Why Open Access Has To Look Up For Academic Publishing To Look Up

In an important development, the US Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against the India-based OMICS group for harassing authors to publish in its journals

Cutting the open access cake and eating it, too. Credit: slubdresden/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Cutting the open access cake and eating it, too. Credit: slubdresden/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“…if you are a member of the knowledge elite, then there is free access, but for the rest of the world, not so much … Publisher restrictions do not achieve the objective of enlightenment, but rather the reality of ‘elite-nment.” Lawrence Lessig

In 2011, speaking impassionately to an audience at CERN – one of the world’s largest institutions for nuclear physics research, headquartered in Geneva – Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard Law School and a political activist, highlighted the crisis of access to scientific scholarship. Indeed, over the last six decades, public access to scholarly works has diminished. Works that can be freely searched and read represent only a sliver of the entire wealth of human knowledge.

With the emergence of academic journals in the seventeenth century, the practice of exchanging manuscripts for review and comments became popular, leading to the establishment of the peer-review system. In fact, until the eighteenth century, there existed a strong belief in the intellectual commons and traditions of sharing knowledge between scholars. These traditions dated back to scholarship flourishing in ancient Greece. Open access was the default, and not the exception to the norm.

However, by the nineteenth century, there occurred a game-changing shift in the approach to knowledge production. It was theorised that the commons approach was inefficient and that knowledge needed to be exclusively owned to spur further production. This was in line with the incentive theory of copyright law, which was an added justification to the commoditisation of knowledge. In such circumstances, all scholarly works increasingly came to be fortified within the expensive walls of academic journals. Journals left no stone unturned to capitalise on scholars vying to get published in prestigious titles (Nature, Lancet, Cell, etc.).

The business model rarely rewarded authors or peer reviewers. On the contrary, some journals required authors to pay a considerable fee to publish their work. Subscription charges to such research, a large part of which was funded by the government (i.e. taxpayers), hit the roof and could be afforded only by elite institutions. And with the advent of the digital age, the fortresses moved online.

However, before the internet arrived, there had been efforts to counter the entrenchment of scholarly works. They were mostly in the nature of social movements, located broadly within the philosophical umbrella of openness. The nineties marked a significant increase in the modes of access, through devices connected to the internet. Previously a fringe movement, openness was now entering the realms of publishing, software, standards development, education and data. It manifested in Linux, Wikipedia, open web standards, open educational resources, open government data, Creative Commons and, particularly, open access publishing. Just last month, a UN report called for open access to research to improve public health.

Open access publishing was a breakaway from the traditional scholarly publishing model. It offered a different model of online research publication informed by the principles of transparency, free access and unrestricted access. Three key definitions exist, and the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002) provides a good overview of it:

There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature. By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Further, open access is compatible with copyright, peer review, revenue (even profit), print, preservation, prestige, quality, career-advancement, indexing, and other features and supportive services associated with conventional scholarly literature (as Peter Suber wrote in 2004). The model broadly offers two routes: gold and green. Gold open access involves publication in an open access journal. The journal provides for peer-review, retention of copyright by the author and in most cases requires author-side fees. Green open access involves publishing a work in an online repository, with/without peer-review. The models have several variations, and adoption often depends on their suitability for a particular discipline. Many institutions now have an Open Access Mandate policy.

Latest challenges to open access publishing

For a 15-year-old movement (formally), open access publishing is making a serious dent in the market for scholarly publications. It has emerged as a formidable competitor to the traditional model. How else do you explain the unfortunate acquisition of SSRN – one of the largest online open access repositories – by the largest publisher of academic journals, Elsevier, earlier this year? Where, within a few days of Elsevier gaining control, users began to notice problematic takedowns of articles on SSRN.

The acquisition was a severe blow to open access publishing. To be fair, there remain certain issues intrinsic to open access publishing models that need urgent resolution. For instance, while some open access journals provide high quality services at levels comparable to that of paywalled journals, a large majority has been unable to reach reasonable standards of publication.

Further, as it has emerged lately, many are yet to crack the business model while a few are driven by malicious attempts to con authors. Most commercial open access publishers have resorted to a system of levying from the authors an article-processing charge (APC). These publishers include large players such as the Public Library of Science journals and BioMed Central. APCs are justified as necessary costs for publication. Thus, sometimes they are reasonably applied only to peer-reviewed submissions. However, sometimes they are blatantly misused by publishers who quote exorbitant APCs. As a result, APCs have become a serious concern for the academic community, with the reentry of an undesirable price barrier which has shifted the burden from the reader to the author.

In one noteworthy development, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a complaint against the OMICS group for deceiving authors and misrepresenting its editorial quality. The OMICS group has its roots in Hyderabad and runs a multitude of open access journals. It carried a notorious reputation for soliciting articles profusely, and then holding the articles hostage unless the authors paid hefty fees for their publication. It apparently charged the fees for conducting peer-review, which as this harrowing account of an author reveals, was an utter sham. It also seems that the group targeted unsuspecting scholars from developing countries, where there was a higher concentration of early-career researchers eager to get their works published.

Holding articles hostage and releasing unchecked versions must have already caused irreparable damage to several researchers’ reputations. In this day of web-caching and -indexing facilities, one wonders if the researchers will ever be able to obliterate linkages to their unchecked manuscripts. Further, in the long run, this phenomenon will ruin or suppress promising careers – especially from developing countries. As a result, the present lack of diversity in top-rung academia may not be eliminated for a long time.

Such harmful, predatory practices have not escaped the FTC’s notice, and it has stated that it will pursue cases of similar nature to protect authors and consumers. This is the first time in the world when a governmental authority has taken cognisance of predatory practices in OA publishing. This will hopefully lead to an appropriate cleansing effect of the players in this field, and enhance the credibility of open access journals.

Thus, self-regulation and standard-setting remains an area for improvisation in the open access publishing community. At the cusp of the movement, proposed structures were mired in legal and economic arguments. It is yet to overcome the challenge of economic sustainability and mature into a stable as well as replicable business model. The movement will be celebrating the Open Access Week for the ninth year later this month. It has gifted scholars immeasurably and lent itself to the progress of science and arts. Here’s hoping the community will iron out the remaining challenges to further strengthen the movement soon.

Anubha Sinha is a lawyer, and works on issues of openness and access to knowledge at the Centre for Internet and Society, Delhi.