Editorial: Open Access? Open Wallets!

Richard T. O'Grady

The “open access” model for free online access to scientific journals—wherein the costs of publication are paid for by published authors, not by subscribing libraries—continues to build momentum in the United States, driven in large part by the activities of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) (see, e.g., Science, vol. 302, no. 5645). Major libraries across the country, pressured by budget cuts affecting their collections management capacities, are embracing open access as the solution to the serials crisis. Nonprofit scientific society publishers are evaluating how far down the road from an institutional-subscription-based model and toward open access they can afford to go.

The true and full publication costs of a scientific journal published by a nonprofit society publisher, including staffing, peer review, editing, text formatting, distribution, overhead, and so on, can easily exceed $500 per page. These costs are reduced by only about 25 percent if no paper copies are produced. PLoS, arguing predominantly from within the context of biomedical research, holds that authors’ research grants should be used to pay publishers’ costs in an open access model. Regardless of research funding levels in the biomedical sciences, however, and regardless of the argument that publication in the peer-reviewed literature should be paid by the scientist’s funding sources, individual US grant awards in nonmedical areas of biology and in many other areas of the sciences typically include very little, if any, money for publication costs, and certainly not enough to support the author-pay system described above. Funding the cost of publication in this manner is not going to be possible unless and until the likes of the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and other funding agencies change their policies on allowable costs in their grants and convince Congress to increase the agencies’ budgets accordingly. Furthermore, the author-pay system would effectively prevent publication of the work of those scientists whose projects are not externally funded, are funded through sources that will not pay publication charges, or are funded at a low level.

There is more than enough work ahead for everyone concerned, including AIBS and BioOne, the latter being the online journals project through which AIBS works with the library community. Major funding agencies and Congress need to acknowledge the changing landscape in online scholarly publishing and the consequences of shrinking library budgets that groups such as PLoS are bringing to light; they need to ensure that the research they have funded gets published online in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. This will be especially important as the trend away from institutional subscriptions and toward author-pay open access continues. Libraries and those who oversee their funding need to realize that, as they agitate for author-pay open access, their current budgetary and subscription decisions may well threaten the ability of many nonprofit scientific societies to continue producing high-quality, low-price journals and to reconfigure those journals for the online publication that libraries want. And society publishers need to recognize that after hundreds of years, the business model of paying for publishing operations primarily by selling print subscriptions to institutional subscribers is quickly being changed beyond recognition.

RICHARD T. O’GRADY Executive Director, AIBS

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