The future of Open Access should not be left to the legacy publishers

It’s been about two decades since the Budapest Open Access Initiative, and many would say that much has been accomplished in that time. There are many examples of successful Open Access journals, there has been a strong push from both governments and private funders, and even the legacy publishers have embraced it, boasting about the number of Open Access articles they publish. And whether through the Open Access Button or Unpaywall, or through Sci-Hub, most scientific and scholarly articles are now accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

However, Open Access is merely a means to an end. And if we consider that end, there unfortunately is less reason for optimism.

Why Open Access?

The reason I quit my job to join the Open Access movement is because I wanted to help accelerating the scientific process. By lowering the barrier to entry and making publishing more inclusive, we can take advantage of a larger and more diverse set of brains to expand the body of human knowledge.

So with more people now able to access research than ever before, has the barrier to entry been lowered?

Well… Somewhat. It is good that researchers at less-wealthy institutions, researchers in industry, and citizen scientists are now able to read more research that might be relevant to their work. However, properly participating in the scientific process entails more than just reading other research — it means sharing your own results as well.

And that’s where the rub is.

Rather than bringing about new funding models and publishing systems that bring down the price of sharing scientific work, the costs have been allowed to continue to rise, and have been merely been transferred from readers to authors. As one of the original signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative was disappointed to conclude:

Instead of local, small-scale and underfunded research institutions being unable to access material, they are becoming unable to publish because they can’t afford the “Open Access” fees!

It’s about the money

In the end, it comes down to money: researchers with fewer funds have fewer opportunities to contribute to the scientific process, so if the costs can be brought down, the barriers to contribute will be lowered. As an added bonus, those with deeper pockets will be able to spend more of their budgets on actual research as well.

Of course, both research and publishing will always have costs associated with them. There are two reasons to believe that the costs of publishing can and should be much lower, though.

First: technology. Academic publishing hasn’t yet seen the massive drop in costs that have been observed for other types of media with the advance of the internet. Whereas academic journals traditionally were the result of many hours of labour involved with e.g. typesetting and printing paper copies, modern tools have greatly simplified the process of authoring and distributing academic articles. Nevertheless, this has so far hardly translated into lower prices.

The second reason: the enormous profit margins made by the legacy publishers. The reason these publishers can maintain such margins is not because it is so difficult to be a publisher, but because they own brand names that are highly influential in the scholarly publishing process.

Given those two reasons, the obvious conclusion is that cost savings provided by modern technology should be used to accelerate the scientific process, rather than for growing the profit margins of the legacy publishers.

Time to refocus

It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the legacy publisher’s shareholders to voluntarily forgo their projected profits. The interests of the legacy publishers cannot co‑exist with the ideals of many of us in the Open Access movement.

The way forward for Open Access, therefore, can not be guided by the legacy publishers.

Without their excessive profit margins and with new funding models, we can move to a world in which everybody who has something to contribute, can contribute. That’s the ideal I’m working for, and that’s what I judge the movement’s success by. And although much has been accomplished already, as long as the amount of public money spent on scholarly publishing hasn’t been significantly reduced, there still is a long way to go.

If you care about this ideal too, I invite you to subscribe to the Flockademic newsletter, and to let me know your thoughts on how to get there.

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