subscribing library.

By contrast, PLoS ONE (the world's largest academic journal) makes all its articles freely available as open access, covering its costs by charging authors for publication. The current publication fee is $1,350 per article - about £850. (No-questions-asked fee waivers are given to authors without funds, so the average fee is somewhat lower, but we will use the £850 figure for simplicity's sake.)

Each article that Elsevier publishes behind a paywall therefore costs the academic world about 12 times as much as the same article would cost if published freely to the world by a representative open-access publisher. (In fact, a study of 100,697 open-access articles published in 1,370 journals in 2010 found the average publication fee to be only $906 - about £570 - but I used the higher PLoS ONE fee in these calculations because it is a well-known and respected journal with a successful economic model that is known to run at a modest operating profit.)

Suppose that all Elsevier's revenue could be redirected to paying publication fees for open-access journals. If this were done, £2.026 billion would fund 2.38 million articles per year - going on for double the 1.35 million articles estimated as the world's total annual scholarly output in 2006. In short, the revenue of Elsevier alone would comfortably pay for all the world's research to be published openly. Leaving aside the moral argument for open access - that it is wrong to allow corporations to benefit by withholding access to research that would otherwise save lives - the pragmatic economic case for the approach is unanswerable. At times of diminished funding, a shift to the open-access model is more urgent than ever. We simply cannot afford to keep giving public money to profit-oriented publishers.

Michael P. Taylor, Research associate, Department of earth sciences, University of Bristol

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