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The Open Access Conundrum - Budgets, Values and Agendas

Open Access

There’s a great scene in The Right Stuff where Chuck Yeager and several of the Mercury astronauts are having a drink at Pancho Barnes’s Happy Bottom Riding Club—the favorite hangout for the test pilots based in the Mohave. An Air Force liaison stops by to tell them about the need to get good press. Yeager, of course, blows him off. He has no time for journalists. “Them little root weevils that crawl around poppin’ off cameras in your face,” he says. But the Air Force man presses on, explaining that good press drives public opinion, public opinion drives public policy, and public policy decides who gets the money. He says, “You know what really makes your rocket ships go up? Funding. That’s what makes your ships go up. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Great scene, but what’s that got to do with Open Access? In a word, everything. Here’s why. The STM industry is driven by public funding just as much as the space program is. The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Everything costs money. It costs money to do the research. It costs money to prepare the paper. It costs money to make that paper ready for publication. It costs money to make the published paper available to readers. Open Access is no exception. The question is, who pays the costs?

 Now, there’s this idea that many researchers take the Open Access route in order to make their work as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. While that may be true for some, it’s really not the prevailing sentiment. This is actually the first of three disconnects that have gotten us into the current Open Access conundrum. The fact is academic researchers “don’t give a hang about them little root weevils” in the press who might actually help bring their research to wider audiences. The publishers care, but the authors don’t. In fact, the publishers care so much that they ask their contributors to make a case for publication not only on scientific grounds, but whether it would attract a “popular audience.” In other words, publishers are trying to get their authors to think in broader readership terms. But that’s just not in their fight plan.

It turns out that the highest values to the researcher are the very reasons why scholarly publishers exist. While many criticize the STM publishing model and its processes, what draws scientists en masse to their doorsteps are those very models and processes. If a researcher’s work can make the grade with a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal, then that equates to validation, that their science is on a firm footing. It’s a seal of approval, a recognition of good science worthy of attention. That’s what researchers want. And if they can accomplish that objective, they can also advance their careers. And that’s what the journals provide. “Publish or die,” as the saying goes. Still, the publishers would like to see more journalists writing about the works they have produced. Which brings us to disconnect No. 2: the timing of greater Open Access availability.

 The funders of research also want to see the fruits of their investments realize as much public impact as possible. Sometimes corporate funders will pay the APC to make an article OA if they think it will support their business, because it is cheaper and preferred over buying reprints and ePrints.

 When the funding source is a governmental agency, making the work freely available is actually mandated. Wider dissemination is also practical, as it produces insights about how well certain research topics are received, which in turn informs future funding decisions. But there’s a catch. Take the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example. It requires all research published with its funds to be made publicly available in 12 months or less on PubMed Central. Twelve months? Well, yes. Within that period, a publisher can expect to recoup its costs and perhaps make a profit. After 12 months, the research might be stale, but it will be then be Open Access and available to anyone who might want it, at no cost. It’s a compromise that heavily favors the publishers over the public, and the research contributors really don’t care: they received their value when their work was published. And the NIH is happy because the work it funded does eventually become Open Access, typically under a CC-BY license. 

 Now we come to disconnect No. 3—the dominant driver behind Open Access. And it concerns budget issues, and is also a matter of principle. First, the budget problem. Most corporate and institutional library budgets are shrinking. And they’re shrinking in the face of rising journal costs. That’s a real problem. It’s a one-two punch for those who believe that science should be freely available. It’s problematic in principle when those same institutions are underwriting the published research in the first place—and often with public funds. The latter, perhaps more than any other driver, is what has led to the rise of the Open Access movement. 

The downside, something to which we alluded in the first installment in this series, is that Open Access also quickly became a happy hunting ground for a great many so-called predator publishers, whose practices span the shoddy to the shady. Gold OA, from recognized publishers, certainly helps separate the sheep from the goats, but it too can be subject to conflicting agendas that can end up compromising quality.

 Notwithstanding, the passionate response to disconnect No. 3 is what has and will continue to drive Open Access forward. The good news is that it is getting better, and better accepted by the authors of scholarly content. The better articles in the Gold and Green flavors of Open Access continue, like cream, to rise to the top. And a platform like that of Reprints Desk’s helps knowledge workers to skim nothing but the cream—an efficiency that is essential to both the budget and the productivity of research, open or otherwise. 

Topics: research open access Open Access Directory researchers open access journals scholarly content Open Access availability academic