As recently as five days ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation organized an Open Access day (as a part of Copyright Week). On this occasion, EFF activist, Adi Kamdar, wrote “In the Open Access Fight, Big Publishers Are the Biggest Hurdle”. Generally speaking, Kamdar claimed that Open Access is against the interests of leading publishers. There is some truth in this, as we could see from the recent example of Elsevier’s campaign against Academia.edu. Traditional publishers (both small and large) earn money from subscriptions and are interested in safeguarding restrictive copyrights, which translate into their profits. However, this is obviously still only part of the truth. All of major publishers (including Elsevier) have already launched open access journals and book series and they search for opportunities to generate revenues in that market (have a look here). The joy of being an Open Access supporter comes not only from the fight, but also from the fact that this promised land is slowly becoming a reality. Indeed, big publishers who promote Open Access are interested in efficient OA models and support technical innovations in the field.
They do so because there is a growing demand for Open Access. Funding agencies, states, universities and academic associations are ready to pay processing charges for books and articles (you can find some information on the blog about the growing sources of funding for OA publishing, and I will discuss them further in my next entries). Moreover, big publishers have to become active players in Open Access to maintain leading positions in the publishing market in general. While their position in journal subscriptions was very stable, Open Access creates a new field of competition and brings to life opportunities for new companies to gain a significant market share. That competitive drive of for-profit organizations will certainly stimulate Open Access.
Obviously there are some obstacles ahead and the transitional period might be difficult. As I mentioned previously, switching a journal to an Open Access model is an intricate and sometimes even risky process. At the push of a button, the publisher has to start charging authors or the journal owners, who are not especially used to covering the entire costs of publication. Especially in the author- pays model, where there is a risk of confronting people with unexpected costs. Although recent news confirmed that switching to OA has positive effects on journals’ Impact Factor, it is worth remembering that the difficulties which I mentioned are not unimportant for OA growth. I will write more in the next few weeks on the practical issues in switching journals to OA model.
Finally, I think that biggest harm to Open Access was not done by Elsevier and its take-down campaign, but by untrustworthy Open Access publishers. That is, the biggest impediment to OA growth is not leading companies, but charlatans. As John Bohannon’s case has shown, people are worried about the quality of science published in the author-pays model. I am not taking into account the credibility of Bohannon’s actions because I believe that idea behind it is more important that the methodology. Indeed, a traditional publisher has no business publishing hoax articles, since the journal is supported by subscribers who are interested in the quality of the information they buy (in fact this system is not working perfectly, but theoretically it looks fine). In the author-pays model things are not so clear either. That is why grass root pressure on publishers seems to me inevitable and is probably the best way to increase the credibility of their output. That is why we, as advocates of Open Access, should thank people like Jeffrey Beall and John Bohannon for their work in tracking fraudsters. And as authors, we should choose our publisher carefully, paying attention to its reputation. We should also cooperate with credible editorial boards and not resubmit our work to less selective journal in case of rejection. Probably, fraud reduction will be the most efficient way to promote the idea we believe in.