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Don't Believe the Publishers' Hype: Support Open Access

May 23, 2013

Once again, we are seeing entrenched interests try to fight the future with scare tactics and misinformation. This time, it's major journal publishers, and their target is open access to taxpayer-funded research.  

First things first: The reason the publishers are on the warpath is that state and federal legislators are looking to expand open access.  One of the leading bills is California's open access bill (AB 609). This legislation is being discussed in the Assembly's Appropriations Committee tomorrow. If you're a California resident, now is the time to contact your Assembly member and ask that they support public access to taxpayer-funded research.

Now for a dose of reality. As a nation, we've already seen successful public access policies—most notably the NIH public access policy, which requires research funded by one of the nation's largest funding bodies to be put in a free repository within a year of first publication. A bill now pending in Congress, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) would expand the NIH policy to a dozen other funding bodies while also reducing the embargo period to six months. Over the last several years, the academic medical community has embraced open access, and publishers that adapted to this policy are still making record profits.

But they aren't happy about it and they certainly don't want expansion. Now that the open access train appears to be leaving the station, their message is simple: we don't need a mandate, just trust us to handle open access. The trouble is they think open access means nothing more than providing publicly accessible links to their own publications.

Most recently, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) sent a letter to the California Assembly's Appropriations Committee full of numbers and allegations that would scare anyone—if only they were based in fact. Similar language was used to challenge FASTR last February, when the bill was introduced into the House and Senate. U.C. Berkeley professor and PLoS-co-founder Michael Eisen has done a thorough takedown of the AAP's letter. We'll focus here on a few major points:

Claim: The policies would add significant costs to agencies' and states' budgets

The AAP's California letter claims that "state universities could be faced with open access publishing charges estimated at more than $1 million annually." In truth, the law leads to nothing of the sort. Rather, it simply requires recipients of state funding to put their final manuscripts in a public repository. These repositories already exist: for example, the University of California system has already offered their robust, scalable eScholarship repository for this task. Moreover, the world of open access publishing is new, it's burgeoning, and it's fostering competitive and cost-effective new options like PeerJ.

The AAP also says that in 2008 an NIH director "indicated the agency spends $100 million a year for page fees and open access charges" and then proceed to use fuzzy math to assume California's costs to be $1.1 million for a public access policy. As Professor Eisen points out, not only did this number come out before the NIH policy was implemented, but the estimate carefully avoids mentioning that a majority of page fees went towards publishers, not open access costs.

Claim: The policies would "undermine publishers' efforts to provide access to high-quality peer-review research publications in a sustainable way"

It's unclear how a policy that mandates final, peer-reviewed manuscripts to be put in a repository undercuts access to peer-reviewed works. The NIH policy features similar language, and last we checked publishers and journals were still able to carry out comprehensive peer review processes—most of which, by the way, are done for free by other scholars. 

The AAP simultaneously claims that universities would not actually be able to cancel subscriptions if there were an open access policy, and therefore not actually save money. Eisen puts it best: "The bill will not save California any money because libraries will not cancel any subscriptions, but will undermine publishers' ability to carry out peer review because they will lose revenue from canceled subscriptions. Huh? They can not have it both ways." The fact is, AB 609 most likely will not affect journals at all.  Here's what will: the growth of open-access journal models. And that trend will continue with or without the law.

Claim: These bills will negatively impact jobs and force journals to go the way of newspapers

This is the familiar we-can't-compete-with-free argument. The claim that existing businesses cannot adapt to new technologies and new cultures of sharing has been disproven repeatedly, and we predict the same outcome here. First of all, open access legislation does not prevent publishers from offering subscription or fee-based models. Right now, the crisis in the current knowledge-space centers on the fact that information cannot be accessed, shared, or built upon. If anything, more access to knowledge will lead to further scientific progress, more uses of collected information, and downstream innovation—all of which sounds like more jobs and a strengthened economy.

Also worth noting with respect to the California bill: the majority of journal publishing jobs are not located in this state at all. And as a recent study highlighted, 90 percent of the revenue of the five largest science, technical, and medical publishers was generated by foreign-owned firms.

Claim: The policies require agencies and states to "undertake extensive, open-ended work already being performed successfully by the private sector," including the fact that "publishers are devoted to providing access to research and invest in the dissemination of research in a variety of ways"

Major publishers have made some effort to improve access to portions of their research, but they have consistently been followers, not leaders.  Indeed, their efforts gained momentum only after the leading open access journals—such as PLoS or BioMed Central—showed that they could publish works, have impact, and make money. If the major publishers are "devoted" to providing access to research, they sure aren't showing it. The bulk of research is still locked down behind paywalls, time barriers, and strict licensing regimes. That means we don't have robust access to the work we helped fund, like the latest medical and scientific research.    

Publishers and their lobbying groups float these arguments—and even more absurd ones—every time a similar bill is proposed. It's time to put these falsities and fears aside and support strong open access policies. Contact your Congressmen about supporting FASTR. And Californians, contact your Assembly Member today about supporting AB 609, the California public access bill.

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