Journals: The Cost of Free Access

Faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unanimously passed the MIT Faculty Open-Access Policy on March 18. With its passage, MIT became the first university to make all research papers written by its faculty available to the public for free.

MIT’s move comes after Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Law School and Stanford’s School of Education adopted open access policies last year. The National Institute of Health (NIH), a behemoth in health and biomedical sciences research, also adopted in December an open access policy for research that receives public funding through the NIH.

Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering who headed the Open Access campaign at MIT, stated that the policy allows researchers to fulfill best our obligation as scholars in the journalistic arena that he feels is a system that has gotten screwed up.

He noted that while the ad-hoc committee that worked on the policy was only formed last year, the movement for open access itself has been gaining momentum for over a decade. In recent years, open access campaigns have been spurred by rising journal prices and the desire for more freedom to, as the MIT policy put it, disseminate the fruits of research and scholarship as widely as possible.

Journal prices have been increasing at several times the rate of inflation. Statistics complied by the Association of Research Libraries show that journal and other serial expenditures have increased by 340 percent since 1986. To put this into perspective, monograph, or book, expenditures have increased by a much smaller 87 percent in the same time period.

This increase in prices has, according to Lorelei Tanji, UCI’s Assistant University Librarian for Collections, made it increasingly difficult for libraries to afford the journals that researchers and student use. Libraries around the United States, including the UCs, have been forced to cut the less-used titles in their collection.

Tanji pointed out that part of the problem is that authors are often unknowledgeable about their rights.

“[Often] people are so focused on publishing that they don’t always read what they are signing. Sometimes authors are also afraid to change the [release] form because they are worried of not being published. So they may just sign away their rights,” Tanji said.

In the past, this meant that some researchers would sign an agreement only to find out later that they couldn’t freely use the material in their classrooms or post it onto online repositories.

However, Tanji believes that things have changed in publishing. Many publishers are now willing to amend their agreements to allow authors much more control over their work.

John Tagler is the former vice president of Elsevier, the largest journal publisher and owner of the Lancet and LexisNexis, among others. After 30 years at Elsevier, Tagler left the publisher to serve as vice president and executive director of the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division. He agreed with Tanji’s assessment that publishers are now more willing to accommodate authors.

However, Tagler refused to answer specific questions about Elsevier, whose profits rose by about 30 percent last year. Instead, he insisted that it is impossible to make general statements about journal publishers because not all publishers are the same. There are publishers like Elsevier, a commercially owned and publically traded company; comprising about 65 percent of the industry, they are responsible for a decent return on investment for their investors, a point that MIT Professor Abelson acknowledges. The balance is made up of a mix of university, society and non-profit-run journals.

Tagler questioned whether MIT’s policy is really an open-access policy.

“The term is bandied around too often. Open Access is a model, MIT’s policy is a repository,” Tagler said.

According to Tagler, supporters of open access are seduced by the concept, but most have not thought it through.

Tagler insisted that advocates of open access forget that publishers fulfill the basic function of validation and certification. They set up the infrastructure and the peer review panels that assure the public’s trust in research results.

Tagler explained the reason behind rising prices as being that the number of journals has increased.

There are more articles, including many that don’t make it to publication, that need to be put through the review process. He also blames the financial difficulty faced by many libraries on their stagnant budgets.

However, in a study published on First Monday, a peer-reviewed open-access Internet journal published by the University of Illinois, author Roger Clarke found that for-profit publishing is inherently more expensive than their counterparts.

“Their much greater investment in branding, customer relationship management and content protection [makes them expensive],” Clarke said.

Few proponents of open access, including Tanji and Stephen Bondy, UCI’s representative on the UC Committee on Libraries and Scholarly Communication, believe that open-access journals can or even should realistically replace traditional publishers. They accept that traditional publishers have something important to offer and that the open-access model is far from perfect. However, they believe that there needs to be an alternative available for authors to use and that the consumer of journal articles would benefit from more competition in the market.

The last system-wide effort to adopt an open access policy at the University of California happened in 2007. The proposed policy was similar to the one adopted by MIT. After going through eight draft forms, the policy was abandoned due to academic senate concerns. Many members of the academic senate, which represents the interests of UC faculty, supported the principle of the policy but were concerned over the implementation. Eventually, UCI, along with several other UCs, adopted a non-binding Joint Resolution on Scholarly Communication and Faculty Copyrights that encouraged faculty to utilize and explore alternative modes of managing copyrights and publishing, preserving, and disseminating information that allow broad access.

An Academic Senate report on the proposed system-wide policy documents concerns from UCI, UC Santa Barbara and the Committee on Planning Budget over possible delays in publication and the possibility of fewer publishing options and opportunities. Another major concern was that the opt-out provision would be too burdensome for the author to use.

Daniel Greenstein, the vice provost of Strategic Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination, attributed the policy’s failure to pass to the fact that the policy’s supporters failed on the public relations front. Although he was quick to point out that it was nobody’s fault, Greenstein acknowledged that more could have been done to answer faculty concerns. He pointed out that other institutions that have adopted some sort of open access policy, including MIT and departments at Stanford and Harvard, were much smaller than the UCs. They have fewer people to convince.

Abelson, the MIT professor, put it more bluntly.

“Like anything else [adopting open access policy],” Abelson said, “faculty live somewhere in the stone age … they have tunnel vision and it takes strong leadership to get them to do anything.”

Greenstein believes that the UCs will get another chance to consider a binding open access policy in the near future. Although he believes that passing a binding open access policy will actually move the needle, it will be difficult, Greenstein insists for the UC to bring this idea to the forefront.