The academic world and disruption: Elsevier vs Open Access

The discussion about the diffusion of science and the problems of the model represented by academic journals goes back a long time, even before the disruption caused by the internet.

The Open Access movement, whose logo appears in this entry has its origin in three manifestos, the Budapest Open Access Initiative of February of 2002, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing in June of 2003, and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities of October 2003, but even by then, plenty of academics like myself were making our articles freely available, openly contravening the rules of the journals that published them first.

I have written in Spanish on the subject a number of times and in various places, in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, as well as in 2013, when the death of the true martyr of the cause, Aaron Swartz, triggered a storm that culminated in the campaign #PDFTribute, which led many of us to upload our copyrighted articles in various scientific journals to the internet with that hashtag.

The model used by academic journals is undoubtedly very interesting: the companies that publish them generate huge revenues by charging large amounts for university and library subscriptions, but on the cost side, they are able to operate in a completely advantageous way: neither the academics who send their manuscripts to the publishers, nor the academics who are part of the editorial committee or who read and criticize the works received (reviewers) are paid.

In fact in some cases, you have to pay to access the reviewing system. Many academics believe that reading the journals related to their area to be an essential part of their job, but the reality is that the system only works for the publisher, who is able to leverage the work of academics who work for free to make very tidy profits.

The system is completely rooted in the mechanisms of the academic world: to obtain their tenure, lecturers must publish in so-called “high impact” journals, which generates a dearth of resources that gives the publishers of those journals more prestige and attracts more reviewing candidates.

The mechanism is clearly inefficient because, in addition to creating a shortage economy and making it difficult to access publications, it leads to significant delays in the publishing process. That said, the academic publication model’s crisis is only one aspect of the academic world that is in doubt: many academics openly question the tenure model, whereby somebody holds a position regardless of their performance. I have been working for the same institution for more than 26 years, I have a Phd and my position is full professor, but I have never considered that my job is protected by anything other than Spanish labor law. If I started teaching badly tomorrow or my performance fell, I could hardly be surprised if I were sacked.

The arrival of purely online journals such as PLoS ONE (an acronym for the Public Library of Science), has long threatened the academic publication model, although it has only had an impact on some disciplines. Even academic platforms such as Academia.edu or ResearchGate openly invite members to upload their papers and share them on the platform with their colleagues. Other initiatives focus on “liberation by force”: Sci-Hub, created by the Kazakh student Alexandra Elbakyan, was launched in April 2011 and already contains more than 58 million papers, and that so far has systematically ignored lawsuits.

Such initiatives are a major threat to the large publishers, perhaps best characterized by Elsevier, which has a portfolio of more than 2,500 journals and a completely closed subscription model. The company now faces a boycott by no less than 60 German academic institutions, which have decided to terminate their subscriptions to its journals to try to force them to renegotiate better access conditions, a strategy that was used last year by Dutch universities, with a moderate success.

What added value does a publisher offer in this day and age? Leaving aside the publishing process, which offers no advantages over reading in electronic format (more convenient when highlighting, making notes, or copying fragments of text), bringing together a select group of reviewers and establishing an academic benchmark is no great feat: all that is required to break the monopoly is to bring together a small group of academics of a certain level who are prepared to contribute their review work to an open page instead of doing so — equally free — for a traditional publisher. It can only be a matter of time before such models spread and begin to make use of other publishing approaches based on free repositories and open revision processes that take advantage of the power of the web.


(En español, aquí)