In October 2015, all six editors of the linguistics journal Lingua quit at once, along with its 31-member editorial board. The walkout brought mainstream attention to a debate that has been brewing for years over the future of academic publishing.
Elsevier—Lingua’s publisher—classifies it as a hybrid journal. By default, Lingua is available only to subscribers (or to institutions that purchase access to journals in bulk). Individual writers can choose to have their articles shared openly if they pay an additional fee. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with those fees—most major open journals have article processing charges, as do many closed journals. But Lingua’s editors believed that their journal’s fee was prohibitively high and didn’t correspond to increased support from Elsevier. The same team is planning to launch a new journal next year with the growing open access publisher Ubiquity Press.
In a lot of ways, what happened at Lingua is emblematic of something that’s been happening all year. If 2014 was the year that the open access movement became mainstream, then this is the year we stopped compromising with closed publishers.
One of the biggest tactics the open access movement can use to effect change is encouraging research funders to adopt open access policies—that is, policies that require that any work they fund be shared openly. Creative Commons reports that in 2015, five major foundations adopted policies requiring any research they fund to be published under an open license: the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Vancouver Foundation. The grants those foundations gave out under their new policies accounted for nearly two billion dollars.
An important goal we haven’t achieved yet is passing an open access mandate for federally funded research. FASTR (the Fair Access to Science & Technology Research Act) was reintroduced in Congress in March after floundering in 2013. Under FASTR, any federal agency that gives over $100 million in grants for research would be required to adopt an open access policy. We don’t think FASTR is a perfect bill—ideally, any public access mandate would require that research be openly licensed—but we think that it’s a crucial first step. It has strong supporters in both parties, but lawmakers need their constituents’ encouragement to make FASTR a priority. Many of you have used our site to write to your Senators and Representatives about FASTR, but we still urgently need to get the message to Congress.
2015 was also a year when unauthorized sharing of academic works became a lot more visible. Let’s not kid ourselves—people have always emailed papers to each other to get around paywalls, but the rise in trends like #icanhazpdf speaks to an academic community that’s increasingly vocal about its frustrations with traditional publishing.
Indeed, we might remember 2015 as academic publishers’ Napster moment. Through engaging in an endless hide-and-seek game with rogue repositories like Sci-Hub and LibGen, Elsevier may be slowly coming to terms with the fact that its business model has fallen out of sync with reality.
Finally, we remember Diego Gomez, who may face eight years in prison for sharing a scientific paper online. Since Diego’s trial began in June, over 20,000 of you have signed EFF’s petition in support of open access. Stories like his are a reminder of the urgent need for major open access reform worldwide.
Whether it’s an entire journal staff quitting their jobs, a foundation approving an open access policy, or even a student going on Twitter to get around a paywall, 2015 was a year when a lot of people questioned why closed is the default. Let’s keep that momentum going by passing a federal open access mandate in 2016.
This article is part of our Year In Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2015. Like what you're reading? EFF is a member-supported nonprofit, powered by donations from individuals around the world. Join us today and defend free speech, privacy, and innovation.