The Battle for Open Access in Academic Publishing

Cover Image: The Daily Californian

Scholarly publishing, conceived in 1665, was created to allow widespread access to research between members of the scientific community. This service ultimately sought to globalize scientific discovery, avoid redundant research, and establish a system of peer review. At the time, publishers charged a fee to readers in order to recoup costs; printing, publishing, and distribution were capital-intensive processes. However, when the internet exploded in the early 1990s, the publication process was rapidly converted to an electronic workflow, cutting much of the expense previously associated with publication. Yet, fees continued to soar. For-profit scholarly publishers currently see profit margins as high as 40% — the largest by far in the broader publishing industry. Publishers maintain this kind of revenue by keeping journal articles locked behind a paywall — a practice that is toxic for both science and society. Open access publication, which publishes all articles online and free of charge, offers an alternative to the exploitative nature of for-profit publishing, allowing for greater collaboration in the scientific community and improved integration of science into society.

For-profit publishers and their proponents would argue that for-profit venues are essential to the scientific process because they filter out less significant findings via their selection process, and attach worth to the studies they publish through their respective “impact factors.” The impact factor (IF) is an indicator of the prestige and selectivity of a journal; findings accepted by high impact publications are associated with higher worth (Nature has an IF of 41.577, whereas Molecular Imaging has an IF of 1.414). Thus, these renowned for-profit journals argue that they are necessary in order to signal to readers the comparative value of different findings. However, this system of value signaling reinforces the misconception that quality is equivalent to what journals deem “high impact.” When journals select the pieces they would like to publish, they look for novel and sensational results — not just good methodology and reliability. This emphasis makes sense, as interesting articles lead to higher viewership and broader global interest. Yet, it is detrimental to science, as it leads to many important, but perhaps unexciting, studies going unpublished. One systematic review of clinical trials found that positive results (results that confirm the hypothesis) were twice as likely to be published as negative results, demonstrating publishers’ bias towards sensationalism. This lack of publication creates a research vacuum that exacerbates the pressing issue of duplicate research. Duplicate research occurs when scientists carry out experiments and studies that have previously been done. This process wastes resources, time, and brainpower coming to conclusions that had already been drawn. When research is not made accessible, there is greater risk for redundancy and consequently, delayed innovation and squandered assets.

But could open access really alleviate this problem? After all, open access addresses solely the output side of the publication process, whereas the research vacuum created by biased publication represents a problem with the input side, i.e. the selection process. Nonetheless, by removing the profit incentive that fuels biased publication, open access has the potential to reduce the partiality towards sensationalism seen today. Minimizing this tendency would ultimately lead to more equitable publication practices, addressing the research vacuum and lessening the proclivity for duplicate research.

While biased publication is problematic, the broader harms of for-profit publishing lie with the cost barrier to consumers of science. When research is kept behind a paywall, it disrupts scientific progress by reducing access of smaller, less well funded institutions to academic publications. Lack of access is especially problematic for small, research-driven businesses, under-funded laboratories, and university research facilities. Even large, prestigious research institutions have struggled to meet the costs of journal subscriptions. In fact, in 2012, the cost of subscriptions rose so high that the Harvard Library released a memorandum stating that academic publishers “made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.” When academics are denied open access to research, it prevents members of the scientific community from effectively building on each other's work and also from confirming the results of others in their field. This barrier leads to redundancy, lack of reproducibility, wasted resources, and delayed progress. It is imperative that this cost barrier is removed in order to encourage production of rapid and thorough results. When Harvard faced its budgetary crisis, part of their solution was to publish all of their faculty’s findings open access, and encourage other institutions to follow suit. Open access removes the cost barrier and allows for unrestricted viewing of research publications, fostering better communication and collaboration between researchers across fields. Ultimately, this new dynamic would prevent redundant research, and provide academics the resources they need to best verify and add to what has already been done in their field.

For-profit scholarly publishing also has implications for society at large. For one, there is an obvious ethical dilemma lurking in the status quo. Nearly half of all research in the United States is funded by public dollars, and yet typically the public cannot access this research without paying a substantial fee. While open access does not force all people to read or care about academic research, it removes a barrier that has traditionally prevented specific groups of people from interacting with science. This barrier is particularly high for lower income people without access to libraries or well-funded educational institutions. Universities like Harvard, as discussed above, have massive library budgets, whereas community colleges tend to have much smaller operating budgets that cannot provide the same range or scope of scholarly resources. In removing the cost barrier, open access makes information distribution significantly more equitable, empowering less financially flexible institutions to offer a wider set of resources to their students and faculty. Open access also provides the opportunity for the public to engage with society in a new dynamic. Science policy, citizen science, education, and even local, community-based issues can all be viewed under a new, better informed lens when research is not locked behind a paywall.

As the world becomes increasingly technology dependent, it becomes significantly more important that there exists a free-flowing exchange of ideas within the scientific community, but also within society more broadly. Currently, for-profit scholarly publishing remains a hindrance to that goal. That being said, open access publication will not singlehandedly ensure that the general population is engaged with the scientific challenges that face us today. However, it represents an important step in treating access to scientific knowledge as a fundamental human right, indispensable to informed civic engagement, and a feature of global equality.