Open Access: Sweet Dreams and Nightmares

I’m a supporter of Open Access (OA) and have been for more than a decade. Over that time, the uptake of OA has been encouraging, but rather slow. According to Björk and Hedlund, a reason for this is that established journals and publishers have not had strong enough incentives to change their business models. Year after year, I’ve been hoping that the adoption of OA would reach a tipping point, after which uptake would be very rapid. A pessimistic opinion: although adoption continues to increase, it isn’t obvious that such a tipping point has been reached yet.

For anyone unfamiliar with OA (why are you here?), the OA literature has been defined by Peter Suber as literature that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions“. OA is sometimes also used to refer to online literature where only price barriers have been removed. Such literature has been termed “gratis OA” by Peter Suber.

There are two main routes to OA, described in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. One is the self-archiving of articles in open electronic archives or repositories (“Green OA“). The other is publication in OA journals (“Gold OA“). There continues to be debate about the relative merits of Green and Gold OA.

A variation on Gold OA is “Hybrid OA“, where only some of the articles are in the journal are OA (after payment of a fee). There are problems with Hybrid OA. A major one is “double dipping”, where libraries are charged for content, even though an article processing fee (APF) has already been paid to make it available OA.

I daydream from time to time about OA. I’ve had some dreams that are sweet, and some that are nightmares. Two examples:

Sweet Dream #1: No embargoes for articles in PubMed Central (PMC).

Embargoed articles in the PMC repository are not immediately free on publication, but only after a specified time period. At present, embargoes of up to one year are permitted by the Public Access Policy of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The number of embargoed articles in PMC is not a negligible proportion of the total. For example, on May 27, 2014, a search of PMC was done for the keywords “stem cell”, with limits activated so that embargoed articles were included in the search result. This search yielded 7,187 embargoed articles within a total of 110,156 articles (6.5%).

Mike Taylor, a scientist (palaeontologist), has argued that every manuscript accepted by a publisher should be immediately made freely available with no embargo. His view (March 15, 2013):  “Any publisher that argues against this policy is saying that the value they add is inadequate” (his boldface). For a publisher-oriented contrary view, see: Getting Open Access Embargoes Right: Rational Policy Must Be Evidence-Based. (The comments section of this blog post includes several exchanges between Mike Taylor and those opposed to his argument. They illustrate the difficulties faced by those who seek Green OA without any embargoes).

The number of articles published in credible fully OA journals is accelerating. Such Gold OA journals have the desirable feature that they always provide immediate, unembargoed OA to peer-reviewed research articles. So, if all articles in PMC had been published in Gold OA journals, the percentage of embargoed articles would be zero. Nice dream.

Nightmare #1: Support for PMC is withdrawn.

There has been a series of attempts aimed at reversing the NIH’s Public Access Policy. One illustrative example is the Research Works Act (RWA). It was introduced into the US House of Representatives on December 16, 2011. After much opposition, especially from activist members of the scientific community, support for the RWA was withdrawn on February 27, 2012.

The RWA wasn’t the first attempt to reverse the NIH’s Public Access Policy (see the Wikipedia entry for the RWA). So, one can assume that it won’t be the last. A very bad dream involves a scenario where an attempt to reverse the Public Access Policy finally is successful, and, as a result, PMC ceases to be useful and is no longer supported.

Sweet Dream #2:  The PeerJ business model succeeds and is copied.

Peer J, an OA megajournal launched in 2012, has an innovative business model. Unlike other Gold OA journals that charge an APF, it uses a “pay once, publish for life” business model. There are several publishing plans. A low-cost example is US$99 for one peer-reviewed publication per year. Another is US$299 for unlimited peer-reviewed publications. For articles with multiple authors, only the first 12 authors per paper need to have a paid publishing plan.

Those with paid publishing plans are asked “to contribute one question, comment, or peer review (if qualified) to [PeerJ] every 12 months, or risk their publishing plan lapsing“.

There’s a review, “PeerJ’s $99 open access model one year on” (March 13, 2014) in Times Higher Education (THE). It’s asked in the review “will others go on to ape its low-cost, multi-featured, user-friendly model?“.

If this low-cost Gold OA publication does survive, and develops a widely-recognized, very favorable reputation, then one can dream about this business model being copied. Perhaps a truly competitive market involving low-cost megajournals would develop. Another nice dream.

Nightmare #2: PeerJ is sold to Elsevier and prices rise sharply.

PeerJ isn’t self-sustaining yet (perhaps by 2015 – see the THE article) . If it does succeed in becoming self-sustaining without changing its current prices, then it could become attractive to one of the larger publishers. An example is provided by BioMed Central (BMC), a Gold OA publisher that was founded in 2000. BMC was a pioneer in the successful use of a business model based on article processing fees (APFs). In 2008, BMC was acquired by the large publisher Springer.

It seems possible that the even larger publisher Elsevier might succeed in buying PeerJ. Elsevier could then add PeerJ to its set of OA options. It could also decide to increase the prices for publication in PeerJ. Bad dream.

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1 Comment »

  1. Jim Till said

    A press release dated July 9, 2014 provides information about an investment by SAGE in the open access journal PeerJ. PeerJ continues to be an independent company.

    For a commentary, see: Q&A with SAGE’s David Ross about PeerJ Investment by Rick Anderson.

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