Open Access: a short summary

I wrote the following essay for one of my favourite online forums, Hacker News, which over the past few months has seen more and more discussion of the issue of open access to scientific publication. It seems like it might have broader interest, so I’m reposting it here. Original link here.

The topic of open access to scientific papers comes up often on Hacker News.

Unfortunately, those discussions sometimes bog down in misinformation and misunderstandings.

Although it’s not exactly my area of expertise, it’s close — I’ve spent the last three years working on open science.

So I thought it might be useful to post a summary of the current state of open access. There’s a lot going on, so even though this essay appears lengthy, it’s actually a very brief and incomplete summary of what’s happening. I have links to further reading at the end.

This is not a small stakes game. The big scientific publishers are phenomenally profitable. In 2009, Elsevier made a profit of 1.1 billion dollars on revenue of 3.2 billion dollars. That’s a margin (and business model) they are very strongly motivated to protect. They’re the biggest commercial journal publisher, but the other big publishers are also extremely profitable.

Even not-for-profit societies often make an enormous profit on their journals. In 2004 (the most recent year for which I have figures) the American Chemical Society made a profit of 40 million dollars on revenues of 340 million dollars. Not bad! This money is reinvested in other society activities, including salaries. Top execs receive salaries in the 500k to 1m range (as of 2006, I’m sure it’s quite a bit higher now.)

The traditional publishers make money by charging journal subscription fees to libraries. Why they make so much money is a matter for much discussion, but I will merely point out one fact: there are big systematic inefficiencies built into the market. University libraries for the most part pay the subscription fees, but they rely on guidance (and often respond to pressure) from faculty members in deciding what journals to subscribe to. In practice, faculty often have a lot of power in making these decisions, without bearing the costs. And so they can be quite price-insensitive.

The journal publishers have wildly varying (and changing) responses to the notion of open access.

For example, most Springer journals are closed access, but in 2008 Springer bought BioMedCentral, one of the original open access publishers, and by some counts the world’s largest. They continue to operate. (More on the deal here.)

[Update: It has been pointed out to me in email that Springer now uses a hybrid open access model for most of their journals, whereby authors can opt to pay a fee to make their articles open access. If the authors don’t pay that fee, the articles remain closed. The other Springer journals, including BioMedCentral, are fully open access.]

Nature Publishing Group is also mostly closed access, but has recently started an open access journal called Scientific Reports, apparently modeled after the (open access) Public Library of Science’s journal PLoS One.

It is sometimes stated that big commercial publishers don’t allow authors to put free-to-access copies of their papers on the web. In fact, policies vary quite a bit from publisher to publisher. Elsevier and Springer, for example, do allow authors to put copies of their papers on their websites, and into institutional repositories. This doesn’t mean that always (or even often) happens, but it’s at least in principle possible.

Comments on HN sometimes assume that open access is somehow a new issue, or an issue that no-one has been doing anything about until recently.

This is far from the case. Take a look at the Open Access Newsletters and you’ll realize that there’s a community of people working very, very hard for open access. They’re just not necessarily working in ways that are visible to hackers.

Nonetheless, as a result of the efforts of people in the open access movement, a lot of successes have been achieved, and there is a great deal of momentum toward open access.

Here’s a few examples of success:

In 2008 the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — by far the world’s largest funding agency, with a $30+ billion dollar a year budget — adopted a policy requiring that all NIH-funded research be made openly accessible within 12 months of publication. See here for more.

All 7 UK Research Councils have adopted similar open access policies requiring researchers they fund to make their work openly accessible.

Many universities have adopted open access policies. Examples include: Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, MIT, and Princeton.

As a result of policies like these, in years to come you should see more and more freely downloadable papers showing up in search results.

Note that there are a lot of differences of detail in the different policies, and those details can make a big difference to the practical impact of the policies. I won’t try to summarize all the nuances here, I’m merely pointing out that there is a lot of institutional movement.

Many more pointers to open access policies may be found at ROARMAP. That site notes 52 open access policies from grant agencies, and 135 from academic institutions.

There’s obviously still a long way to go before there is universal open access to publicly-funded research, but there has been a lot of progress, and a lot of momentum.

One thing that I hope will happen is that the US Federal Research Public Access Act passes. First proposed in 2006 (and again in 2010), this Act would essentially extend the NIH policy to all US Government-funded research (from agencies with budgets over 100 million). My understanding is that at present the Act is tied up in committee.

Despite (or because of) this progress, there is considerable pushback on the open access movement from some scientific publishers. As just one instance, in 2007 some large publishers hired a very aggressive PR firm to wage a campaign to publicly discredit open access.

I will not be surprised if this pushback escalates.

What can hackers do to help out?

One great thing to do is start a startup in this space. Startups (and former startups) like Mendeley, ChemSpider, BioMedCentral, PLoS and others have had a big impact over the past ten or so years, but there’s even bigger opportunities for hackers to really redefine scientific publishing. Ideas like text mining, recommender systems, open access to data, automated inference, and many others can be pushed much, much further.

I’ve written about this in the following essay: Is Scientific Publishing About to be Disrupted? Many of those ideas are developed in much greater depth in my book on open science, Reinventing Discovery.

For less technical (and less time-consuming!) ways of getting involved, you may want to subscribe to the RSS feed at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access. This organization was crucial in helping get the NIH open access policy passed, and they’re helping do the same for the Federal Public Research Access Act, as well as other open access efforts.

If you want to know more, the best single resource I know is Peter Suber’s website.

Suber has, for example, written an extremely informative introduction to open access. His still-active Open Access Newsletter is a goldmine of information, as is his (no longer active) blog. He also runs the open access tracking project.

If you got this far, thanks for reading! Corrections are welcome.


  1. I followed your link to Elsevier’s results and noticed the following explanation of their revenue:

    ҉ۢ Strong growth in electronic clinical reference, clinical decision support and nursing and health professional education; Continued weakness in pharma promotion
    • Solid science journal subscription renewals from 2008 supported 2009 revenue growth”

    I see at least 5 different revenue sources there, of which only 1 is journal related. I’ve always been curious about just what it costs to produce a journal, but it’s not clear to me that the high level figures you quote are really meaningful estimates of their margin on journals.

    Does anyone know of a more accurate number for this?

  2. I just watched your Ted-Waterloo video: thanks.
    I like your point. But, as you mentioned, we are dealing with a VERY entrenched and old culture, which includes a particular way of building and maintaining one’s reputation, as well as a particular way of playing scientific politics.

    I believe we need new kinds of more interactive scientific journals, with the shorter papers, immediately followed by discussions. Of course, the papers should still be reviewed (within several days) based on the competence of the authors.

    I can see two kinds of such journals: 1) radical basic ideas and 2) technical developments. At present, we desperately need the first kind. Have you heard anything about such undertakings?

  3. I also would be interested in your take on the AMS Notices article to which David Ketcheson pointed you. It strikes me as mostly right, especially as the invitations to publish in Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), Hindawi Publishing Corporation and InTech books and journals increasingly clog my inbox.

  4. Great post. Open access is certainly a step in the right direction towards open science. However, reinventing what we deem a scholarly contribution is also another alternative. Incentives and cultural change from within the academic community are also critical. I recently wrote a short piece on incentives for peer review but it seems to me a viable solution to the referee crisis we face is to either remove referees, replace publications altogether, or remove publishers from the process. The article is entitle Money for nothing and referees for free and I wrote this without a full grasp of the scope of the profits even, thanks.

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