art designer at PLoS, I converted a pdf into svg / CC BY-SA

March 9, 2020; Science Magazine

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every public service must struggle to find a way to cover the costs of public goods.

One area experimenting with cost models over the past few years is academic publishing. The burgeoning movement for open access to scholarly research has caused many in the industry to reexamine their business models in an effort to shift millions of dollars to align with more democratic publishing principles.

Let’s start at the beginning. As Marian Conway explained last year, it used to be that university libraries would subscribe to an academic journal and receive a paper copy that anyone could come in and read. With the advent of digital publishing, libraries paid for online subscriptions; anyone with a login can read an online journal, which opens access to those with university accounts but excludes others.

It sounds similar to a newspaper subscription, but there are some key differences. One is the cost: whereas a newspaper subscription might cost $10/month or $100/year, academic subscription bundles cost universities millions. Until 2019, the University of California system paid $10 million annually to a single publisher, Elsevier, which owns about 2,500 journals. (That sounds like a lot, and Elsevier is an industry giant, but universities usually need to subscribe to several publishers.)

The other big difference is the production model. While a newspaper hires editors and reporters and pays for other data reporting tools, publishers don’t foot the cost of academic research; universities and grant offices do. Academics raise money, conduct research, and submit their papers to journals. Each journal sends the papers it receives for peer review by other scholars in the field, who often review for free. Then, when the paper comes out, academics pay again to have access to that research. The publisher owns the copyright, and either the institution or the publisher usually owns the code or data tools used to conduct the research.

Understandably, many scholars, institutions, activists, and others have concluded this model is unfair. It also retards research; scientists studying ALS and Alzheimer’s, for example, realized that research goes a lot faster if you don’t have to duplicate someone else’s negative results. The matter gets more complicated for public universities, with research budgets funded by taxpayers who then don’t have access to the end product. Hence the burgeoning movement for open access.

Open access has some powerful advocates: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, requires that all foundation-funded research be accessible. The University of California system ended its contract with Elsevier because they couldn’t agree on a contract that would combine subscription and publishing fees to support more open access. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is currently seeking input on an updated executive order concerning open access publishing. (Since 2013, all federally funded research is required to be open access after a 12-month embargo period. The executive order in question would eliminate that embargo.)

But even though open access has some big advocates and solid arguments on its side, it doesn’t have an agreed-upon business model. Academic publishing costs money and who should pay remains in dispute. (This is not to deny that current subscription costs are inflated; profit margins in this business can reach 40 percent.)

The University of California Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication published a Declaration of the Rights and Principles to Transform Scholarly Communication, laying out 18 principles that university researchers believe are essential components of open access contracts. Michael Clarke, managing partner of the consulting firm Clarke & Esposito, which advises publishers, said, “There is not currently a good solution.”

One common model is to charge academics to publish their papers. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) signed a two-year deal with the University of California last month, whereby university libraries will pay the first $1,000 of the fee to publish in a PLoS journal. All PLoS content is open access, but the publishing fees can reach $6,000. A few universities, the Gates Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health cover these fees for their researchers, but otherwise that money comes out of grant budgets.

Annual Reviews (AR), which publishes several dozen journals, chose a different way. Their model, “Subscribe to Open,” uses existing library relationships and subscription purchases to convert gated journals to open access. Institutions simply continue to subscribe—there are no additional processes—and as long as subscription revenues are maintained, the year’s volume is published open access and the back volumes made freely available.

AR is a nonprofit that operates pretty much at cost, and they hope that big subscription fees from universities that publish a lot can float open access for everyone else. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has sponsored a pilot with five popular journals, and subscriptions increased over 500 percent in two years.

Siloed, closed-access research violates a number of common-sense principles: it keeps the public from using what they’ve paid for, it slows the pace of research, and it treats human knowledge as the purview of a privileged few. The democratic stakes are high to get the business model right to sustain open access for all.—Erin Rubin

Correction: This newswire has been altered from its initial form to better reflect how “Subscribe to Open” works. We thank Annual Reviews for the information.