Media Shift Means Academic Publishers Embracing Open Source Journals

Sometimes the pace of change can take everyone by surprise. For decades, people in the sciences complained about the high cost of access to published academic material, yet for-profit publishing companies continued to serve as gatekeepers thanks in part to distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of universities and governments to implement a new system. But in the past 5 years, the dam seemed to have broken with countries around the world adopting policies to make tax-funded research more cheaply and easily accessible.

The Economist is reporting that the Research Council UK is the latest to take a step in this direction by adopting new rules on access to publicly funded research. From now on, any journals that publish the results of such research will have to make it available online for free within a year of the original publication date.

The new rules come on the heels of a similar move in Feburary by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy which directed federal agencies to adopt a similar set of rules for any scientific research they fund in February.

A week before that, a bill which would require free access to government-financed research after six months had begun to wend its way through Congress. The European Union is moving in the same direction. So are charities. And SCOAP3, a consortium of particle-physics laboratories, libraries and funding agencies, is pressing all 12 of the field’s leading journals to make the 7,000 articles they publish each year free to read. For scientific publishers, it seems, the party may soon be over.

Although this push for broader and cheaper access has strong support among academics, the companies that have for years profited from academic publishing are not nearly as enthusiastic. Maintaining research archives and charging individual users and institutions for access has been an immense moneymaker. According to The Economist, one of the largest academic publishers – the Dutch firm Elsevier – boasts a profit margin of nearly 40%. Springer, based in Germany, reports a similarly high 36% margin on sales of $1.1 billion.

Still, turning back the tide is apparently not an option, so companies are instead hoping to get ahead of the curve by setting up open-source subsidiaries of their own.

In the past year Elsevier has more than doubled the number of open-access journals it publishes, to 39. And even in those that usually charge readers (such as Cell and the Lancet), paying a publication fee makes a paper available free immediately.

Outsell, a Californian consultancy, estimates that open-access journals generated $172m in 2012. That was just 2.8% of the total revenue journals brought their publishers (some $6 billion a year), but it was up by 34% from 2011 and is expected to reach $336m in 2015. The number of open-access papers is forecast to grow from 194,000 (out of a total of 1.7m publications) to 352,000 in the same period.