Journal publishers are battling to discredit the idea of free research results for all on the web after new research commissioned by the Wellcome Trust suggested that it was an economically viable model.
Open-access publishing, or the "author-pays model", has become an emotive topic in the academic and commercial sectors.
The Commons science and technology committee has had to transfer its inquiry on scientific publishing to a bigger room because of the number of people observing the evidence sessions.
Traditionally, commercial and not-for-profit publishers have operated a subscription-only service for the research they print. Academics give away copyright for their work, which universities pay to access.
But under the open-access model, subscription fees would be scrapped and research results would be freely available to everyone online. The onus would fall on the researcher to pay for their own peer-reviewed research to be published on the web. This cost could be covered by public research grants.
In part, the move for change has been stimulated by financial strains in universities. Subscription fees to paper journals and their online editions have risen by 200 per cent in the past decade and cost UK universities £76 million a year. Publishers make profits of up to 40 per cent.
The Joint Information Systems Committee, an advisory body paid for by the funding councils, is warning that libraries are facing a financial crisis, with many unable to buy all the content their users want.
Peter Fox, librarian at Cambridge University, told the science and technology committee that increasing scientific journal costs were taking about £500,000 a year from resources available for purchasing books and journals in areas outside science.
Many agree that these problems are exacerbated by the trend of "bundling", in which commercial publishers offer libraries a bundle of journals - some of which they do not need - as a non-negotiable package for a single price.
Jisc, which told the committee that it has had particular difficulty negotiating with Elsevier, has warned that commercial publishers are pushing out smaller journals owned by the learned societies by offering these rigid "big deals".
For: Mark Walport
The Wellcome Trust, which spends more than £400 million a year on research, is adamant that open access is the only way forward.
Mark Walport, the trust's director, insisted at a discussion meeting on the topic last week that research must be disseminated as widely as possible.
Dr Walport said: "The benefit of research only comes from the access to results. In that context, I don't think it can be right that researchers sign over the copyright of the work they submit."
He claimed that the National Health Service could access only 30 per cent of its own research.
Wellcome has conducted a business analysis of the author-pays model, which it claims shows a "win-win situation". It calculates that, far from being a cost burden, open-access could knock as much as 30 per cent off publishing costs.
The report suggests that to sustain a top-level online publication an author would need to pay £1,100 per article. This compares with an average cost of £1,500 to publish a paper under the traditional system.
Dr Walport said: "How much profit should be made in publishing scientific research that holds a potential benefit to us all and which was funded by the public purse?"
He dismissed claims that the open-access model would mean a lowering of quality. "The quality control comes from rigorous peer review and editorial control. Both of these can function in the open-access model," he said.
Dr Walport added that if a system where authors were expected to pay to publish led to a decrease in the number of papers published, that would be no bad thing. He said: "We've never encouraged researchers to publish large numbers of papers. We want a small number of high-quality papers."
Against: Arie Jongejan
In general, the big commercial publishers and the smaller learned societies that profit from the current system are highly sceptical of an open-access future.
Elsevier, which publishes 1,200 scientific journals a year, warned last week that the model should come with health warnings about integrity, quality and access.
Arie Jongejan, chief executive of Elsevier's science division, argued that the author-pays model would be dominated by the wealthier funding bodies.
He asked: "Is there a risk that we will drift towards being elitist? Where does it leave scientists who work in areas where funding is tight?"
In written evidence to the science and technology committee, Elsevier claimed that open-access publishers would be under constant pressure to increase their research output to drive revenues; this could mean lower quality research slipping through the net and into the public domain.
Publishers also argue that there is no proof that open-access would prove sustainable. Elsevier warns authors may face much higher costs than the Wellcome Trust report suggests. The executive editor of Science has estimated that it would have to charge $10,000 (£5,600) per article under open access to maintain its high quality and high selectivity.
Ron Fraser, executive secretary of the Society for General Microbiology, which publishes four specialist journals and one magazine, said open access would threaten many of the charitable activities of learned societies such as his.
He warned that some smaller, less glamorous journals might disappear completely, with authors opting to spend their money on bigger brands.
Dr Fraser said: "We don't know if authors will be able to pay enough. We would have to charge about £2,000 per published paper to maintain current standards."
What could happen in the future?
- Open access takes over. This is likely if academics insist that top journals support the open-access model. Payments would be made by authors for pages in freely available online journals. Library budgets would be used to focus on access to learning resources, as research funds are switched to supporting page charges for authors.
- An uneasy status quo. Many academics are unaware of the debate raging about open access. A possible scenario, therefore, is that they will continue to send articles to their preferred journal with little consideration of the publishing process and little will change. More and more journals will be published online, but they will be available through subscription only. Commercial search engines for finding research are likely to become significantly more effective than those run by academic journals due to increased investment. Not-for-profit publishers will face tougher competition from the big commercial players.
- The big commercial players assume control. Another possibility is that paper journals will disappear and commercial publishers will dominate the online market. If this happens, the Wellcome Trust predicts major disputes over access to search engines and archives. Commercial publishers would probably refuse to allow third-party archiving of research and allow access to research only if a subscription to an e-journal is maintained. Learned societies may struggle to compete with the enhanced online services offered by commercial publishers.
- Universities become publishers. One less likely scenario is that universities could choose to bypass journals completely and make their research available free of charge on their own websites.
Without the competitive selection process commonly associated with scientific journals, this could pose serious quality control issues.