Try this thought experiment for a moment. Imagine you’re a budding author who has laboured for many long hours crafting what you believe is a masterful manuscript. You send it to a publisher who is very interested. They’re willing to publish your tour de force, but only under the following conditions: they will own the copyright, and while they will charge people who want to read your creation and reap all the profits that may ensue, you’ll receive no payment.
If it sounds like the worst deal on earth, it is. Yet, that’s precisely what’s happening in the academic publishing world. Academics, most of who are working in public or not-for-profit institutions, are churning out an avalanche of research papers every year. But when it comes time to publish, they turn over their work and their copyright to for-profit publishing companies who then sell those papers to libraries and others in the academic community for inflated subscription fees.
And just how much money is to be made by this one-sided arrangement? Elsevier, one of the giants in the industry, reported a whopping 37% net profit margin in 2015. That’s equivalent to Facebook, but more than Pfizer (14%), Apple (23%), or Citigroup (21%).
For years, many academics and higher education institutions have understandingly been unhappy with this state of affairs. And until recently, they didn’t have many choices. Today, however, many are embracing the idea of open access as a way to challenge the industry’s stranglehold on academic publishing.
Open access refers to the practice of authors voluntarily making their work freely available on the internet, and on other platforms, for any person to read and use. The concept of open access has its origin in three main manifestos: the Budapest Open Access Initiative of February 2002, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing in June 2003, and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities of October 2003.
The principle that animates the open access movement is that knowledge is a public good, and that everyone should have unrestricted, free access to scholarly research—much of which is publicly funded. Making the research publicly available to everyone—free of charge and without most copyright and licensing restrictions—will, proponents say, accelerate scientific research efforts and allow authors to reach a larger number of readers.
Of course, this movement poses a serious risk to publishers like Elsevier. So it’s not surprising that they’re fighting back. Elsevier, for instance, initially supported the Research Works Act, a U.S. Congressional bill that contained provisions to prohibit open-access mandates for federally funded research.
More recently, Elsevier came under fire in 2015 for a new hosting and sharing policy that would prevent authors from sharing their articles on open access platforms for up to 4 years. Because of this, 60 German academic institutions have decided to cancel their subscriptions to Elsevier’s journals in order to negotiate better open access provisions. This follows on the heels of a similar boycott by Dutch universities that resulted in a new deal on open access being negotiated with Elsevier.
At Education International’s Further and Higher Education and Research Conference last November, participants debated these issues and discussed a proposed policy on open access that will go to the EI Board meeting. The policy calls on EI affiliates to encourage members to voluntarily publish in open access journals and to understand the negative impact of publishing in, or serving as editors for, journals that do not support open access.
Educators and students can show their support for open access by taking part in Open Access Week this March 27-31. Events and activities are being organized on campuses around the globe to raise awareness about why research and education materials should be more freely shared and accessible.
The fundamental principle at stake in open access is that knowledge that is produced as a public good should be available to the public who paid for it.