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On Open Access and the UC severing its relationship with the publisher Elsevier

Open-access-no-elsevierThe University of California recently announced that it was terminating its relationship with the publisher Elsevier because Elsevier would not meet its terms for open access.  According to the UCSF library, Elsevier publishes the highest number of peer-reviewed journals worldwide and is the largest publisher of UC-authored journal articles. Thus, UC’s termination of its relationship with Elsevier is a dramatic step that may end up having equally dramatic, and hopefully positive, effects on journal publishing, paving the way for more open access.

But what is open access, and why is the UC’s decision important?  As a 20+ year academic and a co-editor of an open access journal, Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology, I thought I’d give an explanation geared toward the layperson to help provide some context for this decision.

The first thing to understand is the basic process of publishing in an academic journal.  It begins with a scholar writing an article and sending it to a particular journal for possible publication.  The scholar, it should be clear, will rarely if ever be paid for this article.  Rather, they are paid by their employer.  If their employer is a public university like the University of California, then they are in large part paid with public funds, i.e., they are funded by taxpayers like you and me.  Even “private” schools receive public funds, so in effect anyone employed by a university who has research as part of their job description (this includes many faculty as well as postdocs and graduate students, etc.) is paid with public monies to write.

Once the article is submitted, it is generally handled by an editor (or associate editor), who finds other scholars to peer review the article.  This can be handled in a variety of ways, but 2-3 peer reviews is common. (Journals that don’t do peer review are usually considered “vanity” journals and garner little respect).  In most cases, the editors and peer reviewers are not paid beyond their salaries to do this work, so again, it is essentially public money that is paying for this labor.  There may be several rounds of peer review, with the author receiving comments and revising and resubmitting in light of those comments.  Eventually the article is either accepted or rejected.  The only contribution provided by the publisher at this point is, possibly, software that automates some of the submission, peer review, and acceptance/rejection process.

If the article is accepted, then we may (for the first time in the process) see some labor from the publisher themselves.  The publisher would typically provide copy-editing services from a paid copy-editor, make sure that the article is in the journal’s “style,” and typeset the article for publishing.  Once the article is ready for publishing, then the journal publishes the article in print and/or puts the article online.

The main point of this explanation is to show that, while the publisher does put some money towards the publication of articles in the form of software, printing, and labor, a big part of the effort – the scholarly part – is done by academics who are paid with public money.

So, what does the public get for its public money?  Does it get to see these articles?  In many cases, no, it does not.  The articles can only be accessed if individuals have access to a library that pays for a subscription (again, more public money expended) or if they pay additional money to obtain the articles.  I’m not sure what a typical price is, but looking at one Elsevier-published journal in my field (Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences), I see that it costs $41.95 to download a single article.  That is a very steep price for citizens to pay for an article that they have already put a significant amount of money towards.  Elsevier journals are particularly expensive, although other journal publishers (e.g., Springer) are not far behind.

Journal publishing is a racket.  Publishers provide very little service and charge the public money to access articles that they have already contributed significant money to.

Enter in open access.  To rectify this situation, many scholars have started journals or converted existing journals that do not charge the public for access to articles; this is what it means to be open access.  They are free for readers. 

Unfortunately, to make up the lost income, some “open access” journals charge authors to publish in their journals.   This can be a substantial amount of money; $1000 is not unheard of.  If the author has a grant, this amount can be covered, but many scholars do not have access to such grants.  So now, although the public has access, publication is limited to privileged scholars.  It should be noted that not all open access journals charge author fees; the journal that I co-edit does not.  But it does take some money to run and host a journal, and so journals that are both free for readers and authors have to find some sort of funding source.

Enter in the UC’s negotiations with Elsevier.  Many “for pay” journals now offer an open access option.  But again, publishers charge large sums of money for authors to exercise that option.  The UC was willing to pay Elsevier author publishing fees, but only if it agreed to let UC reduce the amount of money it was already paying Elsevier for access to journal articles (here it is worth repeating, journal articles that were already paid for by public money, including UC money, which produces almost 10% of U.S.’s research publications). 

But Elsevier would not meet the UC’s terms.  So the UC walked away.  It will no longer pay Elsevier for journal access at all.

This has to be a significant financial loss for Elsevier.  It is also a hardship for UC academics, who need to access Elsevier journals for their research (although UCD and other UCs are doing what they can to ease access).

Something will have to give.  My hope is that what gives is the “for pay” journal model, paving the way for widespread, university-supported open access.  Let public money go to articles that the public can access without gouging authors for the privilege of publishing in journals that they are already putting significant labor towards.

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