Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing

Back in February Harvard adopted a mandate requiring its faculty member to make their research papers available within a year of publication. Stuart Shieber is a computer science professor at Harvard and responsible for proposing the policy. He has since been named director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Comminication.

On November 12 Shieber gave a talk entitled “The Future of Open Access — and How to Stop It” to give an update on where things stand after the adoption of the open access mandate. Open access isn’t just something that makes sense from an ethical standpoint, as Shieber points out that (for-profit) journal subscription costs have risen out of proportion with inflation costs and out of proportion with the costs of nonprofit journals. He notes that the cost per published page in a commercial journal is six times that of the nonprofits. With the current library budget cuts, open access — meaning both access to articles directly on the web and shifting subscriptions away from for-profit journals — is something that appears financially unavoidable.

Here’s the business model for an Open Access (OA) journal: authors pay a fee upfront in order for their paper to be published. Then the issue of the journal appears on the web (possibly also in print) without an access fee. Conversely, traditional for-profit publishing doesn’t charge the author to publish, but keeps the journal closed and charges subscription fees for access.

Shieber recaps Harvard’s policy:

1. The faculty member grants permission to the University to make the article available through an OA repository.

2. There is a waiver for articles: a faculty member can opt out of the OA mandate at his or her sole discretion. For example, if you have a prior agreement with a publisher you can abide by it.

3. The author themselves deposits the article in the repository.

Shieber notes that the policy is also because it allows Harvard to make a collective statement of principle, systematically provide metadata about articles, it clarifies the rights accruing to the article, it allows the university to facilitate the article deposit process, it allows the university to negotiate collectively, and having the mandate be opt out rather than opt in might increase rights retention at the author level.

So the concern Shieber set up in his talk is whether standards for research quality and peer review will be weakened. Here’s how the dystopian argument runs:

1. all universities enact OA policies
2. all articles become OA
3. libraries cancel subscriptions
4. prices go up on remaining journals
5. these remaining journals can’t recoup their costs
6. publishers can’t adapt their business model
7. so the journals and the logistics of peer review they provide, disappear

Shieber counters this argument: 1 through 5 are good because journals will start to feel some competitive pressure. What would be bad is if publishers cannot change their way of doing business. Shieber thinks that even if this is so it will have the effect of pushing us towards OA journals, which provide the same services, including peer review, as the traditional commercial journals.

But does the process of getting there cause a race to the bottom? The argument goes like this: since OA journals are paid by the number of articles published they will just publish everything, thereby destroying standards. Shieber argues this won’t happen because there is price discrimination among journals – authors will pay more to publish in the more prestigious journals. For example, PLOS costs about $3k, Biomed Central about $1000, and Scientific Publishers International is $96 for an article. Shieber also makes an argument that Harvard should have a fund to support faculty who wish to publish in an OA journal and have no other way to pay the fee.

This seems to imply that researchers with sufficient grant funding or falling under his proposed Harvard publication fee subsidy, would then be immune to the fee pressure and simply submit to the most prestigious journal and work their way down the chain until their paper is accepted. This also means that editors/reviewers decide what constitutes the best scientific articles by determining acceptance.

But is democratic representation in science a goal of OA? Missing from Shieber’s described market for scientific publications is any kind of feedback from the readers. The content of these journals, and the determination of prestige, is defined solely by the editors and reviewers. Maybe this is a good thing. But maybe there’s an opportunity to open this by allowing readers a voice in the market. This could done through ads or a very tiny fee on articles – both would give OA publishers an incentive to respond to the preferences of the readers. Perhaps OA journals should be commercial in the sense of profit-maximizing: they might have a reason to listen to readers and might be more effective at maximizing their prestige level.

This vision of OA publishing still effectively excludes researchers who are unable to secure grants or are not affiliated with a university that offers a publication subsidy. The dream behind OA publishing is that everyone can read the articles, but to fully engage in the intellectual debate quality research must still find its way into print, and at the appropriate level of prestige, regardless of the affiliation of the researcher. This is the other side of OA that is very important for researchers from the developing world or thinkers whose research is not mainstream (see, for example, Garrett Lisi a high impact researcher who is unaffiliated with an institution).

The OA publishing model Shieber describes is a clear step forward from the current model where journals are only accessible by affiliates of universities who have paid the subscription fees. It might be worth continuing to move toward an OA system where, not only can anyone access publications, but any quality research is capable of being published, regardless of the author’s affiliation and wealth. To get around the financial constraints one approach might be to allow journals to fund themselves through ads, or provide subsidies to certain researchers. This also opens up the idea of who decides what is quality research.


1 Response to “Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing”

  1. 1 chris July 29, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve always been curious as to why publicly funded (US tax dollars) research is not open to the public.

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