Open access movement – from advocacy to policy to practice?
26 July 2012, by Mari Elken
Mari Elken is a Research Fellow at the Higher Education Development Association (Hedda), University of Oslo, Norway.
While the debate on open access is not new, the topic gained momentum earlier this year when Tim Gowers, a renowned Cambridge mathematician, wrote a blog entry about Elsevier and the practices of pricing and peer reviewing. Quickly picked up by a number of publications, including The Economist, Gowers' writing prompted a heated campaign and boycott against the publisher by academics world wide. More than 12,000 academics signed a petition to boycot all journals by Elsevier on the The Cost of Knowledge website and many prominent newspapers gave the topic a lot of coverage.
There are strong business interest in play. The Guardian reported that subscriptions to journals and publishers cost almost one-tenth of the basic operating costs of universities in the UK. Michael Taylor in his commentary in The Scientist gave some interesting numbers to back this. For example, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 37,3% in 2011 (over €950 million in revenue), far exceeding the profit margin percentages of, say, Apple. In essence, academic publishing is almost a risk free enterprise with huge profit margins to all of the three major actors – Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. However, as long as academia is dependent on reputation and publication indexes in high ranked journals, demand for their services will continue.
Despite this, only a small number of articles are currently published in open access journals. While there is reason to believe this situation is changing with an increasing number of open access journals being available, one questions whether reputation and focus on excellence champions other rationales. As long as career development, performance indicators and even institutional funding depend on publishing in highly ranked journals, it is a difficult cycle to break on the grass root level.
There are encouraging signs, however, that the open access movement has gained some support on the policy level. The EU programme Horizon 2020 made open access as its central aim, with about €80 billion available for funding to make open access "the norm”. In an article by the Times Higher Education, Stephen Curry, an open access advocate and Professor of Biology, quoted that ”this is part of a bigger and growing picture. If you see the funders falling into line and adopting consistent policies with each other, that sends a clear signal that this is just the way we do research”.
This Brussels-led development has also led to initiatives across Europe. In the UK, the minister for universities and science announced in May that there will be a greater emphasis on making publicly funded research available to the public while the Finch report published last month called for focus on open access as “it will bring substantial benefits both for researchers, and everyone who has an interest in the results of their work”. Another initiative around open access was the launch of a database-type of journal called the Social Sciences Directory, while others for medical and biological sciences have been around for some time. A number of advocates have also been working to put focus on the various types of open access such as the green and gold open access explained by Stevan Harnad on the Hedda blog.
However, at this point these initiatives do not (yet?) count for the bulk of research publication. While it may not be the ‘academic spring' suggested by a number of media outlets earlier in the year (borrowing from the 'Arab spring' reference given to the uprising in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries), the winds of change are blowing. The question is whether it will simply ‘blow over’ or maintain its momentum.
This is an edited article from the original post in the Hedda blog.