KU scholars call for end to 'parasitic models' of publishing

Friday, August 15, 2014

LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas has been at the forefront of the open-access movement, an international effort aiming to ensure that peer-reviewed journal articles are available to all, not just those who can afford subscriptions. Three KU authors have published a new article and provided early comments on a white paper calling for the end of “parasitic models” of publishing and describing a phased approach toward a practical dissemination model that would make scholarship open and free.

Traditionally, the cost of accessing academic journals has fallen to the universities in the form of subscription fees. With growing interest in models of scholarly publishing where the contents are “open” without subscriptions, open-access journal publishing is beginning to demonstrate its viability as a model, with different business models supporting it. While those subscription fees still exist for traditional journals, the new costs of running an open-access publishing system are shifting increasingly to authors, who are often required to pay up to $3,000 or more to publish in the most prestigious open-access journals. Town Peterson, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Ada Emmett, associate librarian for scholarly communication; and Marc Greenberg, professor of Slavic languages and literatures, are among the leaders of a shift to a truly open-access system, where scholarship is open to anyone who wants to access it, not just those with money or subscriptions.

“The future is open access. But how that gets played out is in question,” Emmett said. “There is an attempt to shift the cost of publishing from the reader to the author. That’s inadequate for many reasons. We don’t want to right one wrong by creating another wrong.”

The authors published their study in the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication (available openly from the publisher here). The article grew out of an ongoing conversation among the three about how they could best apply their efforts, as an interdisciplinary group of scholars, to advancing open access in scholarly communication. For their most recent project, they decided to assemble a group of colleagues from around the world to contemplate barriers to open access in their countries and academic systems. They discovered that while author fees were the largest obstacle, there were additional hurdles. Psychological barriers to publishing in open-access journals were relevant as well. Some scholars from less wealthy countries or institutions, knowing they would have to apply for a publication fee waiver, which carries with it some degree of indignity, didn’t submit their manuscripts.

The researchers also documented experiences where colleagues had to travel to other countries at their own time and expense to access facilities and resources published in traditional and closed-access journals to perform their research. Others reported that while some journals claim they will waive fees for authors from certain countries, they had applied and been given only a 10 percent discount.

The issue of money can’t be ignored, however. Peterson cited a colleague working in Cuba who earns less than $1,000 a year, less than the average cost of an author processing charge for publishing in open access journals that leverage such fees. Some scholars in other countries only earn per month about 25 percent of the cost of publishing one article in a for-profit open-access journal, whose fees for open access can run to $3,000. Compounding the problem, some nations require their faculty members to publish in the so-called “elite” or “top 10” journals to receive promotion or tenure. Those elite journals may be closed access — therefore with limited readership — or open access, but with high author fees.  Some universities such as KU have funds to help authors defray such costs, but many more, including small schools and those not located in wealthy nations, do not.

Greenberg, Peterson and Emmett argue that, just as Ivy Leagues and elite universities should not have exclusive control of scholarship, neither should a select few institutions control how open access is developed and instituted in the future. That goal has led them to seek input from researchers across the country and globe.

“We’ve found that there are all sorts of bottlenecks in the system. We’re hoping to help level the playing field for all,” Greenberg said.

The KU authors’ concerns and efforts tie into national efforts to design a funding model for openly accessible scholarship where neither readers nor authors need to pay. A white paper, available online, is under development that describes the need and a framework for the establishment of a universal fund to help implement true open access for scholarship, with an initial focus on the humanities and social sciences, disciplines that have had greater difficulty adopting open-access practices in their publishing venues. The group behind the white paper has organized a board of directors, on which KU’s Dean of Libraries, Lorraine Haricombe, also a strong national and internationally known advocate for open access, serves as chair. The fund would start with scalable payments from universities predominantly from the U.S. and Europe. While the payments would be relatively small, taken together, they could create a sizable fund that could cover costs associated with scholarly journal publishing.

“The payment is modest relative to the overall budget of most institutions, but, when spread broadly across all institutions, results in a sum substantial enough to sustain a vibrant and open scholarly communication environment,” the authors wrote.

Such a fund would help transition to an open-access system that is not driven by profits for publishers and does not require wealth to participate. The current system allows commercial publishers that offer “hybrid” open access to “double dip” by both charging universities for subscriptions and charging authors to be able to publish their one article as “open" in an otherwise subscription-only access journal. Add to this the free services that commercial publishers get from faculty volunteers in terms of time spent as editors and reviewers. In addition, public money is often part of funding for research projects, access to which can be blocked by exorbitant costs.

“That is a huge discredit to the rather noble idea that research and knowledge should be open and available for all,” Peterson said.

While publishers often argue that switching to open access would put them out of business, the KU authors argue that even in the face of the National Institutes of Health’s open access policy, there is no evidence that any for-profit journals have had to cease operation. Peterson likens the situation to Lawrence, Kansas, restaurant and bar owners who fought bitterly against smoking bans. Many argued that they would be harmed financially if they weren’t able to allow smoking, but after bans passed none have proven that a ban was a reason they closed.

KU was the first public institution to enact a policy (http://policy.ku.edu/governance/open-access-policy) that all faculty-produced journal articles should be available in an open access repository. KU faculty and librarians also helped to lead the formation of the Coalition of Open Access Policy Institutions, which started with more than 20 universities, including Harvard University, Duke University and Concordia University in Montreal. It has since grown to include 62 North American institutions. Haricombe serves on several national and international boards and advisory committees related to open-access efforts, and she is chair of the steering committee for SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

A recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education described the open-access movement, and the COAPI group in particular, as “termite change.” The term refers to change that proceeds almost undetected from without, but fundamentally transforms the system from within. As William Allen White famously said, “When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.”

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Research News