Scientific papers are at the very heart of our student lives. They cause nightmares as they feature on the seemingly endless reading list for our seminars and inspire dreams as we strive for seeing our own name in the list of authors. Still, few students waste a thought on the business side of scientific publishing. Unjustly so, as the field might undergo radical changes in the coming years with far-reaching consequences for academia.
The source of the potential upheaval is a European initiative for open-access science publishing. Under the code name “Plan S,” the European Commission and the national research organisations of twelve European countries demand that all work resulting from publicly funded research shall be made accessible free of charge by 2021. In concrete terms, the plan stipulates that research worth €7.6 billion needs to be uploaded in open-access journals. This demand pits them against publishing houses, which fear a severe disruption to their existing business model.
A monopoly on knowledge
As the bankrollers of most research in their countries, national research organisations take a reasonable interest in reforming a system that absurdly overcharges them for bringing the results of the research to the public. In the current system, publishing houses receive the manuscripts of publicly financed researchers free of charge. The manuscripts are in turn checked by peer reviewers – most of whom are also employed at universities. At the end of the production chain, publishers sell the resulting journals to university libraries. Collectively, publicly funded institutions therefore buy the fruits of their own labour.
Of course, publishers also incur certain costs, such as for administrative tasks, marketing, layout, printing and, perhaps most importantly, the administration of the peer review process. But they could by no means explain the immense increases in journal prices observed over the last decades. From 1984 to 2005, the average price charged for academic periodicals in the US increased sixfold while the overall price level rose by a factor of less than two (see Figure).
University libraries are increasingly unwilling or unable to pay. Couperin, a consortium representing 250 French education institutes, announced last year that its negotiations with Springer came to nought and that it will no longer subscribe to their journals. However, giving up access to top journals is hardly an option for universities. Researchers must stay up to date with the latest findings in their fields and students, whether they like it or not, need to go through their reading lists.
It follows that publishing houses are in a quasi-monopoly position with nearly unrestricted pricing power. This is evident not only from the price increases for journals, but also by the profits that the three biggest publishers – Springer, Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell – regularly amass. Elsevier, for example, chalked up profit margins of 37% in 2018. In comparison, the average listed company in the S&P 500 index had a margin of only 10% in that year.
Science without borders
The deficiencies of the current system raise the question for an alternative model. One answer is provided by open access, meaning the free provisioning of research results online. This can take two forms: the first one is “green open access,” where an article continues to be submitted in a paid journal. In addition, after an embargo period of six to twelve months, the authors upload the article for the purpose of self-archiving to their institution’s website. The second is called “golden open access” and refers to publications in journals that are themselves accessible free of charge. Their main difference concerns how the journal covers the remaining publication costs. In the green model, the reader continues to pay the journal for the privilege of early access. In the golden model, the costs are covered by “publication fees” settled by the authors, who usually pass them on to the funder – e.g. their university or grant provider.
With the advent of open access at the beginning of the century, many predicted the end of the existing payment model. And indeed, open access has made some inroads – including the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central journals, as well as the ArXiv website, an online repository for scientific manuscripts. Many students will also be familiar with Sci-Hub, a website hosting papers without regard to copyright. In a legal way, however, the expected open access revolution never fully materialised. Today, only a quarter of scientific articles are made freely available, most of them in green open access.
Now Plan S intends to radically accelerate the transition. It responds to calls for greater transparency and cost efficiency regarding the use of public money. Further, it is expected to accelerate the speed of discoveries. As science advances through cross-fertilisation between projects, any barriers such as paywalls or embargo periods necessarily slow it down. Instantly uploading manuscripts, even before the protracted peer reviewing process, could serve as a catalyst of scientific progress.
Moreover, extending the diffusion of scientific knowledge to a less affluent audience renders science more equitable and encourages diverse thinking in academia. Finally, open access may shift the focus away from publishing exclusively significant results and allow the research community insights into “failed” studies that may have equally valuable insights to give. One study claims that the results of half of all clinic trials in the US go unpublished (Riveros et al., 2013). Without knowing about these, researchers may end up pursuing dead ends that have already been explored by their colleagues.
S for Short-Sighted?
In the eyes of sceptics however, the sweeping changes of Plan S risk undermining the quality of research by severely hurting high-class journals. A particularly contentious demand of Plan S is a proposed cap on publication fees. This would be particularly hard to meet for journals with high rejection rates. Since they also incur expenses for the peer review of rejected articles, they face significantly higher costs for every publication. Nature, for example, estimates their publication fees to be at $40,000 per article – many times the limit contemplated by backers of Plan S.
Renowned journals pride themselves on their selectivity as it grants their articles a quality seal that open access journals could struggle to replicate. Critics fear that in the extreme case, open access can end in the practice of “predatory journals,” which accept any article for the sole purpose of cashing in the authors’ publication fees. A survey by the Nature Publishing Group shows that almost half of the authors therefore express doubts about the quality of open access journals.
The main worry about Plan S is therefore that rather than reforming the publishing system worldwide, it could create a parallel system for European research. If the top journals do not go along with the proposed changes, nationally funded researchers would be restricted to less reputable open access outfits. In the worst case, this could even lead to an exodus of scientific talent to countries or funders without open access-requirements. Recognising the risks of an abrupt implementation, the consortium behind Plan S has postponed its introduction by a year – it was initially supposed to start in 2020 – and suggested a two-year transition period. Even after that delay, it remains all but clear whether the plan will indeed manifest or remain the pipe dream of disenchanted open-access advocates.
In the current system, publishers use monopoly power to demand exaggerated prices from university libraries without compensating those who contributed to the research. Open access promises to upend the practice and extend the insights of scientific research to a much broader range of people without any financial limitations. But as its advancement has stalled, new political support is required to maintain the momentum. Plan S could potentially provide this boost. Its success, however, depends on whether it can create mechanisms to continue the process of rigorous peer review and uphold quality. If it does, the plan could serve to inspire other countries to pursue open-access initiatives. Elsewise, it will founder as a quixotic undertaking aspiring for a world with free, unlimited knowledge for all.
By Stefan Preuss
CSI Market , 2019.
Dingley, B., 2005. US Periodical Price Index 2005.
RelX Yearly Result, 2019.
Riveros C., Dechartes A., Perrodeau E., Haneef R., Boutron I., Ravaud P., 2013. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001566