The conventional wisdom among experts is that open access (OA) publication is better in all respects: Publications are not hidden behind paywalls, authors get more citations for their work, and results of publicly funded research are available to the public. This has been widely known for over 12 years, but not much has been happening. Some actors are frustrated, such as Ralf Schimmer, vice-director of the Max Planck Society’s MPDL: He notes that despite all the pro-OA activities at universities and science organizations, the open access movement is stagnating. While one sixth of all publications is open access by open access, the clear majority for subscription seems to be stable.
What explains this strange stability, which defies the politicians’ hopes and the experts’ recommendations? The OA experts do not seem to be interested in finding out.
But the explanation is easy: The main actors are not suffering, so they have no particular incentive to change it. Publishers make good profits with their subscription model, and scientists depend on the publishers for their careers, because the publishers own the prestigious labels. The scientists know that open access is better in principle, but their careers (and funding prospects) are more important, and they manage to access the most relevant research via para-publication channels (personal connections, Academia.edu, etc.)
Politicians would like to push scientists more, but they don’t want to damage their work, so they stop short of resorting to drastic measures (such as not counting paywalled publications for universities’ assessment). What they do instead (at least in the UK) is throw even more money at the commercial publishers, in order to foster Gold open access. Ralf Schimmer of the MPDL has examined all the figures and concludes: If the whole world switched to open access in one go, the end result would not be more expensive: “There is already enough money in the system.”
This sounds incredible – science publication is one of the most profitable businesses on earth, and we should not expect to save money by getting rid of all subscriptions?
In my view, it takes just a little economics thinking to understand why the huge costs arise: There is no market. This makes science publication similar to drug trafficking: When you depend on your dealer, he can charge you any price, and you are willing to pay. If Nature accepts an article by me and charges me €10,000 in APCs (author processing charges), I will pay, if necessary out of my own pocket. The payoff for my career is bound to be much higher. Nature has no competitor – it is a classical monopolist.
Thus, to reduce the costs, and transition to a reasonable publication system, we need to break the dependency on our dealers. We depend on them because most of the most prestigious labels (“Nature”, “Cell”, “Cognition”, “Physics Reports”) are owned by them. And if we are mid-tier scientists who publish good stuff and aim for mid-tier journals, these too are generally owned privately, or by academic societies who rely on members’ dues and struggle to make ends meet.
But we can do good science only if our funders give us freedom. They build us nice campuses and buy us good machines, they pay us decent salaries, reimburse our conference travel costs and give us freedom to choose our research topics. True scientific advances would be impossible without these privileges of scientific freedom. But there is one area where we are not free, because of a historically grown dependence on the commercial publishers: our publication outlets.
Imagine a world where most university campuses are owned by private property companies who rent them out to researchers and students. There is a limited number of prestigious campuses, and you have to be on one of them to be taken seriously by your peers. If you’re outside of the system, you don’t count. Given such a system, governments and charities would have to spend a huge amount on property, and prices would rise and rise. This would be like the Tokyo real estate market, on a global scale. Owning such a campus is like a licence to print money.
With regard to publication, we live in such dystopian world. Prices are rising and rising because there is a limited number of prestigious labels, plus a large number of labels just below them that obey the same laws.
These problems result from a basic error: Thinking that the entire publication process is a service to the researchers, whereas in fact publication is an integral part of the scientific process. It is only technical aspects such as typesetting and hosting that can be done by external service providers.
The solution is thus not that difficult: Create new prestigious labels that belong to us, the scientists, to give us freedom of publication. Publication labels are actually even more important to us than our campuses, and even more intrinsically connected to our careers and to our research environment. There are many ingredients of our research activities that could be outsourced to some private company: building a telescope, feeding the lab mice, cleaning the office. You don’t need a scientist to do these things, and if a private company offers poor service, it can easily be replaced by another company. But publication cannot be outsourced.
To change the current system, science funders would need to create a few high-prestige journals (say, 20 or 30 for a start) and pay for them just as they pay for their staff and their buildings. Readers and authors would pay nothing – these would be diamond open access journals. The funders would benefit from these expenses in the same way as they benefit now from successful research: by increasing their prestige. There could be a “Max Planck Journal of Solar Physics”, or a “Stanford Journal of Genetics”, or a “Tokyo University Journal of Asian History”, or a “Wellcome Trust Journal of Medicine”. Institutions would invest in such journals just as they invest in scientists and in longer-term projects: They would guarantee funding for a 20-year period, and then possibly close a journal if it doesn’t live up to its expectations. Thus, journal editors would have the same incentives to make their journals more prestigious, but the fruits of their efforts would remain within their academic institutions, and not reaped by private interests.
Once there are a number of well-known top-tier journals, mid-tier institutions would follow suit: There might be a “Warsaw Journal of Astrophysics”, a “Pennsylvania State Journal of Linguistics”, and a “Kwangju Journal of Computer Science”. All of these would be free of charge for authors and readers. Anyone could submit to these journals, though local authors would be discouraged from submitting papers to local journals. (Peer selection is more prestigious if your peers are further away.)
Is it ineffecient if publication is distributed in such a way across the world, rather than concentrated with a few big publishers? (As Ralf Schimmer notes: 20 big publishers account for 85% of the needs of Max Planck researchers.) No, because there is no reason why the publication-service providers should also be distributed. The universities’ publishing units (which could be housed in the library buildings, perhaps staffed by library staff) would rent the services of a service provider, who would look after technical things like servers, workflow solutions, DOIs, cross-ref services, typesetting. There need not be more than a handful of service-providing companies – as long as the publishers make sure that they can be easily replaced if the prices rise, there will not be any dependency and thus a functioning market. In fact, given their experience in this area, companies like Elsevier and Wiley may well be interested in this new market, even though it will not be nearly as profitable as the publication market.
What about the lowest tier? What about scientists whose work is not good enough to make it even into the mid-tier journals? Well, they still have the option of publishing with commercial publishers, and pay APCs. This is how it should be: Just as a scientist whose work is not good enough to get a scientist position will have to find other funding (maybe support from a spouse or a side job), an author whose publication does not find a place in a prestigious free journal will have to find extra funding for an author-pays publication (which is not as bad as a vanity publication, but simply not very good).
Since this new publication world would be market-based on the technical side, it would be far cheaper, and would free large amounts of money for research and academic teaching. And it can be created by very few actors: If Stanford, Max Planck and Tokyo University get together and start 30 journals, this should be sufficient to create the perception that the best research is free for authors and readers. In fact, a beginning has been made: The Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust have started the journal eLife. And there already exist a large number of diamond open access journals, which could be adopted by the research funders.
So this is what scholars want, and what the world needs: diamond open access for the best journals, funded in a stable way by science funders, with private companies providing lower-level technical services.