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RUK: The Maturing Threat of Open Access

In a lengthy April report, HSBC tried to rebut several of these concerns, and claimed that open access "has not prove[n] a significant risk to date for a number of reasons. There is no business model behind it, meaning it is not clear who will pay to support the labour intensity of organising the editorial process and peer review." This response misses the fact that it is the academics and editors themselves who already pay for the process of peer review by contributing their own labor. Additionally, authors and institutional backers have proven willing to fund gold open access journals via article fees. Additional costs related to journal layout, reviewer coordination, and website development are trivial by comparison. Moreover, several open access business models have already been successfully demonstrated, as described above.

Rossner believes that a public access policy like the one instituted by NIH or proposed by FRPAA would not necessarily harm the revenues of publishers. But his optimism and Rockefeller's record of profitability may be better suited to more agile, flexible companies. If open access after a short embargo posed no threat to Elsevier's profit margins, the public relations boost alone would justify a policy about-face, and it is hard to understand why the company was so eager to make campaign contributions to politicians in exchange for their support of the Research Works Act, or why the company would have pushed for the Act in the first place. Instead, the company has remained silent on the issue, and has not dissented from the Association of American Publishers's opposition to FRPAA. Several phone calls and emails to Reed Elsevier seeking their comments on this story were not returned.

One point made by every open access proponent we spoke to was that this is a thoroughly non-partisan issue. Taxpayers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the scientific, technical, and medical research that is produced around the world, whether via direct governmental agencies and grants or through publicly-funded universities. It only stands to reason, they argue, that taxpayers should get access to the research for which they pay.

There is also a sense of inevitability about the open access movement. The generation that laughed at the thought of paying $18 for a music CD has become the generation that is already used to finding the research they care about in pre-print or open access form at sites like arXiv, SSRN, and PLoS. The special pleading made by for-profit publishers about the costs of data tagging and infrastructure are belied by the straightforward usability of sites like those. While interviewing graduate students and younger scholars for this story, several of them volunteered that if the paywall-ridden publisher sites disappeared from their library access portals tomorrow, they would hardly notice, while any downtime at SSRN or arXiv would be felt intensely.

As for the White House petition and the FRPAA legislation, some observers wonder whether some executive leadership on this issue wouldn't be a painless, costless way for the President to rekindle some enthusiasm among the tech-savvy, young, engaged voters that made such a difference to his 2008 campaign. Giving taxpayers access to resources that they've already paid for is impossible to spin as a partisan special interest, and many companies in the industry have come around to the idea that it is also good policy.

Source: Marketwatch
One-year Performance of Reed Elsevier plc (REL), Wolters Kluwer (WKL), and Informa (INF)

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